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    South Asia
     Nov 22, 2007
Muslim democracy: An oxymoron?
Democracy in Muslim Societies
by Zoya Hasan (ed)

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Whether Islam and democracy can coexist within the same socio-political space has long been debated by lay persons and academics. On one hand are defensive claims insisting that Islam has all the value ingredients compatible with democracy and that the religion has been "twisted" out of context by a small minority of hotheads. This side believes that there is nothing about Islam per se that inhibits democracy from flowering and blames narrow cultural frames for misstating the problem.

On the other hand are studies showing that, empirically, Muslim countries have fared very poorly in terms of democratic form or substance compared to non-Muslim countries. This side argues that there is something in the authority patterns of Muslim values that subverts genuine democracy.

Since 70% of the world's Muslims live in non-Arab Asian countries, evidence in this debate has to include them and not just the homogeneous block of Arab states. Zoya Hasan's new edited volume containing six case studies posits that one must grasp the varieties and multiple paths taken by Muslim politics in the quest for democracy.

The editor's introductory essay asserts that a "shift from Arab to Asian societies" as units of analysis is an "intellectual move" challenging stereotypical discussions of Muslim politics after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. The message is that the political language of Islam is not uniform and one has to delve into the national contexts and peculiarities of each case. Hasan contends that Islam is in constant interaction with its socio-economic and political environment, especially its colonial heritage, state-society relations, international setting and stage of development. Islam cannot be the only factor of interest in assessing chances of democracy because there are other variables that have a bearing on the issue.

Amena Mohsin and Meghna Guhathakurta's chapter on Bangladesh reflects on why the country has been steadily Islamizing in violation of its original secular democratic aspirations. The military-bureaucratic elites inherited notions of a divine right to rule from the Pakistan era and, lacking legitimacy, used Islam to shore up their rule. Under General Zia ur-Rahman, the state identified itself with Islam and persecuted Hindus, Ahmadiyas or Qadiyanis. It engineered demographic shifts to dilute the ethnic composition of minorities. Society was turned toward a "mosque-centric" direction and politics became "street-centric" during General H M Ershad's dictatorship. Despite 15 years of formal democracy, the army remains unaccountable to the public, who cannot freely criticize it due to constitutional forbidding.

Even the liberal Awami League party uses religion in all its activities and does not clearly advocate reinstituting secularism in the constitution. Political leaders of all spectrums oppose civil society activism in the name of traditional religious values. The culture of intolerance, hatred and violence of political parties goes hand in hand with terrorist activities that have "intruded into the popular psyche" since the mid-1990s. The state's total failure to check terrorist threats to democracy is ascribed by many to the fact that Bangladeshi rulers themselves patronize Islamic fundamentalism. Politicization of the bureaucracy and judiciary and the absence of internal democracy within parties are other obstacles to democratic practice.

Adriana Elisapeth narrates how Indonesia's moderate majority are "powerless in preventing the growth of militant groups committing violent actions against non-Muslims". (p 75) Ironically, democratization in the post-Suharto era opened the floodgates for expression of overtly religious identities. Once competitive politics began after 1998, the idea of an Islamic state under sharia law was revived by extremists. Though the country is now under civilian rule, "religious ideas could not strictly be separated from the bases of state behavior". (p 93)

Thanks to authoritarian values of "blind obedience", it remains impossible to force Indonesia's military out of politics altogether. Islamist outfits like Laskar Jihad receive financial support and ammunition from within the army's ranks and from fellow jihadis in southern Philippines. They force minorities to live in mortal fear and are also responsible for enforcing severely gender discriminatory laws of sharia. Low keenness of civilian politicians in countering militant Islam is partly responsible for turning the country into a "hotbed of terrorism in Southeast Asia". (p 98)

Sadegh Zibakalam's chronicle of democracy in Iran documents how the post-1979 Islamic Republic suppressed the democratic elements of the struggle against the shah and made it appear as if the revolution was intended to create an Islamic state. Rivalries among different political factions and Islamic strands led to purging of moderate and liberal leaders from the revolutionary spectrum and their replacement by fundamentalists. Critics of the current dispensation in Tehran blame the constitution as a stumbling block against any democratic improvement. Too much power belongs to unelected institutions that veto progressive legislation, disqualify electoral candidates for lacking "appropriate Islamic credentials", and deliver religiously biased justice. The author finds some solace in the degree of freedom accorded to the press and relaxation of codes of conduct to form associations and non-governmental organizations.

Abdul Rahman Embong portrays Malaysia as a state that "attempts to negotiate with Western modernity and redeem Islam as a progressive religion". (p129) This most industrially advanced Muslim country has maintained a parliamentary democracy with tolerance toward minorities, although Islam is the official religion. Reasonably free elections have been held since 1959 and a grand "consociational" alliance of parties provides stability.

The problem, which Embong brushes under the carpet, is absence of turnover of governments, as the same ruling alliance has been winning every single election. Should the Islamist opposition ever triumph at the polls, a theocracy could possibly be attempted. Authoritarian tactics like crushing of dissent and suborning of the judiciary, particularly during the reign of Mahathir Mohamad, also place a question mark on the quality of Malaysia's democracy. Provinces ruled by Islamists take strict measures to curb "moral decadence" and government bureaucracies go about enforcing the "official doctrine of Islam" and prohibiting "deviationist activities". (p 159) Increasing Islamization and proselytization backed by law are also generating "scary" moments for non-Muslims.

Mohammad Waseem's enlightening chapter on Pakistan focuses on deficits in the project of state building that created imbalances in favor of the army and bureaucracy at the cost of civil society and the legislature. The migrant Muslim professional class, which was the backbone of the Pakistan movement, had a "well-established 'statist' perspective of paternalistic rule over an illiterate peasant society". (p 190) It captured the new state’s apparatus and institutionalized strong centralist connotations of governance.

Lacking a meaningful electoral constituency of their own, state elites worked against the principle of majority rule. The Pakistani army always favored presidentialism over parliamentarism in order to keep the position of chief executive safe from accountability and to ensure stable tenure. It deliberately weakened political parties through the device of "grassroots-level government". All along, Pakistan's state elites tried to "manage ethnic politics with the help of Islamic ideology", handing over formal or informal dictatorial power over society to mullahs.

Waseem avers that the Islamist ascendancy, which has currently peaked, "needs to be understood in the context of an unstable regional setting, the civil-military crisis at home and the ideological framework of politics in Pakistan". (p 212) Strategic alliances of military dictators with the US have perpetuated the undemocratic and terrorist currents emanating from this country.

Korel Goymen's article on Turkey underlines the wholesale borrowing of Western institutions and techniques after 1923 as crucial for the development of democracy. Overhauling the clerical hierarchy and Shari’a law brought about a radical change from a religious empire to a secular republic. Mustafa Kemal's "cultural offensive" to secularize public life set definitive limits on the political role that Islam could play. However, traditional Islamic forces remained alive and mobilized the suspicions and fears of the masses against modernizing elites once the transition to a multi-party system occurred after World War II.

The Turkish army appointed itself as the guardian of Kemal's legacy and began acting as a bulwark against religiously-inspired parties. Coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997 were all targeted at manifestations of political Islam. Elected governments led by conservative religious parties are currently accepted by the military, but with apprehensions. Urban and better educated Turks also remain extremely nervous about the recent successes of political Islam.

However, Turkish Islamists have operated within secular-democratic channels and do not possess the extremist gene found elsewhere. The present Islamic ruling party has even passed legislation against discrimination of homosexuals. Goymen attributes this exceptionalism to historical sequencing. "Republican Turkey initiated and consolidated its secular project before allowing Islam to play a role in politics." (p 239)

Censorship of the media and military meddling to "correct" politicians' mistakes are two outstanding bottlenecks that the country still grapples with. Paradoxically, Goymen remarks that "most citizens are comfortable with the military's role as a guardian of democracy". (p 243) He also mentions the European Union's accession "road maps" as external stimulants for Turkey to deepen its democratic potential.

A common theme emerging from this book is that Islam has been manipulated by two types of actors - conservative authoritarian rulers who need props for social acceptance, and radical social activists who need a mobilizing creed against dictatorship or central government oppression. Hasan moots ijtihad (open interpretation of Islam) as the mechanism behind this instrumental use of religion that damages democracy.

Unfortunately, she does not comparatively examine non-Muslim countries to see if religion has similarly been manipulated. What explains the relative infrequency of religious manipulation as a tool of regime legitimization or de-legitimization in non-Muslim countries? Does it boil down to whether a religion has institutions like ijtihad or does it go deeper into the way different organized faiths extract submission from believers?

Is it easier to mobilize the masses for revolution or to consecrate a tyranny using Islam in a Muslim country than using Buddhism in a Buddhist country, Hinduism in a Hindu country, or Christianity in a Christian country? What is the link between the method of struggle or legitimation chosen by actors in a country and its dominant religion? Owing to its dogmatic stress on non-cultural factors, the book fails to probe these interesting puzzles.

Democracy in Muslim Societies. The Asian Experience by Zoya Hasan (ed). Sage Publications, New Delhi, September 2007. ISBN: 9780761935667. Price: US$$49.95, 266 pages.

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Israel, the hope of the Muslim world (Nov 20, '07)


1. Warnign shot for Iran, via Syria

2. Israel, the hope of the Muslim world

3.  More than 'sheets' hitting the fan

4. Pakistan put in its real place

5. Sifting schizoid ASEAN's reality from rhetoric

6. US lacks a smart nuclear policy

7. US tripped up over Iranian captives

8. Crunch time

9. Fallujah under a different siege

(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Nov 20, 2007)


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