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Islam and Democracy

I just wanted to recommend a new article by David Glenn, "Who Owns Islamic Law?," which has been published in the February 25th issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It asks a key question about the relationship between democracy, Islam, and secularism: "Will Iraq's political forces manage to find a consensus about what role, exactly, Islam should play in the public sphere?"

While some insist on "authentically Islamic" enforcement of "Shariah" or "traditional religious law—in all spheres of life, from banking to inheritance to the performing arts," others argue "that lines must be drawn between mosque and state—even if those lines do not look exactly like Western secular pluralism." One professor of political science, M.A. Muqtedar Khan, insists: "'There will be no Islamic democracy unless jurists permit the democratization of interpretation.' ... In Mr. Khan's view, political elites in the Muslim world have for centuries restricted the development of democracy and political accountability by hiding behind religious principles that they proclaim to be fixed in stone." Khan is concerned "that basing government around consultation and shura ... could lead to majoritarian tyranny. 'Even if shura is transformed into an instrument of participatory representation,' he wrote, 'it must itself be limited by a scheme of private and individual rights that serve an overriding moral goal such as justice'."

Some others have observed, however,

that "secularism" has been so thoroughly discredited in the Muslim world by Kemal Atatürk's ruthlessly anticlerical regime in Turkey and by the later secular-authoritarian governments in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Only in Iran, which has suffered under a clerical tyranny for decades, do reformers now commonly talk about secular pluralism.

The fundamental challenge for would-be democracy-builders in Iraq and elsewhere is the contested relationship between Islam and the public sphere ... Where religious authorities and institutions once had breathing room from the state and their own spheres of influence, ... colonial regimes brought everything under the heel of the government. (And their postcolonial successors have been happy to do likewise.) ...

This, then, is the dilemma for reformers today. Centrist Islamists and liberal reformers would like to develop a model in which Muslim institutions are independent from the government and vigorously inform public governance, but do not swallow all of society in a totalitarian project like the Taliban's. ...

Mr. Khan, meanwhile, insists that the most urgent danger of authoritarianism lies in entrusting Islamic thought and interpretation to an elite corps of scholars and jurists. ...

Mr. Khan acknowledges that his is very much a minority view. He is nonetheless excited about the current intellectual climate. "Two weeks ago I was at the Stanley Foundation and one-third of my audience was Muslims," he says. "Afterward we spent the whole night having a Muslim-Muslim dialogue. We disagreed about everything. But we did come to consensus on one point—and that is that the discussions are getting more sophisticated. There is no doubt about it."

I recommend the article to your attention.

Cross-posted to L&P, where readers may comment.