By Wajahat Ali –
The real question is not whether Islam is compatible with democracy but if democracy is compatible with Muslims, says author of acclaimed work
In December 2010, a Tunisian street vender unleashed a revolutionary wave of protests across the Middle East and brought down some of the most firmly entrenched despotic rulers in the region. The “Arab Spring” began when Mohamed Bouazizi was deprived of his merchandise by corrupt municipal officials in his neighbourhood. The incident led to extreme anguish and rage, and Bouazizi decided to set himself on fire to express his defiance and despair.
The event had a cascading effect on the region: Hundreds of thousands of people, imbued with the same sense of anger and weakness, took to the streets. They were seeking an end to the long era of authoritarianism in their region and striving for a just and equitable order. The quest for democracy was palpable within the Arab world.
However, there were several misgivings among scholars and policymakers in other parts of the world. Many of them wondered who was going to benefit from the political turmoil in the Middle East. Some of them asked if the Arabs were ready for democracy and if the moderate elements within them were organized enough to take on the Islamist factions and keep them from capturing political power in their countries.
As time went by, the difficult transition to democracy created more skepticism and the Western media began to ask if Islam was compatible with democracy.
The question seemed legitimate at a glance. After all, most of the Muslim states lack a thriving democratic system and some of their scholars have argued that their religion does not have a place for democracy in it. However, Dr Matthew J Nelson believes that this view is “hopelessly naïve about the relationship between Islam and Muslims”.
“There are assumptions about the normative content of democracy,” he says, “and those assumptions go too far. However, democracy is actually quite thin in terms of content. We can fill it with different values. In other words, it is possible to have Christian democracy, secular democracy and Islamic democracy.”
Dr Nelson, who teaches at the Department of Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, posits the question differently. He says it is more reasonable to wonder if one can find a democratic space among the Muslims. Thus, the real question is not whether Islam is compatible with democracy but if democracy is compatible with Muslims.
As the writer of a critically acclaimed book In the Shadow of Shari’ah: Islam, Islamic Law and Democracy in Pakistan, he has done careful research on the interplay between politics and religion in this country.
He says that in the political rhetoric of Pakistan, many people “play the trump card” against their opponents by describing their views as un-Islamic. This helps them shift the debate to a place where debate itself is not accepted.
According to Dr Nelson, the common man in Pakistan is interested in readymade answers to his predicaments while there are many religious scholars and groups in this country who are bold enough to insist that they know the Islamic solutions to all his problems. None of these people, he says, want to engage in a constructive discussion.
He maintains that there is a perception in Pakistan that Islamic laws are fixed and they cannot be amended. As a result, many people circumvent religious regulations when these sets of rules begin to undermine their interests.
Ironically, however, the same people do not want to reinterpret different Islamic injunctions to suit their changing environment since that can presumably place a burden on their conscience.
Dr Nelson points out that even the Quran needs codification and that requires human effort. He says that people can have different ideas about Islam. In an Islamic democracy, that would mean that people are free to debate those ideas and laws are open to interpretation in an Islamic sense.
As long as people can debate religion and introduce laws that they can enforce and amend, the system is both Islamic and democratic.
Talking about Pakistan’s decision to use Islam as a binding force after independence, he says that the country’s administrative authorities had good reasons to do that. He maintains that the threat of provincialism was real at the time since Pakistan’s geography, economy and security were divided.
It is not surprising, in his opinion, that policymakers were striving to find a way to stitch the country together. However, he adds that “the mistake that was made was to radically overcompensate for this anxiety about division and difference and to emphasize homogeneity and centralization of ideas and power”.
He says that Pakistan never really tried to turn its diversity into its strength. If anything, it relied on a highly bureaucratic, centralized and non-participatory political system to run its administrative affairs.
However, its reluctance to recognize differences to prevent the country from disintegrating created the opposite effect since centralization is always resisted and such resistance generates tremendous instability.
“Unity in terms of language policy was never a success (in Pakistan),” he says. “Unity in terms of bureaucratic centralization was never a success. Unity in terms of avoiding interpretive differences across sects was never a success.”
Talking about the menace of sectarianism, Dr Nelson does recognize the presence of exogenous factors. However, he also contends that people of Pakistan usually think that they are “puppets of outside forces” and mostly tend to externalize their problems.
However, he believes that the Saudi-Iran influence in Pakistan is likely to increase after the Americans pull out from Afghanistan.
“I think after 2014, the instability that everyone expects in Afghanistan will attract the attention of Iran and Saudi Arabia,” he says.
“The question is whether those two powers can find a common cause in appreciating stability in Afghanistan. I doubt they will. The tension between the two states will have an impact on Pakistan.”
He maintains that the failure to recognize any form of difference also made it difficult for the country to deal with the issue of sectarianism.
Pakistan’s public and private schools mostly remain silent about diverse interpretations of religion. Meanwhile, religious seminaries go out of their way to emphasize these differences.
Clearly, the country’s education system is not teaching its people how to deal with sectarian discords.
It is sometimes said, he points out, that it is not right to talk about different interpretations of Islam since that would divide the Muslim community.
However, the fact of the matter is that the Muslim community is already divided and such debates can make it easy for its members to deal with these differences more peacefully.
Dr Nelson first came to this region in 1996. He has spent a total of five years in Pakistan and has also learned Urdu during this period.
In order to get a better understanding of Urdu literature, he enrolled himself in Frances W. Pritchett’s class of ghazal. He says the course introduced him to new set of idioms and metaphors, adding, “If I had not done that course, I would have missed so much!”
The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad