Shura in islam

While the concept of democracy in the Middle East has gained a great deal of attention in the last few years, it is not new. In fact, many historians now think that democracy – in which a public assembly deliberates and chooses for the communal good- originated not in Ancient Greece, as once though, but in the region of Mesopotamia,in what is now Syria, Iraq and Iran, as early as the 20th century BC. John Keane, political theorist and author of The Life and Death of Democracy, has produced extensive works on this concept, studying Islamic texts to derive early Islamic notions of how a government should work. He believes that the Qur’an and other early texts strongly suggests that “Islam poured scorn on kingship, and triggered unending public disputes about the authority of rulers” (Keane 17).

This process of assembly democracy can be most easily seen in the Islamic concept of shura. This concept, found originally in the Qur’an (appearing three times at 3:159; 2:223 and 42:38) and the teachings of Muhammad originated as a decision-making process that was based on “mutual consultations.” The concept is so important that chapter 42 of the Qur’an is titled Surah-ash-Shura. One verse from the Qur’an describes shura as being one of the central characteristics of leadership in Islam: “And it was by God’s grace that thou [O Prophet] didst deal gently with thy followers: for if thou hadst been harsh and hard of heart, they would indeed have broken away from thee. Pardon them, then, and pray that they be forgiven. And take counsel with them in all matters of public concern; then, when thou hast decided upon a course of action, place thy trust in God: for, verily, God loves those who place their trust in Him” (3:159 Qur’an.) In light of this, the Executive Director of Al-Furqan Heritage Foundation Adil Salahi states, “The lesson in consultative government which he (the Prophet) taught his companions was of paramount importance. They realized, as all Muslim generations would come to realize, that a ruler may have to take an attitude contrary to his own opinion if it meets the wishes of a broad section of the Muslim community.”

In a 2009 talk, Keane describes how mosques, in the first four centuries of the religion, were not only a place of worship, but also a safe haven, market, and public space, where political speeches could be given and men and women were equals. Of course, Islamic culture has in some ways, particularly in the status and treatment of women, departed from the original texts, and today we still find angry backlash to the idea of women being part of the process.
While modern-day shuras have not remained true to the original spirit of the concept, it is still being used in many Middle Eastern governments, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. By refining and maintaining the original motive and meaning of shura, Middle Eastern nations can use this consultation process as the solid foundation for free-elected, representative democracy.

There is a common belief among political commentators that a religious state cannot be a democratic one. However, this notion is almost exclusively used in the context of Middle Eastern democracy, and there is little outcry over Western democratic nations with state religions such as Greece or the United Kingdom. Therefore, it can be assumed that the real issue many have is not with religious governments, but with Islamist governments, under the false assumption that the Islam belief system is somehow completely contrary to democratic ideals. The concept of shura is just one aspect of Islam that shows that Islam has a strong history of democratic principles, and that an Islamic democracy can and should be the future of Middle Eastern politics and policy.


Why Amaney Jamal? Part II

There are many reasons why someone interested in the topic of “Democracy in the Middle East” would want to attend one of Amaney Jamal’s public lectures. She is a Princeton professor, Carnegie scholar, published author, and noted authority on the issue. But she is also a Muslim woman, two points that distinguish her from her contemporaries, who are predominantly white males. This is not to say that her gender and religion validate her hypotheses, or that her personal experience in the region is the only aspect of her talks we should be interested in. However, she does provide a unique point of view that is often missing from the current debate.

As she is a Muslim woman, she offers an important perspective and interest in the way that traditional Islamic gender roles influence the progression of democracy throughout the region. This is another area where most political commentators or theorists either gloss over, or use as ammunition against the idea of a possible Islamist state. Most of Jamal’s research does point to a direct correlation between traditional, unequal gender roles and a resistance against democratic ideas, but by placing this issue in context she provides valuable insight into the potential inroads that the younger generation of Arabs, who generally do not hold these views, can have for instituting a new political framework.

Her lectures are interesting, engaging, and have a uniquely balanced view of Arab-American relations, a rare feat in a world inundated with speakers who hold increasingly contentious views on Islamic democracy. This issue is not simple, straightforward, or cut-and-dry. It is not an issue of “us against them”, or an ideological fight between freedom and religious authoritarianism. Rather, it is a highly complex issue, involving religious belief, social constructs, and over a millennium of history. To get the chance to hear the perspective of someone with a real understanding of the history and its effects on the region is truly valuable, and for this reason I would highly encourage anyone interested in this issue to see her speak.

Who is Amaney Jamal? Part I

Amaney Jamal is a celebrated political scholar with a focus on Middle Eastern politics, and a Professor at Princeton University. In addition to her professorial duties and lecture tours, she also runs Princeton’s Workshop on Arab Political Development, a political think-tank, as well as being the principal researcher of the Arab Barometer Project, a project devoted to public opinion surveys throughout the region. Ms. Jamal takes an analytical view of the politics of the region, using empirical data, rather than historical assumptions, to develop her theories on the current state and potential future of democracy in the region.

In her research, public talks, and writings, Ms. Jamal devotes an enormous amount of time to defining the concept of democracy in the Middle East, as well as the role that the United States has played in shaping policy in the region, and affecting the population’s opinion of democracy as a whole. Her discoveries on public opinion on policy in the mid-2000’s were an important step in putting Middle Eastern democratic potentials to the test in a practical way, rather than rely on the deluge of theoretical posturing we have seen for the last half-century. It is bizarre to think that it was not until this landmark study that scholars had presented an empirical study of Arab citizen’s own views on the subject, however this topic of study is one that is, unfortunately, prone to polemics rather than a serious debate, particularly in the field of political commentating.

Much of her studies and lectures revolve around two issues: public opinion of democracy amongst Arab citizens, which she compares with the survey respondents socio-economic background, level of education, level of religious faith, and views on social aspects such as gender equality; and public opinion of Islam and Arabs, and Muslim immigrants amongst citizens of the United States. Through the empirical data she recovers, Jamal aims to discover the link between active citizenship, civic engagement, and successful democratic political systems in relation to Islam and the Middle Eastern social climate.

Democracy, being a rulership “of the people, for the people”, obviously requires a foundation of public support, and historical case studies have shown that a democratic system enforced against the will or the citizens, whether in Latin America, Africa, or the former USSR, results in failure. Therefore, it seems obvious that for an academic to determine the democratic viability in a region, one must first determine the level of public support for democracy in the region. This is one of the many things that Ms. Jamal is helping to accomplish through the Arab Barometer Project and her writing in various prestigious journals, including the Cairo Review and Perspectives on Politics. In this same vein, her lectures and published books provide an encompassing, historical view of problems facing democratic institutionalization in the region.

“Reasons to remain skeptical” about American involvement in Middle East democratic efforts

In a speech given shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, then President George W. Bush alleged the motivations behind the attacks: that terrorist group Al Qaeda “hate[s] our [United States’] freedoms.” This statement enraged many citizens of Arab nations who felt that this statement was being extended to Arab society in general. Whether or not this was Bush’s intent, the foreign policy that the United States has exported to the Arab world has backed up this claim, and as a result has not stemmed the tide of anti-American sentiment in the region, where Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and democratic groups like Arab Spring are organizing themselves, swaying public opinion, and making inroads to changing the political process in many nations. Unless the United States can be explicit about the role they want to play and the political reasons they have for wanting to be involved, it is unlikely that anti-American sentiment among Arab citizens will change. Jamal is of the opinion that while the Obama administration may end up being better for the Middle East, “there are reasons to remain skeptical.”

Six years after Amaney Jamal published the results discussed in the last post, she wrote this article for the Cairo Review. Jamal points out, rightly, that anti-American sentiment cannot necessarily be equated to anti-democratic or anti-Western sentiment. She makes several valid and often overlooked points regarding both Arab attitudes towards democracy (as revealed in the previous post), and American attitudes towards the ideal path to democracy in the region. For example, she notes the somewhat hypocritical view that “liberalism should be a precondition to democratic transitions,” when in the earliest days of American democracy slavery was legal and women held a subjugated role and could not vote, among many other social injustices that were not rectified until over a hundred years later.

Another American strategy, the attempt to completely remove Islamists from the government, also shows the lack of understanding from US policymakers. Many academics now think that there is no real reason why Islamism and democracy cannot co-exist, and find that attempting to quell Islamism will only serve to make it stronger. More troubling, for me at least, is the American pre-conception that democracy in Arab states should be achieved by supplanting one leader for another, instead of allowing the Arab populace to organically form their own system of government, as is being attempted by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Arab Spring.

There is the idea among some groups that democracy cannot be attained in the region without outside, particularly American help. But is this true? Or is it more likely that American influence in the region may be as a result of their desire to maintain stability due to their own geostrategic interests? It helps nothing and no one in the region to obscure true intentions with notions of promoting democracy. Instead, the United States should come to the table with their actual goals honestly laid out. Only then can nations in the Arab world achieve true democracy by evolving their government according to the will of the people.

Competing paradigms of Middle Eastern democracy

“What cultural, demographic, and religious factor are linked to levels of support for democracy and Islamism”? This is the question posed by Amaney Jamal in a 2006 article in the journal World Affairs, which provides valuable insight into the Arab world’s position on this question. Perhaps contrary to the established academic opinion, Jamal found that it was not the strength of the respondent’s faith that had the biggest impact on their political views, but rather their income level, education, and attitudes towards gender roles.

Jamal notes that two traditional paradigms have been posited explaining the potential dichotomy between democracy and Islam. The first states that support for democracy is linked to modernization in the region, with citizens who have benefited by modernization with, for example, further education and higher incomes, being more likely to support the democratization of their state. Conversely, those who did not benefit from modernization, or who experienced blowback from such failed experiments like the Import Substitution Industrialization, are more likely to reject democracy in favor of an Islamist state. The second paradigm contends that the very nature of Islam make democracy impossible, by virtue of being a “monolithic, hierarchical faith devoid of individualism, liberalism, and political freedoms,” a hypothesis which currently has little support of empirical evidence.

To fill this void of empirical evidence, Jamal tested four hypotheses “derived from modernization expectations and politicocultural arguments” to determine the validity of the two paradigms. Her four hypotheses can be summed up by these four questions: Is greater Islamic observance linked to lower support for democracy and greater support for Islamism? Do negative attitudes about gender equality suppress support for democracy? Are those that are more economically comfortable more likely to support democracy? And is support for democracy a function for higher levels of education?

Her results were fascinating and, unsurprisingly, far more complex than some Western political pundits would have you believe. While there certainly was an ideological gap between those that were strongly pro-Islamist and strongly pro-democratic, the findings also found subsets with every conceivable combination, such as those who had both high support of Islamic government and high support of democracy, and vice versa.

The article is an interesting expose of the actual attitudes among citizens of Arab nations, but, in my opinion, also points to a serious flaw in the academic and political arguments both for and against the idea of an Islamic democracy. The lack of true empirical study into the attitudes and socio-economic conditions of the Arab region leaves a huge gulf of knowledge that could be used to enhance the democratic standing of the region. However, this data is often foregone in favor of polemicizing, which, while surely good for the political commentators ratings and/or book sales, neither shed light on the real issues or aid in finding solutions.

What does islamic democracy need to succeed?

This article from 1992 proves that the intellectual debate over democracy and Islam is not one that has simply materialized from the ether in the last decade, but has been debated for far longer.  Immediately the author recognizes that there are no ingrained obstacles to democracy in Islamic nations, saying that the religion “has no necessary consequences for either domestic governance or foreign relations, despite the inherent unity of social and religious life in Islamic teaching.”

            Despite this article being older than many of the protestors and advocates of the Arab Spring, the ideas and problems it puts forward are ones that the movements are still grappling with today.  The fundamental question Zartman puts forward is this: “What can be done to create conditions for a functioning synthesis, so that democracy can be preserved in the presence of political Islam rather than being destroyed by it?”  He offers five feasible solutions to this quandary: 

  1. Establishing Islam as the national religion while simultaneously prohibiting religious or sectarian political parties;
  2. Developing a credible opposition as the cornerstone of a democratic government;
  3. Encouraging pluralism through election reform;
  4. Delaying political democracy until the social culture has been adequately primed; and/or,
  5. “Learn democracy on the job” by instituting a popular vote and allowing the masses to decide the future political landscape of their nation.

 These maxims, devised after the first Gulf War, could still be incredibly valuable in the current political landscape, and should be a blueprint for modern groups such as Arab Spring who are fighting for an Islamic democracy that can succeed.

America’s role in establishing democracy in the Middle East

Two recent articles have casted a negative light on the role the Obama administration has played in the fight for democracy in the Middle East. One, written by political scientist Reza Pankhurst in 2011, spoke out against the perceived hypocrisy of the administration in publicly supporting and praising certain Middle Eastern nations despite their complete lack of plural democracy. He specifically uses the example of the United States’ relationship with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two nations that have incredibly dismal scores on the Democracy Index Report, but who hold a higher level of esteem by the US due to the economic advantages such a friendship could yield.

According to D.C. newspaper The Hill, little has changed about the administration’s stance on Middle Eastern democracy, with Obama espousing support for democratic solutions to the conflict and avowing to “keep the pressure” on authoritarian leaders, while actively doing little to support real change in the region.

But should it really be the role of the United States government to actively manufacture democracy in the region? It could be argued that United States interventionism during the second Gulf War actively hindered the progress of democracy throughout the region, and the argument on whether the Bush Doctrine did aide in the political shift that has enabled these democratic uprisings has raged on, on both sides. Luckily, the belief that true democracy must start with the people, by the people, and not dropped from above by a benevolent savior nation is one that is growing in popularity. In my belief, this is the only path to successful Islamic democracy.