"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Democracy & The Islamic Reformation

So yesterday I finished No God but God and in the last chapter Reza Aslan speaks of the role of democracy in the Islamic Reformation.  Some people have insisted that Islam is incompatible with democracy, whereas Aslan argues that Islam and democracy are fine together -- it's just that we can't expect any ol' ideas of democracy to be warmly embraced by Muslims.

For starters, Aslan notes, democracy cannot be imported. That is, we Americans for instance, can't just decide we want to take democracy to the Middle East and start bombing the old structure to set up our Americanized version of democracy.  (Ours is actually a representative form.)  First of all many Muslims do not want a complete separation of religious values from governance which is what our increasingly secularizing nation champions.  Therefore the American ideal is likely not the ideal democracy for Pakistan or Egypt or any other Muslim-majority country.   We are wasting our time and money trying to export it, and need to realize our traditions and values are not the same as everywhere else in the world.

Democracy in the Muslim world needs to come from within! It needs to be from the people living in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria ... not a "gift" from Westerners who think these people need our help in becoming civilized.  I'm pretty sure they see through this sham and realize we aren't there for altruistic reasons. 

One thing I found especially true of this chapter is that Aslan notes "dictatorial regimes in the Middle East never seem to tire of preaching to the world that their brutally antidemocratic policies are justified because 'fundamentalists' allow them but two options: despotism or theocracy.  The problem with democracy from their point of view is that if people are allowed a choice, they may choose against their governments."

Though no friend of the US administration, Syria does this with their heavy-handed police state where the small Alawaite population keeps the larger Muslim population under control in a society of fear and restrictions (even Facebook and Blogger are banned there). Even US allied countries have this approach and because they have successfully gotten us to think of certain groups as too extreme, we support this brutal oppression of the masses. 

In the places where elections are held, America - which often preaches that we are for the native populations to choose their own leaders - meddles when the elections don't go our way, that is, in favor of those who like us.   We say one thing and live another.  We want the people to be free to choose, yet we prop up dictators and give them our financial support!   And when the people are free to choose, but we don't like their democratic choice, we involved ourselves!    Enough already!

Aslan makes the case for "pluralism, not secularism, that defines democracy," and as he notes, "Islam has had a long commitment to religious pluralism" despite how militants have interpreted Islam.   Aslan quotes Quran 2:256 concerning there being "no compulsion in religion" to state "that the antiquated partitioning of the world into spheres of belief (dar al-Islam) and unbelief (dar al-Harb)...is utterly unjustifiable."  Islam, he believes, is and has always been a "religion of diversity" and "grounding an Islamic democracy in the ideals of pluralism is vital because religious pluralism is the first step toward building an effective human rights policy in the Middle East."

Aslan believes the political realm of a democratic society should be secular because religion is interpretation. The "learned men of God" could contribute morally, but not politically. They should not rule, but "preserve...and reflect the morality of the state"  (whatever that means).

You know what irritated me a lot about this chapter?    This:

"It must be understood that a respect for human rights, like pluralism, is a process that develops naturally within a democracy.  Bear in mind that for approximately two hundred of America's two hundred fifty years of existence, black American citizens were considered legally inferior to whites.  Finally, neither human rights nor pluralism is the result of secularization, they are its root cause."

Any guesses why this bothers me so much?


Amber said...

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say this bit:

Finally, neither human rights nor pluralism is the result of secularization, they are its root cause."

But I'm not entirely sure I get why it bothers you.

If we accept that among various other very important human rights, one of them is freedom of religion, then as that idea grows it becomes more and more necessary for the government to be secular in nature in order to allow religious freedom. Despite 'good intentions' any government that insists on clinging to a specific religious identity is going to wind up oppressing the religious freedom of any minority group. So in governments I think secularization is actually a good thing. I have no desire to have a 'religious' government telling me what to do.

But if we look at individuals - in the name of being politically correct, we've stopped teaching differences in so many ways that our children (and I feel like I should include my generation here even though we're hardly children at this point!) don't see them as important or existent anymore. Why bother with religion when everyones faith is equally valid? In the name of pluralism and tolerance we've gone too far and been too careful about keeping our faith personal and private, and so many children just don't see it as important anymore. There's got to be a medium between being intolerant and insular and being so afraid to offend anyone that we lose our own faith and culture.

Which, maybe that last is what your problem is. Not so much his statement as the problem it represents?

I actually had a discussion on a Muslim board one time with a Muslim man who deeply believed that democracy was utterly incompatible with Islam. I can't recall the entire argument, but I did find (in my searches) Islamic scholars who believed that a form of democracy was not only compatible with Islam but upheld the concept of equality that Islam represented. Sadly that message board was shut down and deleted when it's owners had no time for it anymore, so I can't go back and find my references. *pouts*

Susanne said...

Amber, I really loved this comment! I have a new post nearly ready addressing what irritated me, but I LOVE what you chose and how you replied! Great stuff!

I hate that thread was closed as it sounds like such an interesting discussion. I would have liked hearing that guy's reasoning. I hear it mostly from non-Muslim Westerners who maybe don't care much for Islam. (though I'm speculating on that last bit)

GREAT paragraph about individuals. I think maybe this has lead to other evils in society creeping in more and more. Like we are secularizing our society and its maybe giving more rights to minorities. At the same time, our society is hardly improving in most ways. At least I don't see it. Maybe I have too negative an outlook. You can let me know if you think so when you read my next post.

Thanks MUCH for your reply! I loved it!

Suroor said...

OK, going over to read your new post :)

Susanne said...

You could have guessed if you wanted. :)