Engagement with democracy

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Exploration of the character of the political transformation and democratic transition in Asian Muslim societies

DEMOCRACY IN MUSLIM SOCIETIES — The Asian Experience: Zoya Hasan — Editor; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B-1/I-1, Mohan Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 550.

Is the social ethos of Islam incompatible with democracy? This book shows quite conclusively that such a proposition is far from true. Zoya Hasan shows that such a proposition lacks in intellectual integrity. The study is an important and timely contribution. With the rise of terrorism, the proliferation of jehadi groups and other forms of political extremism among the Muslims, it has become a refrain among many that Islam is intrinsically authoritarian and therefore democracy has no future in Muslim societies. It is true that “jehadi” Islam has given rise to an ideological form which refuses to recognise democracy and remains engaged in all kinds of medieval fundamentalist debates. But this continues to be a small minority in all Muslim countries whatever the havoc it has caused across the world. What however is important are the powerful reform movements in the Muslim world, beginning with Syed Ahmad and Muhammad Abduh, since the late 19th century which have systematically engaged with the demands of the modern world and questions of democracy. Each of these has engaged with and negotiated in diverse ways with the tension between Islam and the modern world. Coming to terms with democracy has been one important feature of this engagement.


The book examines six Muslim countries outside the Arab world and corrects the erroneous equation of Islam/Muslims with the Arab world. About 70 per cent of Muslims worldwide live in the Asian states and only 15 per cent live in the Arab world. The incompatibility thesis fallaciously draws all the conclusions from the experience of the Arab world with democracy which itself is varied from Algeria to Syria. The prejudice is so strong that widespread recurrence of powerful democratic movements among the Muslims masses all over the world and the halting progress of democratic government in many a Muslim nation are completely ignored. The contribution “Islam and Democracy” by Abdul Rahman Embong shows how a caring government with affirmative action has brought down poverty from more than 50 per cent in 1970 to less than 3 per cent in 2004 and by providing free education across the board, and thus involved people in democratic debates and activities. Malaysia since Independence has had 11 elections and an uninterrupted democratic rule. And, this in spite of Malaysia’s complex multi-ethnic character, and the need to balance the interest of 55 per cent Muslim Malays with the Chinese and Indians.

The study of “Interaction of Democracy and Islam in Turkey” by Korel Goymen highlights how the coming to power of Islamist groups has given a new vigour to debates both about democracy and secularism. The question is: is the Kemalist version based on the rigour of the French model the only way to be secular? Closer to the theme, has it in any way threatened democracy? On the contrary, the author shows that this change in Turkish polity is both a manifestation as well as renewal of democracy. The “Islamist” party in power is not a shari’ah based political group but is only asking for the right of people to follow customary practices even if based on religion. It has neither questioned democracy nor secularism. In fact it has asked for membership of the European Union and is ready to abide by its conventions with minor qualification on issues like homosexuality, etc. These are the questions raised by most of the contributions in this volume.


The two studies, “Functioning of Democracy in Pakistan” by Mohammad Waseem and “The Struggle for Democracy in Bangladesh” by Amena Mohsin and Meghna Guhathakurta, show the ruling elites have carried out developmental policies and conducted politics which have led to the marginalisation of people and their alienation from the ruling establishment. Both the countries have had competitive elections and democratic rule interrupted again and again by the military rule. The question here is: how does Islam or the ethos of the Muslim societies come into the picture? It is the irresponsibility of the political elite and their scant regard for democratic norms and practices which give an excuse to the military to step in, in the case of Pakistan often with the connivance of imperialist strategic interests. It is the people’s (masses who subscribe to Islamic beliefs) desire for democracy and the popular struggles waged by them in the face of repression which has resulted in the restoration of democracy again and again. This remains true in spite of the fact that powerful extremist and terrorist groups have emerged in these countries. If Islamic doctrines or the social ethos of Muslim societies are at the root of democratic failure, then it cannot be that it is people who will fight for democracy. The good contributions on Indonesia and Iran by Adriana Elisabeth and Sadegh Zibakalam respectively cannot be discussed for reasons of space.


Apart from the six contributions which highlight the debates, commitments, struggles and movements within the historical background among the people and the intelligentsia, the introduction of Zoya Hasan stands out as a contribution in itself. Zoya maps out the factors and their interactions which thwart the actualisation of democracy in Muslim societies. She is no apologist for Muslim societies or their culture. Within all the analysis, she is one of the few, certainly so in India, who clearly sees the contradiction between the struggles for democracy in our worlds and imperialism. She mentions the failure of democracy to take root in Latin America (a wholly Christian world) in the 1970s and the 1980s. What the democratic movements were giving rise to when they won power was diametrically in contradiction to the imperialist foreign policy interests of the U.S.

Beginning with Chile (the other 9/11) the U.S. destroyed democratic verdicts by using the military and installed puppet despotic regimes in the name of freedom as if democracy and freedom are antithetically related; the wisdom of Pentagon thinks so. The same has been the case for the Muslim world. Starting with the democratically-elected radical regime of Mossadaq in Iran in 1953, the U.S. and its cohorts like the U.K., have not allowed democratic rule to flourish. They have intervened and destroyed these regimes. Democratic verdict becomes secondary; regime outcome is the central concern. Map out the history of democratic movements in the Muslim countries from Mossadaq to Sukarno to Hamas in Palestine, the story follows the same script. Imperialist interest in oil and strategic concerns are the biggest enemies of democracy in our world. It is to the credit of Zoya that she recognises this. It is only by defeating these decisively as Latin American people have begun to do, can we the disposed secure democracy.

Internal feature

Having said all this, one internal feature which in a sustained way erodes the struggle for democracy is the nature of the clergy in the Muslim world. The clergy in Islam, unlike in Christianity, is uniformly drawn from the lower (very low) middle classes. They therefore have, structurally as they are placed, organic links with the poor and the oppressed. So long as the masses in Muslim societies remain poor and illiterate and therefore steeped in superstition, the clergy will continue to wield decisive influence. The clergy with its hidebound outlook will go on dragging the people into conservatism and thus hold them back from being an integral part of the modern world. So the fight is also a secular fight, against poverty and illiteracy and superstition.



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