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In Search of a Muslim Path to Democracy

( Address by Ali A. Mazrui, CSID Chair Director, Institute of Global Cultural Studies, Binghamton University ) at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, Fourth Annual Conference Washington, DC on May 16, 2003 ).

It may be easier to be categorical about the question "Why Democracy" than about the second question "Why now?"

Why democracy? Because it enables people to participate in choosing their rulers; because democracy tries to check the powers of those rulers and increase the influence of the citizens; because at its best democracy protects and stimulates the individual without sacrificing the community; because at its best democracy seeks to promote liberty without sacrificing equality.

I do not believe in "the end of history", a la Fukuyama. I do not believe that the search for a better system of government should now end because democracy is the best the human imagination can invent. I do not believe in ending the search.

But I do believe that democracy is the most humane system of government that the human race has so far invented.

But can it be combined with another system of values? The Scandinavian countries have combined liberal democracy with socialist principles to produce a more compassionate democracy than we have in the United States.

The English have combined formal theocracy with practical democracy.
Formally the Queen is both Head of State and Governor of the Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury is partly appointed by the Prime Minister. And major doctrinal changes in the Church of England need the approval of the British parliament either directly of by delegation.

But at the practical level the British system is in the liberal democratic tradition. It is slightly less of an open society than the American system but slightly more of a compassionate democracy than the American system.

If Scandinavians can combine liberal democracy with socialist principles, and the English can combine a formal Protestant theocracy with a practical liberal democracy, can Muslims combine liberal democracy with Islamic principles? Can islamocracy be a new vision of governance?

That is one of the most important questions facing the Muslim world. Our thinkers and policy-makers need to address it repeatedly - as our own Abdulaziz Sachadena at the University of Virginia has done.

Indeed, we are not starting from scratch. Some democratic principles have been part of Islam from the beginning - concepts like idjitihad and the shura. The earliest Caliphs after the Prophet Muhammad were chosen through an ancient electoral college. Earlier Muslim kingdoms devised systems of pluralism, such as the millet system under the Ottoman Empire guaranteeing autonomy for minorities. What is the difference between Islamocracy and Islamic theocracy? We view the concept of "Islamocracy"
as a synthesis between Islam and democracy. The segment "Isla" is from Islam. The segment of "ocracy" is from democracy. The letter "m" is shared by the words Islam and demos. The phenomenon of islamocracy has been evolving for centuries.

Today the Islamic Republic of Iran as a system of government has received less attention from democratic thinkers than it deserves. It is true that the theocratic element is still top heavy, and the powers of the clerics excessive; the Islamic Republic's system is still a fascinating combination of mass electoral politics and theocratic governance. Is the theocracy in Iran getting democratized? Will one day Iran become like England - a neo-theocracy in form but a living democracy in substance? Is the Islamic Republic a new but flawed stage in the evolution of islamocracy?

On the issue of gender Muslim societies are far behind the United States in the liberation of women. But liberation of women is not the same as empowerment of women. Some Muslim countries have been more ambitious in the empowerment of women than has the United States.

Long before the United States has had a woman president or a woman vice-president Indonesia today has a woman president and Bangladesh a woman Prime Minister. Indeed, ultimate political power in Bangladesh has rotated between two remarkable women -- Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed. Can these gender elements be built into a new islamocracy?

Two other Muslim countries have experimented with women as Heads of Government - Pakistan where Benazir Bhutto was prime minister twice and Turkey which experimented with Ms. Ciller. And all this before Germany has had a woman

Chancellor, or France a woman President, or Russia a woman President, or the United States has experimented a revolution of having the First Gentleman instead of First Lady in the White House. One day the US will catch up and have a male first spouse.

There is still work to be done for democracy in the United States and much more work to be done in the Muslim world. The American democracy is already here, however imperfect. But Islamic versions of democracy are being slowly forged by history.

On the issue of the new democratization of the Muslim world, scholars should indeed address the question of "Why Democracy Now". But they should also examine the converse question, "Why not democracy now"?

Can Democracy be Planned?

Should Muslim countries be engaged in planned democratization rather than instant democracy? Was Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of instant glasnost and instant perestroika a bad lesson for the Muslim world? The Gorbachev revolution led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and large-scale anarchy, with the rise of the Russian mafia, a brutal civil war in Chechnya, and a catastrophic collapse of the Russian economy.

Had Gorbachev attempted planned democratization instead of instant perestroika and glasnost, could he have served his country better? Would he have been recognized as a hero to his fellow Russians and not just a hero to Westerners who had a vested interest in a much weaker Russia?

Should Iraq today be helped in planned democratization - with a constitution which spells out phases of implementation? One plan could be a much stronger executive branch for the first twenty years, and later a tilt in favour of parliamentary democracy.

An alternative plan could be a collective presidency in Iraq for the first 30 years - a troika of Shia, Sunni and Kurd, co-Presidents and a parliament based on proportional representation.

After the 30 years the Iraqi constitution would be reviewed to reduce the salience of ethnic and sectarian criteria of democratization. Iraqis should be encouraged to debate these issues themselves at every phase of democratization.

Our conference here today should indeed examine "Why Democracy Now" but it should also address the issue of "Why not now"? A plan of democratic gradualism may be needed in some Muslim countries. We have learnt from Nigeria and from some of the former Soviet republics that instant democracy corrupts; absolute democracy corrupts absolutely.

In a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton written about this time of the year in the spring of 1887 Lord Acton bequeathed to our political lexicon an immortal formulation. Lord Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

The founding fathers of the United States anticipated Lord Acton's worry before Lord Acton was born. The American founding fathers set the stage for limited government with checks and balances. Now Muslims have to ask themselves whether there is something else which corrupts. Could that something else be democracy itself? Have we indeed learnt from Nigeria and from some of the former Soviet Republics that instant democracy corrupts; absolute democracy can corrupt absolutely? Conversely can Iraq become an example of planned democratization in the Muslim world?

As for the United States itself, we cannot afford to promote democracy abroad and let it lapse here at home. We can surely liberate Muslim women in Afghanistan without detaining Muslim men in the United States.
We can empty the political prisons of Saddam Hussein without having a Guantanamo Goulag of our own in Cuba under American jurisdiction.

It has often been asked whether the United States can fight two wars at the same time. The real test is whether the United States can win a war for democracy abroad without losing its war for democracy at home.
Fortunately we have a major lesson from our founding fathers. "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." For the Muslim world Islamocracy is a vision of synthesis.

For the Muslim world we still have to learn "Why democracy". For the United States we need to remind ourselves "Why democracy Now" inspite of everything.

Those who have already acquired democracy need to protect it by all democratic means.

The price of civil liberties in the Muslim world is eternal struggle.
The price of civil liberties in the United States is indeed eternal vigilance.

Let us go for both. Amen.

Courtesy: TheAmericanMuslim.Org





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