Islam, Sharia, and Democracy
A new loosely organised movement is earning respect among the proponents of Islamic democracy. Distancing itself from militant Islamism, the movement regards itself as a "New Centre" and aims to combine the principles of good governance with the preservation of cultural authenticity. By Gudrun Krämer
Democracy, freedom and the end of corruption, despotism and violence ... From Morocco to Iran, this is what demonstrators are currently calling for, and there is no reason to assume that they have a different understanding of what is meant by these terms than the rest of the world, including the West. They understand them to mean the rule of law, good governance and the respect for human rights. Obviously they do not consider these values and institutions to be a threat to their cultural identity, precisely because these values are not exclusively Western but universally valid. The fact that devout, practising Muslims are calling for democracy in their own country must really be giving critics of Islam something to think about. They are strangely quiet at present. Now there is no need to argue about whether Muslims can live in a democracy and can affirm a democratic society that is based on the rule of law. We already have the answer. On the other hand, it is not quite so clear whether a democracy that is explicitly based on Islam is conceivable and what possible form such a democracy could take.
The right to political participation
Thus far, the debate has been overshadowed by Islamist hegemony and Western dominance. With their theses and terminology, the Islamists have dominated the public debate about identity, state and religion, both in Muslim societies and in the West. Although the Islamist thesis that Islam is "religion and state" and consequently and necessarily requires the application of Sharia does not reflect historical reality, it was and is a hugely effective antithesis to secular ideas and authoritarian regimes.
The repressive potential of this thesis lies before us: Iran illustrates it on a daily basis. What is less evident is the momentum of political "empowerment" that activities draw from it by deriving from Islam itself a right to political participation and the right to have a say in politics. That strengthened them both in the struggle against colonial rule and in their opposition to the authoritarian regimes in their countries. As differently as these Islamic orders may be formulated today, they all have one thing in common: they derive their basic principles of politics and law from the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet (Sunna). The only way to do so – even if many claim the opposite – is by means of interpretation. Asking how Islam stands on human rights and democracy means reading the Koran and the Sunna with contemporary eyes. Although the Koran does contain references to a "right" way to act and the principles of a "just" order, it is not a constitution, nor does it impose a specific form of government on Muslims.
The "New Centre" of Islam
Among the advocates of an Islamic democracy, there is a new, more loosely organised movement that deserves to be considered; a movement that considers itself to be the "New Centre", as distinct from militant Islam, and seeks to combine the principles of "good governance" with the preservation of cultural authenticity. Its representatives are to be found in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Morocco alike.
Its adherents are convinced that the Koran and the Sunna only provide a few, general principles: the shura principle of consultation, which anchors having a political say and perhaps even democratic participation in religion; the accountability of rulers to God and the people, which among other things guarantees a regulated changeover of power; and the independence of the judiciary, which is obliged to ensure that the constitution is upheld. The rest is a matter of negotiation and must be adapted to suit conditions in a particular time and place. The representatives of the "New Centre" also see Sharia as the foundation of Muslim life and the standard for the legitimacy of the socio-political order. In essence, they consider it to be God's law and largely removed from the reach of secular authorities.
When interpreted in this way, a state founded on Sharia is a state governed by the rule of law. In other words, the character of the Islamic order depends on the understanding of Sharia on which it is based. Those who undoubtedly have the greatest potential are those who emphasise a few "general principles" of Sharia and identify them with certain basic values – justice, equality, freedom, responsibility – which have long since found their way into the Islamic repertoire. The people in question are not just a few individual intellectuals, but Islamic scholars of religion and law as well as representatives of the state judiciary, who can certainly be considered part of the establishment. The value and dignity of the individual can, therefore, be derived from the Koran. Islamic law already assumes an individual legal entity that is answerable to God and the people. There has always been a pluralism of interests and opinions in the Islamic world, especially when it comes to theological and legal questions. The freedom of speech, assembly and association can be guaranteed within the "framework of Islam"; a multi-party system can also be deduced from Islamic sources.
The problematic issue of equality and freedom
The concept of civil equality and freedom, however, remains problematic, at least where Western European society in the early twenty-first century is considered the standard. According to the conventional interpretation of Sharia, women and non-Muslims do not enjoy equality with male Muslims in all areas. In this respect, however, much is changing: political laws such as active and passive voting rights for all citizens regardless of their religion and gender are granted more easily than complete equality in matters of civil law. The same was certainly true of Western societies for long enough.
The limitations in the fields of religious, artistic, academic, and sexual freedom remain strict: morality is deemed of overwhelming importance in Islamic circles, whose interpretation of the word "corruption" extends beyond the field of economics. This is why gender order in social discourse is a key issue – not only among Islamists. Islamic constitutional models – such as that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, with which we are familiar – combines modern forms of political articulation and organisation (political parties, associations, trade unions, modern media, elections, parliaments and constitutional courts) with a normative foundation and functional objective, which serve as an alternative to the authoritarian state that is not founded on the rule of law, the framework in which they were developed. These models provide a blueprint for a constitutional presidential republic that builds on Sharia as its source of morality and law. The fundamental principles of good governance – the rule of law, responsibility, accountability, consultation and participation – are affirmed "within the framework of Islam" and "Sharia". Decisive aspects depend on how and by whom this framework is defined and who makes sure that it is respected. The strong weight of the state as a force of order cannot be overlooked: the Islamic state, as it is outlined here, is a state with a mission. Domestically, it is supposed to ensure law and justice, especially in the social sphere.
Internationally, it is supposed to defend the interests of Islam and the umma, the Muslim community, which are largely equated with the interests of the relevant individual state. Moral categories – such as the social obligation of property – play a prominent role. Moreover, the recognition of the significance of institutions in the protection of individual rights and collective interests is growing. For the representatives of the "New Centre" too, it is primarily about political co-determination, not about the extension of cultural, intellectual, and artistic freedoms. One can therefore conclude that the aim is to build on the basis of Sharia a democratic state governed by the rule of law and not a liberal society.
© Die Zeit/Qantara.de 2011 Islam scholar and historian Gudrun Krämer is director of the Institute of Islamic Studies at the Free University Berlin and director of the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies. Her special research subjects include religion, law, politics, society and the modern age of Islam. Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp