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Scholars Address Islam And Democracy

By Bettina Lehovec
The Morning News

Islam is more than a religion - it's a way of life, adherents believe.

A cornerstone of the faith is shariah, or Quranic law. It's seen as the ultimate frame of reference, governing everything from permissible food to marriage and divorce.

Most of the world's Muslim nations are ruled by military strongmen or kings. A recent push toward democratization has been accompanied by regime change and war.

As Muslims struggle to take their place in an increasingly global community, they must address some big questions: Is separation of church and state possible? What would an Islamic version of democracy look like? Is there a peaceful means to get there?

Two scholars tackled the questions at a forum on Islam and Democracy at the University of Arkansas on April 11. Sponsored by the Al-Islam (The Peace) Students Association and the UA Multicultural Center, the forum was one of a series hosted by the student organization to educate the community about Islam.

Najib Ghadbian, associate professor of political science and Middle East studies at UA, laid the framework for understanding the relationship between democracy and Islam. Imam Mubasher Ahmad, an Islamic missionary based in Chicago, detailed Quranic teachings that support democratic principles.

Room For Both Democracy and Islam

A Western misperception is that Muslims are intolerant of other people's faiths, Ghadbian said.

"The general perception of Islam in the West is negative. ... Popular opinion is that democracy and Islam are incompatible."

The reasons for this view are varied. One is the lack of democracy in most Muslim countries today, Ghadbian said. Westerners believe that the fault lies in the religion of Islam rather than the individual governments themselves.

The views of Islamic extremists - broadcast widely in the years since Sept. 11, 2001 - have added to that perception, Ghadbian said. The Al-Qaida second-in-command has said straight out "We don't believe in democracy."

When one looks at what that really means to extremists, one finds a rejection of all things Western - from Colonialism to modern values about sex, Ghadbian said. It is less the form of government that is being criticized than the way of life.

The Muslim world comprises a diverse group of countries. They span the globe from the Arab nations of the Middle East to Asia, Africa and Europe. A few, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey, are true democracies, Ghadbian said. Others, particularly most Arab nations, are dictatorships. Still others are in transition, struggling to incorporate democratic principles.

To understand the lack of democracy in most Muslim countries, one must consider the nations' histories and the socio-economic policies that have shaped them in recent decades. The U.S. government has historically supported dictatorships in the name of stability, Ghadbian said. Access to oil and the security of U.S. ally Israel have also been factors.

It wasn't until the terrorist attacks on the United States that democracy in the Middle East became a priority for Western nations, Ghadbian said.

Several trends indicate that Muslims are moving in that direction. In the struggle for democracy, Islamic groups and parties play a key role, the professor said.

"They are the ones who mobilize people, press the governments for change," Ghadbian said. In recent elections in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was at the forefront of efforts for fairness and accountability, for example.

A recent Gallup survey asked people in Islamic nations what type of government they prefer. More than 90 percent said democracy was best, Ghadbian said.

"What better evidence do you need (that Islam and democracy are compatible)?" he asked.

Yet it must be a model of democracy rooted in Islamic culture, he noted. Muslims want neither a theocracy nor a secular government but something that blends aspects of both.

The majority of Muslims support the place of religious law and religious leaders in government, but not in direct control, Ghadbian said.

"As Muslim countries move toward more political rights, free elections, rights for women, (they must incorporate) a democracy embedded in Muslim values and Muslim principles.

"It's Muslim democracy - not necessarily Western democracy."

Quranic Teachings Support Democracy

The Quran, the body of teachings at the heart of Islam, support democracy as a form of governance, Ahmad asserted. Originally from Pakistan, Ahmad has lived in the United States since 1969. He serves as imam - or religious leader - of Baitul Jami'a Mosque.

The most fundamental teaching of Islam is the principle of "tawheed," or faith in the unity of God, Ahmad said. Allah is believed to be the creator and nourisher of the universe and of all mankind. The Quran begins by paying homage to him and ends by declaring him sovereign over all human affairs.

"The repeated reference to the people, to the entire mankind, certainly establishes the fact that the concerns of the people have to remain the central objective in any Islamic state."

The Quran instructs people to view mankind as one extended family, the imam said. Disorder and lawlessness are strongly condemned. The very name "Islam" means submission to God. Peace and security are the goals of the faith.

All humans are equal in the eyes of God, Ahmad said. Righteousness is based on the way one conducts oneself, not on one's skin color or wealth.

The Quran states that trust must be given "to those who are best fitted to discharge it," doing away with the notion of forced or inherited rule, Ahmad said. The people, in exchange, have a responsibility to choose wisely those whom they follow.

The Quran requires leaders to perform their duties with full integrity and justice, Ahmad said.

"O ye who believe! Prove not false to Allah and the messenger, nor betray your trusts knowingly," the holy book states. "Every one of you is a shepherd, and is responsible and accountable for that which is committed to his care. The ruler is responsible for and answerable to his people."

Muslims are called on to personify trust, justice and honesty, Ahmad said. Those traits are essential requirements for an Islamic leader. Other Islamic tenets that echo democratic principles are "shura" (government through mutual consultation), "ijtihad" (independent judgment) and "ijma" (consensus building).

"The Quran says to study, observe. It challenges people to learn," Ahmad said. "How can we say we can't study our own political process? We have to (in order to learn and grow)."

A Universal Phenomenon

Democracy is not the province of any one set of people, Ahmad said. The roots can be found in cultures as varied as Greece, India and American Indian tribes. Conversely, some of the nations we think of as most democratic today have long histories of authoritarian rule.

"We must remember that democracy is not specifically attached to any one faith tradition. It is a universal phenomenon, with a long history of its own, and is still in progress," Ahmad said.

The best incentive for moving toward it is simply time, he said.

"Muslim nations have to read what is in the future. We must look to the future, to the world, to our best interests. We have to be honest (with ourselves)."

Other incentives include political pressure and financial aid, Ghadbian said in answer to a question. At the root level, however, democracy must come from within. Forcing democracy on a nation plants resentment that might linger for generations to come.

"Supporting democracy is good," Ghadbian said. "The question is how to do it. We can't do it through war. There's a contradiction there."

"Verily, Allah commands you to give over the trusts to those entitled to them, and that, when you judge between men, you judge with justice." - Quran chapter 4, verse 59.

At A Glance

Al-Islam Students Association

The Al-Islam (Peace) Students Association was formed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to help foster peace and harmony among people of different religions. The group promotes programs and events to improve mutual understanding.


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