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Islam and Democracy
By John L. Esposito and John O. Voll.
Oxford University Press. 232 pages. $45.

John L. Esposito and John O. Voll are director and deputy director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Scholars and Christians, they take as their mission giving their fellow non-Muslims a more sympathetic understanding of Islam and the Islamic world.

In their current work they examine the relationship between Islam and democracy––in particular, between the global trend of democratization and the rise of what is often called Islamic fundamentalism or Islamism or political Islam. While they will not go so far as to say that Islamism is always a boon to democracy, they labor to refute the common Western view that political Islam and democracy are antithetical. “Identifying governments as regimes committed either to implementing religious law or Westernization,” they say, “provides no prediction as to whether or not the regime will be authoritarian or democratic.” The point is that “the historic situation of the present cannot be understood in monolithic terms but must be seen as a complex, multifaceted reality in which both complementarities and contradictions [between Islamism and democracy] can be seen.”

Although the relationship is thus portrayed as ambiguous, Esposito and Voll find much to say on the positive side. They claim that democracy and Islamic resurgence “have become complementary forces in many countries.” Where Islamic movements seem violent or power-hungry, the fault generally lies elsewhere: “Islamic opposition has been most frequently articulated in democratic terms and in the context of cooperation within existing political systems. However, such opposition can become revolutionary in tone if... declared to be revolutionary by existing regimes.”

If we in the West fail to perceive the democratic quality of the Islamist movements, the fault, Esposito and Voll suggest, lies in the ethnocentricity of our perceptions. “Advocates of the styles of democracy found in Western Europe and the United States... believe themselves to be the true heirs to the only legitimate democratic tradition,” but in truth there are “many possibilities for defining democracy that are closer to long-standing conceptualizations within the Islamic world.” When it comes to spelling out these possibilities, however, Esposito and Voll are short on specifics. “In the standard conceptualization of the Western model, there is emphasis on elections and majority rule,” they say. They offer three alternatives: something they call “consensual democracy”; Ross Perot’s suggestion for “national electronic referenda”; and the ancient Athenian practice of selecting officials by lot.

This is hardly serious. Esposito and Voll do not even deign to define “consensual democracy,” or to explain how decisions are to be made when no consensus exists. Perot’s suggestion was just a gust of hot air. And as for Athenian democracy, its essence was the collective deliberation of the gathered citizenry, scarcely replicable today. The selection of officials by lot merely constitutes government by chance, not government by the people.

Indeed there is something unserious about this whole work, beginning with its failure to take frank account of the current dearth of democracy in the Islamic world. According to the authoritative annual survey of freedom conducted by Freedom House, there were 191 independent countries in 1996, of which 76 were “free,” 62 “partly free,” and 53 “not free.” Of the 43 predominantly Muslim countries, however, only 1 (Mali) was free, 13 partly free, and 29 not free. To put it in other terms, more than half of the world’s non-Muslim countries, but only 2 percent of the Muslim ones, were free.

Of course many of the predominantly Muslim countries are poor, and democracy correlates closely with economic development. But poverty alone cannot account for the weakness of democracy in the Islamic world. To illustrate this, we can compare the Islamic countries with Africa. (The fact that these two categories overlap makes the contrast all the more telling.) Although Africa is a good deal poorer than the Islamic world, it is more democratic. True, democracy is much weaker in Africa than in the West; still there are nine countries in Africa rated “free” compared to just one in the Islamic world, while 34 percent percent of the countries of Africa have some formal features of democracy, more than twice the percentage in the Islamic world.

To top this off, only eighteen countries in the world received the worst possible score on Freedom House’s numerical scale of freedom. Of these eighteen, eleven are Islamic countries. Clearly something is going on here.

Esposito and Voll seem vaguely aware of such statistics, but they try to brush them aside with such observations as: “The threat of authoritarianism comes less from religious doctrine than politics and power, history and political culture.” But political culture is precisely the point, and the question this begs is: what are the roots of the political culture? The Islamic world boasts a variety of regimes, but what most of them share is a tendency toward tyranny.

This is not to say that it must ever be thus. One of the better points that Esposito and Voll make is that the Christian world, which is today mostly democratic, was not always so. The growth of democracy was nourished by certain Christian beliefs that antedated democracy. The Islamic world, too, can evolve. Esposito and Voll take pains to demonstrate the presence within Islam of “broad concepts of potential positive significance for democratization––such as consensus and consultation––and also many concepts and traditions that could provide the foundation for concepts of ‘constitutional opposition’ and limits on arbitrary government power.”

But “potential positive significance” and concepts that provide a “foundation” for other concepts are a long way from the finished product. Much progress needs to be made before Islam makes its peace with democracy. That progress, however, will find no help from the likes of Esposito and Voll, with their relentless apologies for the most retrograde elements in the Islamic world and their insistent obfuscation of the basic principles of democracy as nothing more than a Western “style.”

Esposito and Voll acknowledge that the Islamist movements that have come to power––in Iran and Sudan––are guilty of human rights violations and antidemocratic practices. Yet they balance against this the alleged democratic convictions of Islamists elsewhere, who are fighting to overthrow monarchs or secular dictators. They ignore the obvious truth that the litmus test of democratic bona fides comes only once a movement achieves power: it is easy (and useful) to proclaim democracy when in opposition.

In power or out, many Islamists make no bones of their disdain for democracy. Oddly, Esposito and Voll write that “people who formally and publicly oppose democracy... usually represent a marginal sect or group on the extreme... such as the Branch Davidians...  or some of the ultra-orthodox Jewish groups in Israel.” They mention no Muslims in this context, implying that Islamists do not oppose democracy, except perhaps for some who “reject the term ‘democracy’ as a foreign term... because there are other more appropriate, indigenous conceptualizations for describing the rights of popular participation and freedom.” It is to such reasoning, apparently, that they attribute Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 directive, which they acknowledge, that the new Iranian regime not be called the “Democratic Islamic Republic.” But Khomeini matched deed to word, and in the “Islamic Republic” of Iran, his word was law.

Esposito and Voll themselves show us that even in opposition, the democratic convictions of Algeria’s Islamists are weak to nonexistent. One of its two preeminent leaders, Ali Belhadj, they report, “categorically rejected democracy as an un-Islamic concept.” The other, Abbasi Madani, endorsed democracy in these ambivalent terms: “Yes, the way [to power] is the elections.... There is no other way at the present moment. All other ways have been obstructed by Allah. Therefore the way to power is elections which are decided [by] the popular will of the people.” Who believes that if these two and their comrades succeed in wresting power they will proceed to offer free elections and refrain from the systematic coercion and brutality that are hallmarks of the Iranian and Sudanese regimes?

There are surely many devout Muslims who are democrats, and there are even some democrats who call themselves Islamists. Laith Kubba, an Iraqi exile who directs the International Forum for Islamic Dialogue in London, counts himself one of “the increasing numbers of Islamists who adhere to a modern interpretation of Islam [and who] form a loose-knit group with little chance of making an impact in the short term.” In the long term, he says, “the way to a better future lies through the recognition of pluralism, the adoption of open political systems, and the establishment of democratic governments throughout the Islamic world.” His words make a refreshing contrast to Esposito and Voll’s blather about the “global contestation over the significance and nature of democracy in the multicultural context.”

Contrary to Esposito and Voll, there is no Western “style” of democracy, but dozens of “styles,” Western and non-Western, that all bear certain basic traits in common that are both easy to name in theory and easy to detect in practice. Despite all the smoke blown by dictators and by scholars such as these, there is not much mystery about the nature of democracy. It has four essential features: free elections, freedom of expression, rule of law, and general citizenship (i.e., apartheid is not democracy). That it was born in the West is true. But it has since migrated around the globe.

Whether democracy will take root as well in the soil that has until now proved the most resistant––the world of Islam––remains to be seen. Its prospects are more likely to be enhanced by honest reckonings with Islam’s present democratic shortcomings than by apologetic exercises in cultural relativism or by pretending that the meaning of democracy is obscure or infinitely elastic.

Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of The Imperative of American Leadership: A Challenge to Neo-Isolationism

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