ISLAMIC DEMOCRACY IS ACHIEVABLE GOAL By Abdul Aziz Said and Ben Jensen Philadelphia Enquirer – Thu, Mar. 16, 2006 http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/editorial/14108748.htm Are democracy and Islam incompatible? From the growing tide of sectarian violence in Iraq to Hamas’ victory in Palestinian elections, many are pessimistic about the possibility of an Islamic democracy. Yet to assume that these events are indicative of some kind of latent incommensurability is specious reasoning at best. Not only are democracy and Islam compatible, the combination may prove the only exit route for a clash of civilizations. First, the premise of incompatibility rests upon a faulty assumption of a magical “democratic cocktail”: rising wages, an active civil society, and secularization. Yet countries with high poverty rates and deeply held religious convictions animating their cultures, such as India, are functional democracies. Furthermore, America’s democratic experiment has withstood numerous economic depressions and resurgences of faith-based politics. Rather than looking for magic cocktails, there is a need to understand what democracy is: a global process of organizing political needs on an equal basis, one rooted in the dreams and hopes of individual citizens. It is an open experiment. Its substance is a human society that has a sense of common goals, community, safeguards for dissent, and open participation in decision-making. The form it takes is always cast in the mold of a culture that links people together. Forms vary, as the cultural fabric from which free individuals emerge is diverse and ever-changing. Thus, democracy is NOT a Western product. When we conflate the culturally distinct American liberal form with the substance of democracy, we assume other experiments, be they Palestine or Iraq, have to look like us, animated by the same cultural logics and institutional designs. But that approach risks imperialism, and reduces the potential for democracy within the diverse cultural fabrics that mark human civilization. To embrace that there may be many forms of democracy is to remember the wisdom of American pragmatism. The citizen and believer are only meaningful when regarded as an inextricable part of his or her society and culture. This cultural fabric in turn has no meaning apart from its realization by individuals. This is easy to say, but hard to see amid the current chaos. Consider Iraq. While it is tempting to write off the spiraling sectarian violence, corruption, and continued stalled attempts at forming a government as a democratic failure, they can also be seen as the growing pains of a society reconstituting itself. Despite the massive cost in Iraqi and American lives and the manipulation of Iraq by fundamentalists and inept U.S. foreign policy, there is still hope. The lack of democracy in the Middle East is not due to a fundamental incompatibility with Islam. Blame a lack of preparation, an inheritance from colonialism and brutal authoritarianism. In fact, Islam can serve a practical role in politics by offering diverse cultural molds from which a new form of democracy can emerge. Just as our forefathers rooted their progressive political vision in Protestant values and Christian notions of natural law, Muslims can inspire and invigorate their political imaginations through the teachings of Islam – despite fundamentalist efforts to control the religion. To realize an emergent form of democracy within Islam, Muslims must ask themselves: What kind of citizens, animated by Islamic values, can their societies create? What kinds of solutions can Islam bring to participatory decision-making, which rests at the heart of all pluralist forms of governance? Muslims will realize a democratic society that differs from our own. This should neither surprise us, nor worry us. Rather, we should become advocates of hope. We should strive to help Muslims engage in an internal dialogue to liberate themselves as our forefathers did more than 200 years ago. Abdul Aziz Said is professor and director of the Center for Global Peace at American University in Washington. Ben Jensen is a research associate of the Center for Global Peace. Contact the writers at email@example.com
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