Democracy of believers

Iraq should look to Israel for a model that combines democracy and religious belief
June 18, 2005
As the new Iraq begins the long and gruelling process of constructing a viable democracy, the question on everyone's mind seems to be whether the Shia parties that now dominate the provisional government will seek to establish Islam as the official state religion. Indeed, dire predictions are already being made that the Shia are planning to turn the country into a totalitarian theocracy modelled on the Islamic Republic of Iran.

But while the new Iraq will in all likelihood be an "Islamic" state (in a country in which 96 per cent of the population is Muslim, it would be ridiculous to expect otherwise), there is little reason to fear that Iraq will become a new Iran. If there is one issue on which most Iraqis (and Muslims) agree, it is that the theo-political experiment in Iran—in which the Shari'a (Islamic law) is the primary source of law and the clerical oligarchy its sole interpreters—has been a devastating failure: the Islamic Republic is isolated, its economy is in shambles, and its citizens are on the verge of insurrection. Not even the menacingly titled Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq has voiced any enthusiasm for replicating Iran's botched example of "Islamic democracy." Rather, in its quest to fashion a state that is at once democratic and patently Islamic, Iraq must look not to the east and Iran, but to the west and Israel.

Despite the apartheid state that has resulted from over half a century of bloody territorial conflicts with its neighbouring Palestinian territories, few would deny that the state of Israel is a democracy. At the same time, Israel is a country founded upon an exclusivist Jewish moral framework, which offers all the world's Jews—regardless of their nationality—immediate citizenship, providing them with a host of benefits and privileges over its non-Jewish citizens. It is a country in which the Orthodox rabbinical courts have jurisdiction over all matters relating to Judaism (including who is a Jew); where religious schools (yeshivas) are subsidised by the state, and marriages are religious, rather than civil affairs (meaning no official will marry a Jew to a non-Jew); and the government is dominated by religious parties such as the ultra-Orthodox Shas, the Yahadut Hatorah, and of course, the ruling Likud. In short, Israel is, in every sense of the term, a "Jewish democracy."

The truth is that a large number of democratic states are founded upon a distinctive religious moral framework. The US, for example, is a country unapologetically founded upon a Judeo-Christian—and more precisely Protestant—moral framework that not only reflects American social values, but very often dictates them. England maintains a national church whose religious head is also the country's sovereign and whose bishops serve in the upper house of parliament. India was, until recently, ruled by partisans of an elitist theology of Hindu awakening (Hindutva) bent on applying their vision of orthodox, nationalist Hinduism to the state. And yet, like Israel, these countries are all considered democracies, not because they are "secular" but because they are, at least in theory, dedicated to pluralism.

It is pluralism—the peaceful coexistence and legal equality between different ethnic, religious or political ideologies—that defines democracy, not secularism. And Islam, as it happens, has had a long and historic commitment to religious pluralism. The Prophet Muhammad's recognition of Jews and Christians as protected peoples (dhimmi), his belief in a common divine text from which all revealed scriptures are derived (the Umm al-Kitab), and his dream of establishing a single, united community (umma) unbound by ethnicity and encompassing all three faiths of Abraham were startlingly revolutionary ideas in an era in which religion literally created borders between peoples. And despite the ways in which it has been manipulated by traditionalists and extremists who refuse to recognise its historical and cultural context, there are few scriptures in the great religions of the world that can match the reverence with which the Koran speaks of other religious traditions. As such, Islam—like Protestantism in the US, Anglicanism in Britain, Judaism in Israel and Hinduism in India—is perfectly capable of forming both the moral foundation and the national identity of an Islamic democracy in Iraq or anywhere else in the Arab and Muslim world.

Of course, considering how often Islam has been used to justify the brutally anti-pluralistic policies of the Taleban in Afghanistan, the Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia or the clerical oligarchy in Iran, it is hardly surprising that the notion of an "Islamic democracy" provokes scepticism in the west. Such sentiments are perhaps understandable given the disproportionate media attention we bestow upon tiny groups of Islamic militants.

But Islamic democracy is not an oxymoron, nor must it signify a kind of "theo-democracy." It means a modern constitutional state devoted to the fundamental principles of democracy—pluralism, human rights, the rule of law, the separation of powers, popular sovereignty—yet founded upon an Islamic moral framework. By definition, an Islamic democracy is one in which only the people can claim sovereignty. Those who argue that a state cannot be considered Islamic unless sovereignty rests in the hands of God are arguing that sovereignty should rest in the hands of the clergy. The function of the clergy in an Islamic democracy is not to rule, but to preserve and to reflect the morality of the state or the government. This does not mean the religious authorities should have no influence on the state. However, as with the role of preachers and priests in the US, bishops in England, or rabbis in Israel, such influence must be primarily moral, not political.

What is the place of Islamic law in an Islamic democracy? As with the Talmud in Israel, the Shari'a would above all else reflect the common national and religious identity of the people, not the jurisprudential whims of the clergy. It would, in other words, be one rather than the source of civil and family law. After all, even laws based on divine scripture require human interpretation in order to be applied in the world, and such interpretation in an Islamic democracy can only come from a single source, the consensus (ijma) of the community.

This is by no means an innovation in Islam. In fact, in its 1,400-year history, the Shari'a—itself the result of a marriage between local legal traditions, Islamic, Talmudic and Roman law—has never been the sole source of law in any Islamic polity. It is an undeniable historical fact that from the very genesis of the faith, the Shari'a has been in a constant state of evolution as Islam has responded to the social, cultural, political and temporal circumstances of the Muslim community.

The vast majority of the more than 1bn Muslims in the world readily accept the fundamental principles of democracy. What many of them do not necessarily accept, however, is the distinctly western notion that religion and the state should be entirely separate and that secularism must be the foundation of a democratic society. And since a state can be considered democratic only insofar as it reflects its society, if the society is founded upon a particular set of values, then must not its government be also?

These are not merely academic questions. If democracy is to have a chance in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, or anywhere else in the middle east, it cannot be imported from the west. Rather, it must be nurtured from within, founded upon familiar ideologies, built on indigenous moral values and presented in a language that is appealing to the populace. This means not only that Islam must play a role in defining the moral foundation of the state, but also that religious factions should be encouraged to participate in the political process. The primary difference between many of these Muslim organisations in the middle east and Christian evangelical organisations in the US, Orthodox political parties in Israel or Hindu nationalists in India is not in their aspirations—all of them want to spread their religious values—but in the access they have to the political realm. While religious opposition in the US, Israel and India has a free voice, even the most legitimate religious opposition in the middle east is often labelled as fundamentalist or terrorist and, consequently, denied any public forum to air its grievances.

Certainly there are extremist religious groups who will seek to use the language of Islam embedded in the Iraqi constitution to further their own agendas. They must be opposed. But when legitimate religious opposition is discouraged or outlawed, the unfortunate result is that it becomes radicalised. As the recent UN Arab Human Development Report concluded, the widespread lack of peaceful avenues for religious opposition in the Arab and Muslim world has become the underlying cause of religious extremism in the region.

In any case, it is absurd to think that the majority of Iraqis, or indeed Muslims, would choose an oppressive, illiberal theocracy over a liberal Islamic democracy. Islam may eschew secularism—the eradication of religion from public life—but it no way rejects political secularisation: what the Protestant theologian Harvey Cox defines as the inevitable historical process by which "certain responsibilities pass from ecclesiastical to political authorities."

Since the end of the colonial era, Islam has been invoked to legitimise and to overturn governments, to promote republicanism and justify monarchies, autocracies, oligarchies and theocracies. The question is: can Islam now be used to inspire democracy in Iraq, and, by extension, in the rest of the Arab and Muslim world? Not only can it do so; it must. Indeed, it is already doing so. But this is a process that has just begun. The road to a stable, pluralistic, secularising and liberal democracy is a long one. Iraq has only just embarked upon it.