In a passionate debate on Islam organised recently by the Benador Associates, Mr. Amir Taheri, a veteran Iranian journalist and writer claimed, presenting the audience with numerous and exciting examples, that Islam is “incompatible” with democracy.
However, he tactfully added: “To say that Islam is incompatible with democracy should not be seen as a disparagement of Islam. On the contrary, many Muslims would see it as a compliment because they sincerely believe that their idea of rule by God is superior to that of rule by men, which is democracy”.
In the debate on Islam and Democracy published on 19 May by the Paris-based “Iran va Jahan” (Iran and the world) website, Mr. Taheri started by pointing out that there was no word “in any of the Muslim languages” for democracy until the 1890s.
Here are large excerpts of Mr. Taheri’s remarks.
“Democracy as the proverbial schoolboy would know is based on one fundamental principle: equality. The Greek word for equal, isos is used in more than 200 compound nouns; including isoteos (equality) and Isologia (equal or free speech) and isonomia (equal treatment). But again we find no equivalent in any of the Muslim languages. The words we have such as barabari in Persian and sawiyah in Arabic mean juxtaposition or levelling”, he said.
Nor do we have a word for politics.
The Greek word for equal, isos is used in more than 200 compound nouns; including isoteos (equality) and Isologia (equal or free speech) and isonomia (equal treatment). But again we find no equivalent in any of the Muslim languages.
The word siassah, now used as a synonym for politics, initially meant whipping stray camels into line.( Sa'es al-kheil is a person who brings back lost camels to the caravan). The closest translation may be: regimentation.
Nor is there mention of such words as government and the state in the Koran.
Let us return to the issue of equality, an idea that is unacceptable to Islam, a religion where the non-believer cannot be the equal of the believer.
“Even among the believers only those who subscribe to the three so-called Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Ahl el-Kitab) are regarded as fully human”, the speaker said, adding, after presenting the audience about the hierarchy of “human worth in Islam”:
The People of the Book have always been protected and relatively well treated by Muslim rulers, but often in the context of a form of apartheid known as dhimmitude.
The status of the rest of humanity, those whose faiths are not recognised by Islam or who have no faith at all, has never been spelled out although wherever Muslim rulers faced such communities they often treated them with a certain measure of tolerance and respect (As in the case of Hindus under the Muslim dynasties of India).
Non-Muslims can, and have often been, treated with decency, but never as equals.
Democracy means the rule of the demos, the common people, or what is now known as popular or national sovereignty. In Islam, however, power belongs only to God: al-hukm l'illah. The man who exercises that power on earth is known as Khalifat al-Allah, the regent of God….But the bottom line is that no Islamic government can be democratic in the sense of allowing the common people equal shares in legislation.
To say that Islam is incompatible with democracy should not be seen as a disparagement of Islam. On the contrary, many Muslims would see it as a compliment because they sincerely believe that their idea of rule by God is superior to that of rule by men, which is democracy…..
Many Islamist thinkers regard democracy with horror. The late Ayatollah (Rouhollah) Khomeini called democracy " a form of prostitution" because he who gets the most votes wins the power that belongs only to God. Sayyed Qutub, the Egyptian who has emerged as the ideological mentor of Salafists, spent a year in the United States in the 1950s, where he found "a nation that has forgotten God and been forsaken by Him; an arrogant nation that wants to rule itself".
Last year Yussuf al-Ayyeri, one of the leading theoreticians of today's Islamist movement, published a book (available on the Internet) in which he warned that the real danger to Islam did not come from American tanks and helicopter gunship in Iraq but from the idea of democracy and rule by the people.
To say that Islam is incompatible with democracy should not be seen as a disparagement of Islam. On the contrary, many Muslims would see it as a compliment because they sincerely believe that their idea of rule by God is superior to that of rule by men, which is democracy
The late Saudi theologian, Sheikh Muhammad bin Ibrahim al-Jubair, a man I respected though seldom agreed with, sincerely believed that the root cause of all of our contemporary ills was the spread of democracy. "Only one ambition is worthy of Islam", he liked to say, "the ambition to save the world from the curse of democracy: to teach men that they cannot rule themselves on the basis of manmade laws. Mankind has strayed from the path of God, we must return to that path or face certain annihilation".
Thus those who claim that Islam is compatible with democracy should know that they are not flattering Muslims…..
In the past 14 centuries Muslims have, on occasions, succeeded in creating successful societies without democracy. The fact that almost all Muslim states today can be rated as failures or, at least, underachievers, is not because they are Islamic but because they are ruled by corrupt and despotic elites that, even when they proclaim an Islamist ideology, are, in fact, secular dictators.
Traditional Islamic political thought is closer to Socrates than to Protagoras, for, the common folk, al-awwam, are regarded as "animals "(al-awwam kal anaam!). Political power, like many other domains, including philosophy, is reserved for the “khawas" who, in some Sufi traditions, are even exempt from the ritual rules of the faith.
The "common folk", however, must do as they are told either by the text and tradition or by fatwas issued by the experts. Khomeini coined the word "mustazafeen" (the feeble ones) to describe the common folk.
Polytheism is by its pluralistic nature tolerant, open to new gods, and new views of old gods. Its mythology personifies natural forces that could be adapted, by allegory, to metaphysical concepts. This is not possible in monotheism especially Islam, the only truly monotheistic of the three Abrahamic faiths.
The God of monotheism does not discuss or negotiate matters with mortals.
He dictates, be it the 10 Commandments or the Koran which was already composed and completed before Allah sent his Hermes, Archangel Gabriel, to dictate it to Muhammad: Read, the Koran starts with the command; In the name of Thy God The Most High!
Islam's incompatibility with democracy is not unique. It is shared by other religions. For faith is about certainty while democracy is about doubt. There is no changing of one's mind in faith, while democracy is about changing minds and sides.
Democracy, of course, is compatible with Islam because democracy is serial and polytheistic. People are free to believe whatever they like to believe and perform whatever religious rituals they wish, provided they do not infringe on other's freedoms in the public domain.
The other way round, however, it does not work.
Islam cannot allow people to do as they please, even in the privacy of their bedrooms, because God is always present, everywhere, all-hearing and all-seeing.
There is consultation in Islam: Wa shawerhum fil amr (And consult them in matters). But the consultation thus recommended is about specifics only, never about the overall design of society.
In democracy there is a constitution that can be changed or at least amended. The Koran, however, is the immutable word of God, beyond change or amendment.
Observing that the debate has been made more difficult because of Islam becoming an issue of political controversy in the West, Mr. Taheri said: On the one hand we have Islamophobia, a particular affliction of those who blame Islam for all the ills of our world. On the other hand we have Islamoflattery that claims that everything good under the sun came from Islam. (According to a recent PBS serial on Islam, even cinema was invented by a lens-maker in Baghdad, named Abu-Hufus!)
Depriving Islam of critical scrutiny is bad for Islam and Muslims, and ultimately dangerous for the whole world.
There are 57 nations in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Not one is yet a democracy and the more Islamic the regime in place the less democratic it is.
If we are all the same how can we have a dialogue of civilisations, unless we elevate cultural schizophrenia into an existential imperative.
Muslims should not be duped into believing that they can have their cake and eat it. Muslims can build democratic society provided they treat Islam as a matter of personal, private belief and not as a political ideology that seeks to monopolise the pubic space and regulate every aspect of individual and community life. ENDS AMIR TAHERI 21504
Editor’s note: Editing and highlights are by IPS