Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 September 2009
Issue No. 963
Interview
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In spite of Islam

Moataz-Bellah Abdel-Fattah explains to Gihan Shahine why democracy is severely lacking in Muslim-majority countries even though its principles are deeply-rooted in the basic tenets of Islam

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Moataz-Bellah Abdel-Fattah; People casting their votes in Muslim-majority countries

As a firm believer in the benefits of democracy, Moataz-Bellah Abdel-Fattah attempts to find answers to the tough question of whether the attitude of ordinary, educated Muslims constitutes a barrier to the adoption of democracy. Abdel-Fattah is the author of eight books and several academic and journalistic articles in Arabic and English, but what is interesting about Democratic Values in the Muslim World -- and was probably the reason why the study was chosen as one of the most outstanding books in 2006 by Choice Academic Review -- is the fact that Abdel-Fattah allowed Muslims to speak for themselves rather than draw conclusions about them by equating all Muslims to "a group of extremists and anti-modernity radicals" who, according to Abdel-Fattah, "have been very vocal in their criticism of democracy".

"I used several empirical tools, such as survey and focus-group discussions, to colour a picture that has been brush-stroked in black and white in the West thanks to the Western neo-orientalist scholarship that does not distinguish between different Muslim sub-cultures and societies," Abdel-Fattah said. "Colouring the picture of Muslims' perception of democracy is analogous to breaking down the big stereotypical picture into its original components."

The book concludes that Muslims are so diverse that they defy any one-size-fits-all characterisation regarding their attitudes towards democracy. Some Muslim societies are in a struggle between the sub-culture of "democracy-as-a-must" versus the sub- culture of "dictator... but" that justified autocracy (example: Pakistan and Algeria). Other Muslim societies (Turkey, Mali, and Malaysia) have already settled this debate by respecting democratic values and institutions. Other cultures, (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) still perceive democracy as an alien concept or a solution to a problem they do not have.

"Other countries have a more complicated political culture," Abdel-Fattah said. "Egyptians, for instance, have general acceptance of democracy and give it lip service, yet they are not ready to sacrifice for it. But if the political elite decide to move forward towards a real liberal state, Egyptians would not object."

At the individual level, whether Muslims are supportive of democracy, personal experiences and perceived benefits of democratisation play an important role in shaping Muslim attitudes towards democracy.

"We can conclude, then, that Muslims are not passionately and irrationally anti- democratic as the popular media and some scholars in the West have often implied, but rather they are conditioned to viewing democracy with positive expectations or scepticism," Abdel-Fattah noted.

This lack of democracy is, perhaps, one reason why the Muslim umma is lagging behind in many aspects of development. The Muslim umma, said Abdel-Fattah, is generally suffering from what scholars call "civilisation abyss". "We are not as we are supposed to be, given our resources and potential," Abdel-Fattah stated matter-of-factly.

The picture may look alarming, if figures are anything to go by. Countries with Muslim majorities make up 25 per cent of the world but are responsible for 50 per cent of the world's non-democracies, according to Abdel-Fattah. International human rights reports indicate that 70 per cent of the world's political prisoners are Muslims.

A country like the US (which represents five per cent of the world's population) produces 20 per cent of world gross product, while China constitutes seven per cent of the world's economy. The Muslim contribution stands as low as 3.5 per cent of world gross product, all despite the fact that their number is the same like that of China, and four times larger than that of the United States. "With few exceptions, spending on education, research and development in the Islamic world is in the order of below the global average," Abdel-Fattah told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Although some Muslim countries like Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, and to a lesser extent Senegal and Mali, have restored their civilisational direction through taking steady steps towards modern education, democratisation and economic development, the real challenge is in the Arab world, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, central Asia and Muslim minorities in other African and Asian countries. "That is where we are very close to bottom," Abdel-Fattah said. "This last group of countries are plagued by the diseases of fake modernisation such as urbanisation without industrialisation, verbal education without productive training, secularisation without scientification (ie decline of religious ethics without the rise of science and respect for law), and capitalist greed without capitalist discipline and spirit."

Abdel-Fattah heartily argues that democratisation is the only way Muslims can catch up with the Western civilisation since "it empowers people and fights corruption. Once the West managed to adopt one form of democracy or other, they moved ahead with higher levels of development, progress, scientific leaps and so on.

"Most modern inventions and discoveries that exist in the West have equivalents in the Muslim world," Abdel-Fattah argued. "Yet, there is one invention missing: democracy."

Whereas the Western mindset tends to blame Islam for why democracy is largely missing in Muslim-majority countries, Abdel-Fattah argues that Muslims have reached that state of degeneration by simply not adhering to the true tenets of Islam.

"I firmly believe the catalogue of development and progress has basic similar principles in terms of fighting corruption, despotism and mediocrity; and endorsing equality, fairness, efficiency, meritocracy, plurality of decision-making and ethics," Abdel-Fattah explained. "Muslims do not live up to the teachings of their religion and for sure have not taken the path of what is now traditionally known as democratic developmental states."

Abdel-Fattah insisted that, at the theoretical level, an enlightened reading of Islam would "definitely find lots of support for democracy in the basic tenets of Islam and the early praxis of the Prophet and his companions." Democracy- friendly aspects of Islam include shura (decision after deliberation), ijtihad (independent reasoning), racial equality, Islam's sensitivity to the needs of the poor and weak, respect for order, and Islam's great sense of justice, according to Abdel-Fattah.

At the historical level, Abdel-Fattah continued, "Muslims have their own founding fathers who were very conscientious about applying Islamic teachings, such as the first two caliphs who accepted advice, criticism and gave great examples of ethical rule." That kind of what Abdel-Fattah terms "ethical governance" shows how Islam as a religion "does not lack the ethical paradigm necessary for good governance".

However, the problem, as Abdel-Fattah sees it, is that religious holy texts are usually subject to contested interpretations. "Conservative Islamists and scholars usually emphasise elements that can be "democracy-challenging" such as focussing on tawheed (oneness of God) as piety- focussed doctrine vs democracy as a people-focussed doctrine, treating democratic institutions as bedaa (disguised innovation), emphasising ijmaa that delegitimises dissent and opposition, underscoring some decontextualised texts that argue for the unequal status of women and non- Muslims in Islam, and their narrow interpretation of Islamic Sharia." Abdel-Fattah said all these aspects are barriers towards true democratisation. But the major challenge, for Abdel-Fattah, remains that "these debates have not been solved in theory among various schools of thought and Muslim leaders are left to choose among them and eventually democracy becomes the victim of these religious and political contestations."

The story goes back to the first century of Islam, according to Abdel-Fattah. When the Omayyads took over the Caliphate, they converted the "ethical system" of the first two caliphs into a more "monarchic" type of governance where there was not much room for opposition or freedom of expression. What made this situation last, Abdel-Fattah chronicled, "was the role played by most Muslim scholars at the time who favoured autocratic stability over violent schisms ( fitna ). They came up with verdicts and opinions that justified autocracy and construed it as if it were part of Islam itself."

Things went from bad to worse when Muslim scholars were introduced to democracy again in the 20th century. "It came as a package: nation-state vs the caliphate, secularism vs the Sharia and democracy vs shura. The great majority of Muslim scholars and Islamists at the time declined the package."

Things, however, have changed over the past 20 years. "More sophisticated minds are differentiating between these aspects and increasingly perceive democracy as a modern application of shura rather than its substitute," Abdel-Fattah said.

That change, however, seems hardly seen in the West. Abdel-Fattah said that there is a widespread understanding among the masses in the West that Muslims are backward because of their religious beliefs. "More sympathetic Westerners think that Muslims live in the Dark Ages (like Europe in the 14th century). In their minds, Islam is 600 years younger than Christianity and they think Muslims caught the 14th century European diseases of extremism, autocracy and the like."

Such public ignorance of Islam in the West has been largely blamed for the recent rise of Islamophobia and anti- Muslim sentiments. Hate crimes like the recent murder of the hijab -martyr Marwa El-Sherbini at the hands of a Russian-German terrorist in a German court and the burning of a Muslim imam to death in his house in the state of California are all seen as cases in point.

Commenting on the incidents, Abdel-Fattah made reference to Edward Said's famed book Clash of Ignorance. "Ignorant extremists in the West penalise innocent Muslims for the wrongdoing of other Muslims," Abdel-Fattah said. "Likewise, ignorant extremists in the Muslim world terrorise innocent Westerners under the pretext of Islamic slogans. A vicious circle of racism and terrorism ensues."

But for Islam not to be regarded as a threat by the West or, in some cases, by Arab regimes, Abdel-Fattah suggested it should remain "above politics; that is, it should not be used as a political tool in the hands of some political groups and not others. Any religion, once politicised, becomes a major source of political instability." Abdel-Fattah added however that "clear and authentic verdicts of Islam should be respected by all political groups and parties and should not be violated."

"Constitutionally speaking, these kinds of Islamic verdicts should be supra-constitutional articles that cannot be amended or amended with a very special majority," Abdel-Fattah elaborated. "For instance, freedom of expression, banning gambling and other agreed upon teachings of Islam should not be subject to political debate."

But Abdel-Fattah would also blame the attitude of some Muslims for the widespread Western misconceptions about Islam. In this vein, he quoted the prominent Sheikh Mohamed El-Ghazali: "Muslims are like a thick barrier between the world and their religion."

"After living in the West for quite some time," Abdel-Fattah said, "I can argue that we Muslims do not act according to the great principles of Islam. Yet Westerners think that we behave wrongly because of Islam, not despite it. The terrorist attack of 11 September is a good case at hand."

Concerning 9/11, it remains arguable whether Muslims will now fare better under the new US administration. President Barack Obama's repeated messages of reconciliation and his empathetic Cairo speech, which showed great respect for Islamic culture, has, no doubt, inspired hope that at least stereotypical views of Muslims and anti-Muslim sentiments will soon change.

Abdel-Fattah, however, provides a less optimistic outlook on the issue. "Obama knows what he has to do to serve American interests," Abdel-Fattah said, quickly adding that "the US president also knows that he cannot win a war against all Muslims."

Abdel-Fattah's logic goes as follows: "It is self-defeating to unify one's enemies against oneself. It is better to differentiate between peaceful Muslims and extremists. Thus, his [Obama's] agenda is to create a broad alliance of Muslims and Muslim countries against their common enemies: the Islamist terrorist. Terrorism is a tree that thrives in a forest of anti- American hatred. His message is meant to dilute this hatred so as to isolate the trees of terrorism in order not to have to deal with a whole forest of extremism. Yet, political elites in most Muslim countries and most Muslims would buy this pro- Islamic rhetoric because they do not want to be in a constant struggle with the US."

That said, Abdel-Fattah argues that "if Arab countries seize the moment and build on President Obama's peace agenda for the Arab-Israeli conflict, there will be a plausible window of opportunity." His logic is that to wage war, the decision can be made by only one side, but to have a settlement, one needs several partners with a similar agenda. But although Abdel-Fattah can see light at the end of the tunnel, he regrets that, up till now, there is yet no tunnel since "these partners are not ready; neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians."

For the negative image of Islam to change, Muslims must work collectively in that direction. Scholars from Al-Azhar, independent preachers and perhaps international Islamic organisations should all "work according to some sort of strategy to create awareness among Muslims of what their true religion is.

"This will help improve the situation on the ground," Abdel-Fattah suggested. "When things improve on the ground, we will have a good case to make. We cannot persuade others that we are good just by talking about ourselves. They have to find enough evidence in support of our self-ascribed virtues. An American colleague of mine visited Cairo among other cities in the region. He described Cairo as 'dirty, dusty and disorganised' compared to Tel Aviv, for instance. Before trying to market ourselves to others as civilised people, we have to do our homework in-house first."

Muslims living in Western countries also need to better integrate in Western societies -- which, for many, remains a daunting task."

"Most Muslims in the West behave as if they were 'economic citizens'," noted Abdel-Fattah. "They want to be under the radar, keep their traditions (good and bad) and close down the gates of cultural influence. This strategy eventually produces a backlash among the second generation of Muslims who rebel against their families and their traditions alike. That is where a paradigm shift is necessary. Muslims in the West need to understand what it means to be a Western Muslim, not just a Muslim in Europe or North America."

Moataz-Bellah Abdel-Fattah is a leading expert on Middle Eastern politics and Islamic studies and an associate professor of political science at Central Michigan University in the US and Cairo University in Egypt. He is the author of eight books and several academic and journalistic articles in Arabic and English. His book Democratic Values in the Muslim World (Lynn Reinner, 2006) was chosen as one of the most outstanding books in 2006 by Choice Academic Review.

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