The Islamic State: An Alternative to Democracy and Secularism?

Posted in Democracy , Other | 11-Jan-05 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Prayers in a Mosque.

To many Europeans, the trend toward a political Islam that can be seen these days in the United Kingdom is purely of an Islamic fundamentalist nature, and it therefore poses a threat to the values and principles they stand for. The European policy of the separation of church and state as well as friendliness toward immigrants coming here to enjoy a better life is at serious risk. Some Muslims who live in Europe are not interested in adapting and respecting the laws of the country they live in, but instead would like to adapt the system to suit their own political views on Islam and Sharia law. However, we should keep in mind - as a terrorism expert once stated - that not all Muslims are Arabs, not all Arabs are fundamentalists and not all fundamentalists are terrorists. Nevertheless, when moderate Muslims remain silent, extremists speak for all. In today's world, dialogue is a must and on each side, we should engage the moderate voices in discussion.

The Muslim world feels offended by the West's triumphant culture, backed up by its overwhelming military force. Some Muslims interpret this as a new Crusade. The West and the Islamic world are out of touch with each other. Before the West can effectively convey its intentions, it must understand what is happening in the Arab and Muslim world today. This involves active listening to voices from the region and engaging with them in sustained dialog. Policy toward the Islamic world need not be obsessed with Islamic fundamentalism. Instead, it should address some of the root causes of terrorism like the suffering of the Palestinians, the unequal distribution of resources and the absence of legitimate and genuinely participatory political authority in the Arab world. The exclusion of Muslim and Arab people from active participation in political life undermines political stability in the Middle East and the Islamic world and endangers the spread of the values that the European Union and the United States are strongly promoting within the region.

Political Islam, or Islamism, is defined broadly as the belief that the Koran and the Hadith (traditions of the Prophet's life) have something important to say about how society and governance should be ordered. It remains the most powerful ideological force in most Muslim communities. The Islamist phenomenon is hardly uniform; multiple forms of it are spreading, evolving and diversifying. We can find Islamists who may be either radical or moderate, political or apolitical, violent or pacifist, traditional or modernist and democratic or authoritarian: From the oppressive Taliban of Afghanistan, to Egypt's mainstream conservative parliamentary party, the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey's democratic and modernist AKP Party. It is a very diverse socio-political environment.

In the last years, the debate over the liberation and the democratization of the Muslim and Arab world took shape in various ways: The invasion of Iraq, UN Resolution 1559 directed at Syria, EU negotiations with Iran over nuclear issues and Turkey's attempt to join the EU.

Although many voices call for a secular political system in the Arab countries, there are also voices calling for the establishment of an Islamic state in the shape of a Caliphate, either in Europe or the Middle East. The Caliphate is the Islamic political ruling system that takes place in the form of a state. For Muslims, Islam is not only a religious creed, but also a political system with distinct social and economic rules. Muslims who adhere to this trend, especially those Muslims living in the UK - see Islam as an alternative to liberal democracy and a secular state. According to these voices, the solution for Muslims in Europe and the United States is not integration into a secular society or isolation from society; instead, they see the need to integrate with non-Muslim communities with the aim of changing the present political system. Some actually say that integration into secularism is apostasy of Islam.

Now, if this were true (and it is!) than the worst fear of Europeans would come true: The people who they warmly accepted in their society are no longer content with that respective society, and are therefore trying to reshape it in accordance with an Islamic model. This fact raises two issues: First, the European response to such a declaration and second the fact that this Islamic model has no correlative whatsoever in the contemporary world. There also is a new version of Dar Al Islam emerging that is taking on the meaning of a global spreading of Islam. Does this not imply that this Dar Al Islam would be nothing more than a new totalitarianism?

After the end of the Islamic order of the Caliphs in 1924, superficial states were created by the European colonial powers. Today's Arab and Muslim leaders hold on to power by oppressing their own peoples. Influenced by dictators and authoritarian leaders, many Muslim communities still believe that the Christian crusaders together with Jewish conspirators are to be blamed for their social poverty, political and economic failure and for the Western invasion of their spiritual world. To these people, the only feasible alternative is the establishment of an Islamic state.

However, we cannot stop wondering: What about the pursuit of knowledge, or `ilm and human innovation that the Prophet Mohammed preached of? It is odd that two of the most religious countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran are not following the Koran's rules. They have imposed censorship on everything from books, to TV talk shows and even Internet websites. Without access to information and education how can a person pursue knowledge? The answer is that it is simply impossible. A UNDP report states that 2/3 of the Arab population is illiterate, and even those who can read do not have access to Western literature, because everything is censored in the Arab world. Can it be then, that religion does not stand for a true believer?

Since freedom is still a taboo in the Arab world, after the 1970s the message became widely spread that the only solution is Islam. Muslims who want the establishment of an Islamic state claim that their belief in God, or Allah, is based on reason. Hence, Islam is established on rational thought, rather than emotional or blind faith. Therefore, God - not man - defines what is moral and what is immoral, what is legal and what is illegal. Islam is defined as the total submission to the Creator, thus it is submission to God's political, economic and social system as revealed in the Koran. The Islamic state in the shape of a Caliphate will replace the capitalist democratic regimes that they consider to be a failure and the cause of the world's major problems, be it the Arab or Muslim countries or the Western ones.

Is democracy the cause of today's insecurity, poverty and terrorism? Disillusionment with democracy may exist because the democracies that replaced military rule in Latin America or the oppressive authoritarian regimes in the Middle East are not able to deliver the promised economic growth overnight. In order to have constant financial growth, these countries need proper economic policies, thus a judicial system that encourages foreign investment.

While it is clear that the Middle East region needs to be reformed, it is equally clear that democratization should not be imposed. Moreover, promoting democracy may be risky, but propping up autocrats only delays the day of reckoning with popular anger. Throughout the Cold War, the US backed authoritarian regimes like the Shah's in Iran, which put America on the wrong side of a genuinely popular uprising against tyranny, the Shiite revolution in 1979. America has been paying the price in the form of being the target of terrorism, hostility and striving to prevent nuclear proliferation ever since. Even if the governments that will arise in the region will be Islamists, it is better to have them in office - making mistakes, learning the disciplines of serving electorates - than to back autocracies that neglect the will and the welfare of their people. The ruling party in Turkey is Islamic, however its goal of joining the EU has made its Islamism more moderate, thus making it possible to accept democracy and capitalism. The US and the EU can promote, encourage and sustain democracy, but they cannot impose it.

For some the notion of an Islamic state in the form of a Caliphate may be a ridiculous thought, but it is part of the Muslim way of thinking just as democracy is part of the Western way of thinking. Why not democracy? Why not a secular state? The answers to these questions are that:

1) Change would involve social movements, groups that ask for political participation as would be the case for women in Saudi Arabia, Iranian youth etc. and this would mean the end of the ruling elites as we know them; such a change is not desired or allowed by the authoritarian leaders who would have nothing to gain, but everything to lose if reforms take place;

2) Democracy in the eyes of many Muslim communities answers largely to the interests of a financial oligarchy, and thus it does not respect the fair share of wealth or the Sharia Law as the Koran commands.

Many Muslims view the situation in Ukraine, Zimbabwe and Sudan as an attempt by the US to replace the existing regimes with pro-Western ones (Ukraine) or merely the pursuit of financial interests (oil) and control over natural resources (diamonds) with the help of the rebels, as in the case of Zimbabwe.

Muslims from the UK sustain that since we have already tested democracy and we have seen where it took us, now it is time to establish an Islamic state based on the Caliphate system that was implemented for over 1400 years and has brought peace to nations. Muslims and non-Muslims lived in harmony, and the respect for each and every human being was promoted.

The stages of implementing an Islamic state in the shape of a Caliphate would be the following:

  • Establishment of a global Islamic political party
  • Seek intellectual and financial support for such an imposing plan
  • Seek the necessary military or armed support in the Muslim world

Nevertheless, the concept of secularism exists in the Arab and Muslim world. In the last decade, it has become more and more common to discuss the fact that Islam is perhaps not the answer to everything nor should it be since it is a religion and like any other religion, it reaches out to our soul, rather than to our sense of reason. None of us have seen or touched God, or Allah, but some do believe in these religious figures. Thus, our belief is not based on rational proof.

The challenge of globalization has brought an open forum of discussion on secularism and capitalism, even in Muslim countries that were at first reluctant. The link between Islam and government rule is historical, rather than religious. The Caliphs have become kings, thus their authority did not come from God but rather from the people they have governed. The religion of the state continued to be Islamic, but the state was not Islamic. Although religion played a major role during the Caliphs' rule, nationalist feelings prevailed even back then. It is true that the Islamic law, or Sharia, coordinated the interaction and relationship between the monarchs and the people; however, it was no longer a religious establishment. With the reforms taken by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 20th century in Turkey, state and religion became even more separated than in the past.

Contemporary Turkey is an example of how a secular state can exist with a majority of the population being Muslim. As a religion of peace, Islam should allow people to make their own choices. If a person chooses to accept the Islamic political and economic system, then so be it, but if the majority of Muslims would be willing to live in a democratic and liberal state, then fundamentalist groups should accept this decision and do their best to fit in.

At this point in time, the Arab and Muslim world needs secularism or a civic government; a political system in which people have the right to participate in an active civil society that acts as a partner with rights and responsibilities together with the government. In a secular state there can be certain concessions, such as allowing people to follow Islamic family law, based on Islamic Sharia law.

Maybe what people in the region need even more than democracy is freedom. Freedom to make their own choices and build a future that better suits their socio-economic and political interests. Imposing democracy upon them will never be successful - neither for them, nor for us.

Article based on the interviews with Yaser Fasel Nazir, a student of Pakistani descendants born in the UK who is a youth leader and Imam at Bradford University, and Mahmoud Youness a religious youth leader from Beirut, Lebanon.