On Islam and Democracy

There has been a never-ending debate about whether or not democracy would be compatible with Islam and vice versa. Many people have expressed their opinion on this. Lately, an Iranian band, Kiosk, have written a song calling religious democracy (i.e. Islamic democracy, in their particular case), “Pizza-ye Ghormeh Sabzi” (a funny and nonsensical mixture of a Western meal, pizza, and a traditional Iranian plate, Ghormeh Sabzi, which is a stew).

Before saying what I really think about the compatibility of Islam and democracy, I would like to distinguish two different contexts in which the two might clash.

The first case is one in which an Islamist party is to function as a political force, and potentially get a popular mandate for governance. The latest events in Turkey, where the moderately-Islamist party AKP was to gain control over the country’s presidency is one such example. Another example would be the election of Hamas in Palestine by popular vote.

In both such cases the process in which these parties were elected was completely democratic. If these parties do not violate the principles of a democratic constitution (which is likely to include some secular principles) their power will be completely legitimate, and their access to political influence would not be a violation of the principles of democracy, but an example where they are being very well-applied. Democracy is a system of government in which the rulers are selected by popular vote. A democratic constitution must allow for any party of any background to have access to power, that includes an Islamist party.

The suggestions by some that Islamist governments are illegitimate and undemocratic is absolute bullcrap and has no relevance whatsoever. A governing body in Turkey or Palestine gets its mandate from the majority Muslim population of those countries and not leaders of the so-called civilized nations of the West or their mouthpieces.

The second case in which democracy and Islam may come into contact is, as is the case in the Islamic Republic of Iran, at the moment where basic laws and regulations of the state are to be defined in the constitution. It is at this level where Islam and democracy are, in my opinion, significantly at odds.

Basically, in a democracy the governing body is elected by popular vote and is to apply the rules defined by the people of a nation as the fundamental terms of their social and political association. In Shari’a, however, the sovereign is the person who has access to God’s orders and is to apply them in society and make sure society functions on the basis of those God-given principles. The person who has such a privilege is called Velayat-e Faqih in Shi’ism. So in this type of government, the society functions not on the basis of social conventions, but how Velayat-e faqih reads, understands, interprets and applies the Almighty’s orders.

How can the sovereign get its mandate at the same time form God and the nation? That is the central dilemma and the topic of the debate. The Islamic Republic’s approach is a system in which Velyat-e Faqih (or the Supreme Leadership) has the ultimate say in all matters, while the nation gets CONSULTED on a large number of, but not all, issues.

A closer look at the constitution of the Islamic Republic would reveal a circularity with Velayat-e Faqih at the center and the people running constantly, and in vain, around the circumference. Here’s how it works:

1. In the Islamic Republic, the legislator is the parliament (or ‘Majlis’) whose members are elected by citizens.

2. Members of the parliament have to be approved by the Guardian Council before the elections on the basis of their loyalty to the Islamic Republic Constitution and Velayat-e Faqih, as well as some personal qualifications (e.g. education, etc.)

3. The member of the Guardian Council are selected directly by Velayat-e Faqih and consist of 6 lawyers and 6 clergymen.

4. The bills passed by the parliament have to be approved by the Gurdian Council on the basis of their agreement with the Constitution and the rule of Velayat-e Faqih.

5. Velayat-e Faqih itself is selected by the Assembly of Experts, composed of clergymen, elected through popular vote.

6. As is the case in the Parliamentary elections as well as municipal etc., the potential candidates for the membership of the Assembly of Experts must be approved by the Guardian Council.

In summary, the source of all laws and regulations in the Islamic Republic is Velayat-e Faqih which is selected by the elected Assembly of Experts. But the candidates for the Assembly of Experts have to be clergymen AND indirectly (through the Guardian Council) approved by Velayat-e Faqih before election. In other words, one Valy-e Faqih (the Supreme Leader, currently Khamenei) selects the next one, despite all the elections.

The Islamic Republic may not be the best example of the concurrence of Islam and democracy, but the tension and circularity evident in its Constitution shows that Islam and democracy may never be a happy couple without serious compromises on the part of one or the other or both.

That said, if the people of Iran where to elect a party to power today under a democratic and non-Islamic system, it would likely be an Islamist (and perhaps ironically socialist) party. And that wold be completely legitimate for a country where Islam is the religion of the vast majority and has run deep in many people’s beliefs and worldview. The secular intellectuals are and have always been out of touch with the masses, giving room to smarter extremists to maneuver.

The possibility of an Islamist party in power, governing on the basis of a democratic and somewhat secular constitution is the only real and sustainable alternative that can be offered to any Islamic nation from Turkey to Iran to Saudi Arabia to Pakistan to Indonesia and so on. Indeed, the AKP has done an excellent job in Turkey and will continue to do so if not suppressed by the secular fascists.

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One response to “On Islam and Democracy

  1. A democratically elected islamic “party”, like Hamas, have certainly got legitimacy to govern.
    Democracy, however, is not about the absolute power of the majority, but rather the right for everyone to be heard.

    The question to be asked,then, is whether an islamic party in power will infact respect the rights of the minority, and not force their views upon them. That question is off course even more relevant when you know that the party’s ideology is based on the same “ideology” on which Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, like is the case with Hamas and it’s charter.

    I, for one, certainly have faith in a democratically elected government in Iran, knowing the Iranian people.

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