Richard W. Bulliet, a professor of history at Columbia University, is the author of “The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization”
The New York Times
October 4, 2012
If democracy is to be born in the Muslim world, religious political parties will be the midwives.
Elections do not necessarily mean democracy, of course. Most majority-Muslim countries, including monarchies like Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco, hold elections. Usually nationalist regimes instituted them, and nationalist leaders transformed them into instruments of dictatorship, partly by banning religious parties.
Muslim political parties have been the strongest and most consistent force urging genuinely free elections in majority-Muslim nations.
The question is whether a Muslim party, once elected, would inevitably make a mockery of that process by creating a religious dictatorship.The question in both the Western and the Muslim world, however, is whether a Muslim party, once elected, would inevitably make a mockery of that process by creating a religious dictatorship.
After all, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 brought into being an Islamic Republic that seemed only a veil for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s religious autocracy. Elections were held, but only candidates wedded to a religious government could run.
Iran is a failed model, however. Not only was it a product of Shi’ite political thought, which Sunni thinkers are loath to follow, but also no one knows who’s in charge – the elected president or the unelected “supreme leader.” Today even Shi’ite leaders outside Iran shun the phrase.
Muslim thinkers have long argued that fundamental Islamic texts dealing with consultation and representation support both constitutional government and elections. These arguments have gained wide acceptance, along with commitment to pluralist systems in which anyone can run for office and losers peacefully turn over power to their successors.
Is Islam compatible with democracy? Decidedly so. Does Islam encourage democratic government? No more than does any other religious tradition. But individual Muslim leaders do find in their faith the resources to sustain a commitment to elections and pluralism.
In and of itself, Islam does not prescribe a governing form. What is crucial is that more and more Muslims believe in both their religion and democracy.