The Bush administration is grappling with the real possibility that Iraq will most likely end up being an ‘Islamic democracy.’ Although U.S. civilian administrator Paul Bremer initially favored allowing Iraqis to decide for themselves the final shape and content of their constitution, he now says that the current draft of the constitution should make Islam ‘a source of inspiration for the law’ as opposed to being the main source. Asked what would happen if Iraqi leaders wrote into the constitution that Islamic sharia law is the principal basis of the law, Bremer suggested he would veto it. ‘Our position is clear. It can’t be law until I sign it,’ said Bremer. The threat of veto has angered Iraqis.
As an American-Muslim I am bemused at Bremer’s paranoia for I see no conflict between Islam and democracy. At the core of democracy lies the ideals of a representative government that safeguards the rights of all its citizens. It may come as a shock to many, but Islam’s idea of governance is not far from these ideals.
Democracy in essence calls for the accountability of governments to the governed. With accountability comes the right to elect governments. Election thus becomes the means to the goal of accountability, which it is assumed keeps a democratic society close to the ideals of justice and fairness.
Recently a reporter from San Jose Mercury Daniel Sneider toured Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. He reported that democratic values are not only flourishing in Indonesia but are being promoted and protected by practicing Muslims. This picture upholds the assertion made by Georgetown University’s John Voll and John Esposito, ‘Islamic heritage, in fact, contains concepts that provide a foundation for contemporary Muslims to develop authentically Islamic programs of democracy.’ Perhaps for this reason in theocratic Iran people are in ‘agony’ over hardliners who are blocking democratic reforms.
Just as Americans believe in governance based on a constitution, so do Muslims. The new Afghan constitution shows that the constitution of a Muslim nation can be democratic and yet not contradict with the essence of Islam. During my meeting with a high ranking Afghan delegation during their recent visit to the U.S., I was told that the Afghan constitution convention included Hindu delegates despite Hindus accounting for only one percent of the population. Contrast this with our own constitution convention that excluded women and blacks.
Islamic polity which began when Prophet Muhammad founded the first Islamic state in Madinah was based on a written constitutional foundation and pluralistic framework involving due rights and protection for all people. This constitution of Madinah is described by University of Richmond’s Azizah al-Hibri as ‘an early seventh century example of federalism. … Each tribe retained its identity, customs and internal relations. The federal system of Madinah was responsible, however, for such matters as common defense and peacemaking, purposes similar to those in the Preamble to the American Constitution.’ The constitution of Madinah also contained its own bill of rights including guarantees for the freedom of religion and not to be found guilty by association.
Islamic political system advocates mutual consultation described as shura in the Quran. Islamic scholars expound shura as containing three necessary elements – equal rights for all citizens, majority rule for public policy and upholding the ideals of justice and human dignity.
Prophet Muhammad on his deathbed was repeatedly asked to appoint a successor. His refusal to do so was clearly meant to send a message that it is up to the people to decide how they wish to be governed. Abu Bakr, the successor to Prophet Muhammad as the head of the Islamic state, was elected to his position. The process of electing a government, which is part of the true Islamic heritage, was usurped by later day rulers to suit their own parochial interests.
Instead of issuing threats that fuel misunderstanding between cultures, Bremer should nurture Iraq towards a government that is representative, transparent and accountable. If democratization makes Iraqis adopt Islamic Sharia as the main source of their law then so be it. In the same vein, it should be of no concern to us if any nation adopts the Christian Gospel or the Jewish Talmud as main the sources of their laws as long as democratization safeguards the equal rights of all citizens, upholds their human dignity and protects democracy from becoming a tyranny of the majority.