a patriot

“In a monarchy, the king and his family are the country; in a republic it is the common voice of the people. Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak. And it is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of pulpit, press, government, or the empty catch-phrases of politicians. Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn’t. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may. If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country — hold up your head! You have nothing to be ashamed of.”  – Mark Twain from Part VI: “Two Fragments from a Suppressed Book Called ‘Glances at History’ or ‘Outlines of History’ “

"The Limits to Conceptualizing Islam and Democracy as a Stark Dichotomy"

An independent research paper I wrote, completed June 10, 2009.

SINCE the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the issue concerning many political theorists has been the international ramifications of the global Islamization movement.   The terrorist attacks on World Trade Center brought this question to the forefront of international political debate.  The growing ideological frenzy following the traumatic event is most notably characterized by the embrace of the theory that Islamization was simply a consequence of what Samuel Huntington describes as the “clash of civilizations.”[1]  The growing political influence of Islam around the world has thus led to discussions around its compatibility with democracy and modernization.  One of the principal problems plaguing this debate is the way in which people have to conceptualize the terms themselves.  Instead of providing an engagement with them, they are often treated as having a singular, inflexible definition.

While Huntington acknowledges his use of broad generalizations for the purposes of theorizing the current state of international affairs in the post-Cold War era, many of his explanations are not only misleading, but also utterly groundless.[2]  In particular, he describes in depth the fundamental incompatibility of Western civilization[3] with that of Muslims.  The Muslim women’s rights movement most fully exemplifies the problems within Huntington’s assertion.  The emergence of a global Muslim women’s rights movement challenges conceptions of Islam on various fronts.  These activists demand a complete reexamination of the religion itself, in a manner that questions many basic religious tenets.  By arguing on the basis that Islam is a faith grounded on universal justice and practical compassion, they can fight for a new kind of Islam that necessitates equal treatment for all humans, including women.  Most importantly however, is the methodology of Muslim feminists who ground their activism within the re-interpretation of the core holy text of Islam, the Qur’an.  What does this ultimately mean for an Islamic state, which asserts that it employs the truest understanding and interpretation of Islam?

The Muslim feminist movement is one of the more potent threats to the current patriarchal Islamic governments because it is rooted in the most fundamental core of the Islamic faith.  The implications of this are extensive.  Most importantly however, is the fact that Muslim feminists essentially challenge the legitimacy of Islamic legal and political systems.  Muslim feminists create new arenas for understanding and interpreting the fundamentals of the faith in a way that not only challenges the shari’ah[4] laws, but the entire system of religious interpretation and practice.  Such implications of this global movement should put into question the misinformed conclusions of scholars like Huntington who resort to oversimplified understandings of important complex concepts.

Since the death of Muhammad in 632 AD, Muslims have struggled to agree on what it means to be a true Muslim. From the core disagreements over the future of the caliphate,[5] and the following split between Sunni and Shii’a Muslims, there have been various disagreements over interpretations of the Qur’an and hadith.[6]  New movements have continued to emerge and evolve throughout its history asserting that their faith alone was the most righteous form of Islam.  This tendency for theological fragmentation is certainly evident in all other faiths.  What is unique to it, however, is the way in which Muslims have historically emphasized the indivisibility between Islam and the political sphere.[7]  This is a notable difference in comparison to Christianity, in which its fundamental intention was to divorce itself from political authority.  This is encapsulated by Jesus Christs’ famous quote from the book of Matthew—“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”[8]

Mohammad’s revelations from God, on the other hand, had claimed from the start the necessity for an Islamic society to have its own state in order to secure a society of Muslims living under a just and moral social order.[9]  While it is commonly understood that Islam itself is inherently rooted in politics, this idea in itself is up to debate.  Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori present various Muslim scholars, jurists and even a caliph[10] who have argued against confusing the role of Islam in politics.

The principle of tawhid, that God is the single sovereign entity to decide and guide all of humanity, is a core tenet of Islam, it often serves as the strongest justification for an Islamic statehood.  Many non-Muslims and conservative Muslims interpret this tenet as meaning that democracy is incompatible with the religion because the sovereignty of the people would conflict with the sovereignty of God.[11]  Moreover, they understand the concept of a parliament as blasphemous because it puts to question shari’ah laws that were supposedly defined and decreed by God.  On the contrary, other Muslim intellectuals, as described by Eickelman and Piscatori, assert that tawhid precisely offers the justification for why the Islamic state should be democratic.

The principle problem in discussing the compatibility between Islam and democracy lies within the understanding of the terms themselves.  What often occurs is an entanglement of our biased perceptions of these concepts within the debates.  “Many in the West believe that democracy is a distinctively and exclusively Western phenomenon with specific requirements…Similarly, for many Muslims and other scholars, the definition of ‘Islam’ is tied closely to the vast intellectual and societal structures developed as the historical manifestation of Muslim faith and tradition over a millennium and a half.”[12]  This results in the creation of a stark dichotomy between two seemingly opposing concepts.  By imagining these terms in this way, it is no wonder that they not only seem contradictory but completely incompatible with one other.  It prevents an understanding that analyzes the various aspects of each concept, and instead reduces it to a debate over superficial definitions.

Huntington’s explanation of the continuing conflictual relations between Islam and the West is very reductionist.  This uncritical approach works to undermine his entire theory regarding the deeply rooted cultural differences informing social identities of each civilization.  He falls into a trap of circular argument “because the conclusion depends more on the initial definition rather than on analysis.”[13]  By associating democracy strictly with liberalism and secularism, he dismisses all possibilities for an analytical discussion of democracy.  “The general failure of liberal democracy to take hold in Muslim societies is a continuing and repeated phenomenon for an entire century beginning in the late 1800s.  This failure has its source, at least in part, in the inhospitable nature of Islamic culture and society to Western liberal concepts.”[14]  Government by popular rule, in Huntington’s view, cannot be divorced from Western cultural systems.  In contrast to this dichotomizing view of Islam and democracy, there are various scholars, intellectuals, and activists who challenge this conceit.

Many of those opposed to the idea of an autocratic religio-political order, cite the gross corruption of power that is inevitable in a system in which the sovereign claims to derive its authority, directly or indirectly, from God.  There is a concern shared by many scholars, including the widely respected modernist Islamic intellectual, Fazlur Rahman. He regards the increased Islamization of many societies as an exploitation of Islam by political groups and elites.  “The slogan ‘in Islam religion and politics are inseparable’ is employed to dupe the common man into accepting that, instead of politics or the state serving long-range objectives of Islam, Islam should come to serve the immediate and myopic objectives of party politics.”[15]  As an alternative to conceptualizing the Islamic state as necessarily indicating theocracy, some argue that an Islamic political system requires popular sovereignty.

While they affirm the indivisibility between religion and state,[16] others argue that democracy is necessary for adapting to the conditions of the contemporary era.  The application of shari’ah law for them necessitates open dialogue and debate over the interpretations of the Qur’an and other sources of Muslim belief, such as the hadith.  “Since the Qur’an commands Muslims to conduct their affairs through mutual consultation (shura) and grants the privilege of khilafah[17] to the entire Muslim community rather than to a single individual or a specific group or class of people, the resulting shura and selection of a ruler must be based on the free will of the Muslim masses.”[18]  This system, they argue, would be an alternative to a political order that reverts to an authoritarian vision of Islam, such as that in Iran whereby the government is solely guided by unelected faqih.[19]

In order to achieve an Islamic state that lies in most in accordance with the Qur’an and hadith, it requires it to be dictated by the Muslim community as a whole.[20]  Therefore, in order to imagine democracy in an Islamic legal or political system, the conceptualization of democracy must be freed from its strict association with liberalism.  One of the strongest cases for an Islamic democracy comes from the Muslim women’s rights movement.  They challenge the fundamental reading and interpretations of the Qur’an and hadith, in order to arrive at a more equal and just Muslim order for men and women.

One of most dominant Western critiques of the Islamization movement has been its defense of legal and social restrictions placed on Muslim women’s public and private life.  The pervading belief is that Islam itself necessitates a society, and therefore a political system, requiring backward laws limiting women’s rights and policies forcing them to be second-class citizens.  It is easy to understand why this remains to be the predominant assumption.  One does not need to look far to see that many Muslim societies employ shari’ah law in ways that diminish women’s rights.  For this reason, the discourse around Muslim women’s liberties in Islamic societies, often imply that in order to liberalize women, these societies must abandon their own heritage for that of the West.  This view reflects an enduring cultural and political hegemony of the post-colonial era.[21] It is not only an absurd and unrealistic assumption, it rejects the idea that a source of human rights and gender equality could be derived from somewhere other than liberalism.

In the same that way that many conceptualize democracy and Islam as an incompatible dichotomy, it is also applied between feminism and Islam.  The last couple decades of the 20th century saw an emerging Muslim feminist movement that was not principally tied to the same claims to equality that were asserted by Western feminists.  These Muslim scholars and activists instead ground their claims for equal rights within the Islamic texts themselves.  Qur’anic scholar, Amina Wadud, was the first to do a comprehensive female inclusive reading of the holy text.  She re-examines the Qur’an by considering the general circumstances of its formation, and is thus able to find within it new meanings and perspectives on the issue of women.  In an Islamic state that is ruled by a strict class of politicians or faqih, these fundamentally new understandings of Islamic faith would be unable to directly influence government laws or policies.  This includes the improvement of the social and legal status of women.  The Muslim women’s movement thus further emphasizes the serious problem in simplifying understandings of complex social concepts.

In The Clash of the Civilizations, Huntington discusses the opposing civilizations of the West and Islam in a seemingly cursory manner that promotes troublesome and simplistic conclusions about their essential characteristics.[22]  He essentially argues that cultural or civilizational identities[23] shape patterns of cohesion, disintegration and conflict between states in the post-Cold War era.  For the purposes of his thesis, it is logical that he would essentialize the basic characteristics of each civilization in order to map the broad relational tendencies between them.  However, this approach as applied to his explanation of the socio-political rift between the West and Islam, is dubious to say the least.  Instead of engaging analytically with the pervasive misunderstandings and connotations around the terms “democracy” and “Islam,” he too falls into the trap of examining these as a stark and irreconcilable dichotomy.  Not only does this undermine the validity of his theory, it further promotes fallacious ideas about these concepts.

This kind of shallow representation of Islam actively harms the objective of Muslim women’s rights activists.  This dichotomous understanding of democracy and Islam forces them to confront prejudices on two ideological fronts:  The Islamists, who question their right to the reinterpretation of fundamental beliefs of Islam on the one hand, and the Western feminists who claim that Islam is inherently incompatible with gender equality on the other.  So while it may serve Huntington well to reduce complex socio-political phenomena to fit his civilizational model of the world, this is extremely problematic.  This dualistic conception of the world is precisely what Muslim feminists must face in their fight to establish gender equality that is pragmatically grounded within Islam.

In order to allow the social progress of Muslim women, crude understandings of abstract social concepts must be abandoned.  Democracy, Islam and feminism are philosophies that are ridden with too much historical and political baggage to be able to engage them uncritically.  Many Muslim scholars agree that democracy and Islam are not adverse to each other.  What is troublesome about Huntington’s usage of these terms, is that Clash is so widely read and referenced in current Western political dialogue.  The issue is not whether his thesis is accurate or inaccurate, but rather that his lack of scrutiny with the broad generalizations he employs invokes further misconceptions about global issues.  It feeds cultural prejudices and strengthens bigoted views of the world.  For this same reason, Muslim women’s activism put many at unease because it forces people to reexamine their basic beliefs about democracy and Islam.  While they have a long and tough ideological fight ahead of them, both Muslim and Western scholars could help them by refusing to use reductionist terms in their political debate.  That would be a good place to begin.




[1] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of the Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, (New York: Touchstone, 1997.).

[2] Huntington claims similarities between Muslims and Christians. He claims that they are both “universalistic, claiming to be the one true faith to which all humans can adhere.  Both are missionary religions believing that their adherents have an obligation to convert nonbelievers to that one true faith.”  211.

[3] Term as described by Huntington, as a combination of various characteristics including the influence of Classical civilizations, Christianity, its emphasis on the separation between church and state, the rule of law, tradition of individualism, etc., 69-71.

[4] Muslim law.

[5] After the death of Muhammad, the question of who would succeed him as the temporal and spiritual head of Islam (caliph) was the central contestation that caused this rift.

[6] Literally means news or reports in Arabic.  Karen Armstrong in Islam: A Short History, defines it as the “documented traditions of the teachings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, which were not in the Qur’an but which were recorded for posterity by his close companions and the members of his family.” (New York: Random House, 2002.), 203.

[7] Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori in Muslim Politics offer further examples of this debate. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.).

[8] “Matthew 22:20-22 (King James Version).” BibleGateway.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 June 2009. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?book_id=47&chapter=22&verse=20&end_verse=22&version=9&context=context.

[9] Karen Armstrong’s explain in Islam: A Short History, “The political and social welfare of the ummah would have sacramental value for Muslims.  If the ummah prospered, it was a sign that Muslims were living according to Gods will…” (New York: Random House, 2002.), 6.

[10] Abbasid caliph al-Nasir (1180-1225).

[11] Voll, John O., “Islam and Democacy: Is Modernization a Barrier?” in Shireen T. Hunter and Huma Malik, ed., Modernization, Democracy and Islam. (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2005. 82-97.), 83-84.

[12] Ibid., 86.

[13] Ibid,, 86.

[14] Huntington, The Clash of the Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, 114.

[15] Fazlur Rahman, Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.), 140.

[16] Islam din wa-dawla: A mantra which states “Islam is religion and state” is a saying often used to describe the indivisible nature of Islam in politics.

[17] Representative agency.

[18] Mumtaz Ahmad, “Islamic Political Theory: Current Scholarship and Future Prospects,” in Mumtaz Ahmad, ed., State Politics and Islam. (Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1986), 4.

[19] Muslim jurist.

[20] Abu’l A’la Mawdudi, “Political Theory of Islam,” in Khurshid Ahmad, ed., Islam: Its Meaning and Message. (London: Islamic Council of Europe, 1976.), 159-60.

[21] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, (New York: Yale University Press, 1993), 129.

[22] This refers to what Huntington deems are the defining characteristics of these civilizations in The Clash of the Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.  41.

[23] To Huntington, these are one and the same. 41.



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The Limits to Conceptualizing Islam and Democracy as a Stark Dichotomy by Maira Sutton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.