Book Review: Democracy in Muslim Societies

Book Review: Democracy in Muslim Societies

Edited by Zoya Hasan and published by Sage; Pages 266; Price 550

New Delhi: When Abdullah Gul, a former Islamist was elected president of Turkey on 28 August, it was considered a moral victory by some. He had managed to wrest power from the secular elite, in face of opposition from the powerful generals who had managed to topple four governments in Turkey since 1960. The generals though are unlikely to give up control tamely as the ruling AK party gets ready with a civilian constitution to replace the one created by the generals in 1980.

Right next door, both Pakistan and Bangladesh are once again battling to make a switch from a military-backed to a democratic form of government. Democracy and military might are in perpetual conflict in the non-Arab Muslim countries of Asia. It is this spirit perhaps that explains the very different nature of Islam as a religion and democracy as a form of government in the non-Arab Muslim world.

Edited by Zoya Hassan, Democracy in Muslim Societies - The Asian Experience,fourth in the series of the Observer Research Foundation studies on Contemporary Muslim Societies,has raised the question whether democracy is appropriate or even desirable as a political system for developing societies.

Democracy as an institution has been studied in the six Asian countries of Bangladesh (by Amena Mohsin and Meghna Guhathakurta), Indonesia (Adriana Elisabeth), Iran (Sadegh Zibakalam), Malaysia (Abdul Rahman Embong), Pakistan (Mohammad Waseem) and Turkey (Korel Goymen), all overwhelmingly Muslim in population terms.

The simple western definition of democracy includes states that hold regular elections in conditions of political freedom. But the Asian experience with democracy has been somewhat different. For once, its dynastic character has cut across the religion-divide in Asia, whether it is in India or Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. The six Islamic countries under study in this edition, have all gone their different ways in the quest for democracy.

At the time of Iraq’s invasion, Bernard Lewis wrote: “Creation of a free society, as the history of existing democracies in the world makes clear, is no easy matter. The experience of the Turkish republic over the last half century and of some other Muslim countries more recently has demonstrated two things: first, that it is indeed very difficult to create a democracy in such a society, and second, that although difficult, it is not impossible."

Thus, for a country like Bangladesh, democracy is in crisis, not because it is a Muslim state, but because it is a developing nation. Islamization of polity has threatened the state’s secular structure, but not democracy.

Indonesia on the other hand still needs to learn democracy but more importantly, what it really needs is good clean governance. Malaysia, with 55% Muslim population, is not considered by many as truly democratic and is placed between democratic and authoratarian. While the framework has been western, the substance and implementation has been individual.

Pakistan is characterized by a perennial struggle for democratization with an undercurrent of constitutionalism marked by bargain within the political community and increasingly between the military-bureaucratic elite and politicians.

The Turkish experience with democracy has been successful at instituting periodic competitive, free and fair national and local elections for public office. On the other end of the spectrum is Iran which has the framework of a republic with Islamic ideology. The December 1979 constitution, and its 1989 amendment, define the political, economic, and social order of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It declares that Shi’a Islam of the Jaafari (Usuli) school of thought is Iran’s official religion.

It is not that Islam per se has a problem with democracy. India which has a thriving Muslim population, is universally held up as a successful democracy. World Value Surveys have shown that as far as preferences go, 98% of people in Bangladesh, 71% in Indonesia, 69% in Iran, 82% in Pakistan and 88% in Turkey consider democracy better than any other form of government.

The contributors have argued that a single model of democracy cannot work across these six countries and have concluded that despite differences, Islam and democracy is not fundamentally incompatible in the Asian Muslim societies.

A word of caution: rich in research and exhaustive in explanation, the book is still meant for other researchers and takes it for granted that the readers are aware of the political ups and downs of all the six countries.

Author’s introduction to the book: Excerpts

“Tragedy of 0/11 and its aftermath focused world’s attention on Muslim societies. The shattering events in New York provoked hard questions about Islam and the Muslim world. Bush’s description of the attack on WTC as an attack on human freedom suggested images of a clash between militant intolerant Islam and the pluralist liberal free world, and between democracy and authoritarian regimes.

Debate over democracy, its definition and fundamentals, and its impact on governments’ domestic and foreign policies has continued for long. Shift from Arab to Asian societies is an intellectual move that helps deconstruct and unpack both categories of democracy and Muslim. Contextualizing political transition helps in understanding challenges of democratic consolidation that confront these societies.

Specific histories of transition from colonialism to political rule, imperialism, political economy and Islam collectively help elucidate institutional deficits. Even though these countries fall short of established yardsticks and institutional forms of democracy, there’s no dearth of vibrant politics, popular protest, political mobilization and opposition. We can no longer run away from tension between Islam and democracy in the politics of Muslim countries. Different countries negotiate this tension in their own ways. Our discussion of the Asian experience helps in understanding this better......."