Islam and the Challenge of Democracy by Khaled Abou El Fadl’s (Book)

Islam and the Challenge of Democracy by Khaled Abou El Fadl’s
Princeton University Press 2004
by Dr Azzam Tamimi

On a website, named Scholar of the House and dedicated to him and his works, Khaled Abou El Fadl is introduced as “the most important and influential Islamic thinker in the modern age;” as “an accomplished Islamic jurist and scholar;” as a “high-ranking shaykh;” as “a world renowned expert in Islamic law;” and as “a prolific author and prominent public intellectual on Islamic law and Islam.” There is little more one may aspire to achieve. However, few Muslims would have heard of Abou El Fadl, let alone read him. Nevertheless, he seems to be a rising star in the United States where he has managed to persuade a good list of scholars and thinkers to take part in this project of his. So, what is interesting about the book is not so much the topic but rather the format, which is similar to his earlier book The Place of Tolerance in Islam. In both works a number of scholars respond to Abou El Fadl’s lead piece, and then Abou El Fadl responds to their responses.

As for the topic, this book, perhaps, could not have come at a worst time. Democracy in the West is in crisis; ruling liberal democratic elites in both Washington and London have violated every democratic principle in the name of democracy. They lied, lied again and continued to lie to their people and to the world until the images of inhumanity emerging out of Abu Graib left no room for doubters. The values said to be associated with liberal democracy: inalienable individual rights, a set of liberties, the rule of law and equality before the law have all been undermined with varying degrees across the liberal democratic world in under various pretexts. The Muslims in particular have been primary victims because the war on terrorism has for all intents and purposes been nothing but a war on every thing associated with the Islamic faith and the Islamic culture. Since September 11 thousands of Muslim men and women have been arrested and detained without charge in the USA, the UK and other European participants in the ‘war on terrorism’; laws have been enacted in all these places to restrict the freedoms of expression, movement and assembly; and Muslim school girls in France have been banned from entering schools with head covers. In the lands of the East, on the other hand, irreparable damage has been inflicted upon the prospects of democratization. The Americans and their allies have given a bad name to democracy that few Arabs or Muslims deem it appropriate to associate themselves with any talk about bringing democracy to the Muslim lands lest this is seen as collaborating with the foreign invading powers. Iraqis who loathed Saddam and prayed for an end to the nightmare they endured under him have regretted the end of his reign because American’s promised democracy has turned to be a worst nightmare. In light of all of this it is indeed a bold move on the part of Princeton to undertake publishing the book.

An impressive list of names is involved in producing the work. In the order of their responses to Abou El Fadl, they are: Nader A. Hashemi; Jeremy Waldron; Noah Feldman; M.A. Muqtedar Khan; A. Kevin Reinhart; Saba Mhamood; Bernard Haykel; Mohammad H. Fadel; David Novak; John L. Esposito; and William B. Quandt.

In his forty-six page treatise “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy” Abou El Fadl seeks to find room for democracy in Islam. For up to two thirds of his paper he exhibits skill in using his knowledge to prove the compatibility of Islamic values with those of democracy. Though he does not acknowledge it anywhere, he has already been surpassed to these grounds by many thinkers such as the Algerian Malik Bennabi, the Tunisian Rachid Ghannouchi and the Egyptian Tariq El-Bishri to name a few. Some of his interlocutors do make this point in passing mentioning in particular Ghannouchi, whom they mistakenly assume to be a resident of France, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the most authoritative contemporary sunni scholar and Fahmi Huwaidi, the most widely read and highly regarded Islamic journalist in the Arab world. However, in his own response Abou El Fadl seems to take offence at the suggestion that his position is shared with “other ‘Islamicists’ such as Rashid al-Ghannouchi, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, or Fahmi Huwaidi.” Clearly, the positions are not identical but not for the reasons Abu El Fald gives in his response. He charges that “Huwaidi’s and Qaradawi’s proclamations on democracy are dogmatic at best; they do not exhibit any serious understanding of the doctrinal challenges a democracy poses for traditional understandings of Islam.” It is his assessment that “both writers speak about Islam and democracy only in the most vague and general sense, without engaging the particulars of history or doctrine.” Abou El Fadl has nothing to say about Ghannouchi; one is therefore tempted to think that he probably knows not much about him and may have not read him. As for Malik Bennabi, he does not feature anywhere in the book despite the originality of his thinking and the enormity of his influence. The real difference between Abou El Fadl’s thinking and the thinking of the aforementioned ‘mainstream’ scholars and thinkers is that they emanate from within while he comes from without. Perhaps without realizing it, and he is gently alerted to this by some of his respondents, Abou El Fadl borders the ‘End of History’ discourse as he presents the case for democracy. Democracy is seen by Islamic thinkers as consisting of two components: a philosophical aspect that is incompatible with Islam and a procedural aspect that Muslims can learn and benefit from. There is no way the liberal secularist component of democracy can be espoused by the Muslims because it contradicts the essence of their faith. It is simply a case of two directly opposed world views: in the Islamic view divine revelation is the source of reference where as in the liberal tradition man is self-referential. It is therefore a futile effort to try and re-formulate Islam in order to espouse liberalism; this would simply be the end of Islam as a divine revelation. What Bennabi, Ghannouchi, Qaradawi and Huwaidi believe is that the chronic problem of despotism in the Muslim lands can be remedied in part by the adoption of some or all elements of the procedural aspect of democracy; for after all, it is these elements which are compatible with the Islamic values of vicegerency, Shura, justice and the rule of Shari’ah. It is these procedures that may help the Muslims institutionalize Shura and develop measures appropriate for their own needs and purposes in order to make government’s electable by and accountable to the people and in order to limit the abuse of power to the minimum.

Abuo El Fadl’s treatment of the question of compatibility between Islam and democracy suffers from a number of weaknesses, as rightly noted by some of his interlocutors – particularly Noah Feldman, Saba Mahmood from Mohammad H. Fadel. The first is his taking for granted and at face value what liberal democracy stands for. The second is his total silence regarding the practical impediments to democratization in the Muslim world. These impediments do not come from within Islam and are not posed by the Muslim peoples; rather, they are obstacles created and safeguarded by the world order that claims to be liberal and democratic under the leadership of the United States of America. My own research, published by Oxford University Press as Rachid Ghannouchi A Democrat Within Islamism, shows that the world order, the modern territorial state and the policy of enforced secularization are the real culprits. It is not true at all that, as claimed by M.A. Muqtedar Khan in his response, “democracy must triumph in theory before it can be realized in practice.” What and who aborted the Algerian people’s struggle for democracy and who and what provides dictators across the Muslim world with life when they are detested by their populations that aspire to say them perish. It is the United States of America, leader of the ‘liberal democratic’ world. Ironically, Khan is also critical of Abuo El Fadl but for a completely different reason; he thinks that Abuo El Fadl does not go far enough in espousing liberalism and denouncing the jurists whom Khan so bizarrely and preposterously accuses of having “colonial tendencies” that so long as they persist there will be no Islamic democracy.

Khan seems to miss the point. Abuo El Fadl does more than just that. His innovative thinking is to be found in the last few pages of his paper where he comes up with a new interpretation of Shari’ah aimed at trivializing it by relativising it. Indeed, unlike contemporary Arab and Muslim modernists (or secularists to be more precise), Abou El Fadl is keen to show respect to the classical jurists, but not contemporary one, and insists on the centrality of Shari’ah to Muslim life. However, Shari’ah for him is an unrealizable ideal. Whatever people claim to be Shari’ah is their own imperfect law-making that is nothing more than their understanding or interpretation of a divine perfection that is well beyond them. Imagining Shari’ah to be an obstacle, Abuo El Fadl set out to resolve it by declaring it impossible to implement. His gives an example as to how Shari’ah may be re-interpreted so as to conform with the values he believes to be absolute and universal. Verse number 38 of Surat Al-Ma’idah (Chapter Five) deals with the penalty for theft. The phrase faqta’u aydiyahuma (cut off their hands) is so arbitrarily interpreted meaning prevent them by stop their hands from theft, simply because Abuo El Fadl, contrary to the understanding and practice of the Prophet himself and of his companions and the scholars of Islam through the ages, believes that cutting off the hand of a thief is inhumane or unjust.

In an expression of a political stance, Abuo El Fadl does not hide his disdain and contempt for the Wahhabis and what he calls the fundamentalists. Both terms have become tools in the anti-Islamic propaganda to attack a broad spectrum of people including some of the most respectable personalities in the Muslim world. Such labeling only makes his work less likely to be appreciated by Muslim readers, though it may sound music to the ears of people on the other side of the divide.

The cause of democracy in the Muslim lands has not been served by this publication, which will only be seen by the Muslims as another attempt to undermine their religion. It is as if Muslims have to pay a price for the commodity of democracy from their own faith and culture or from their own freedom and dignity as is happening today to the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq. If democracy is not incompatible with Islam, and this is what most Muslims today believe the case to be, then Muslims need not be told they need to abandon a doctrine or a principle of their faith in order to be democratic.

Far from the assumption of this book Islam is not being challenged by democracy, it is liberal democracy that is today challenged by Islam. It is not Islam that needs to be reformed; it is democracy that needs urgent attendance so as to repair the severe damage caused to it by the liberal democratic states in America and Europe.

Azzam Tamimi

Visiting Professor, Kyoto University, Japan

Director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought, London