June 2011 
Year 17    No.158

Theocracy is a no-no

‘Islamic democracy’ is not true democracy


It is regrettable that unnecessary controversies and obfuscation have tended to becloud the otherwise clear message of Islam. Many people believe that our ulema have done more harm to Islam than our familiar enemies.

What our prophet brought to us was a religion for the masses. It is a religion of common sense. It builds on our innate sense of what is right and what is good. That such a simple and pure religion should be wafted about by ‘scholarly’, long-winded and futile disputations is unfortunate. Particularly problematic are the statements by many Islamic leaders expressing their insistence on establishing Shariah laws and their opposition to democratic and secular forms of government.

Our ulema and scholars should instead expound on what the Koran has to say about issues such as: 1) Getting along with our non-Muslim neighbours; 2) Respecting the religions and beliefs of non-Muslims; 3) Equality of men and women; 4) Freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom to dissent; 5) Using only humane forms of punishment of criminals; 6) Democratic forms of government; 7) Secularism: separation of state from religion, and equal rights for minorities; 8) Avoiding violence and considering murder of innocent civilians to be an abominable act; 9) Resolving problems through reconciliation and compromise; 10) Not being spiteful or vindictive; and 11) Upholding the dignity of men and women.

The Koran does have enlightened, sensible and useful things to say regarding all of the above points but, unfortunately, these are seldom elucidated in Friday mosque sermons, lectures or newspaper articles. Some progressive Muslims even advocate “Islamic democracy” as something they consider to be desirable and wholesome. This reduces members of religious minorities to second-class citizenship. The plight of Hindus, Sikhs and Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan, Bahai’s in Iran and Tamils in Malaysia is cautionary.

The state and the government are there to serve all citizens and not to delve into matters of religious belief. A clean separation between state and religion is necessary in all countries that want to be considered civilised. Would Muslims in India or the United States be happy if their countries became a “Hindu democracy” or a “Christian democracy”? If such a state of affairs is not good for us, it is not good for religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries either.

In Germany, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats are both secular parties. Many West European countries are nominally Christian, the queen of England, for example, is the official head of the Church of England, but in practice these countries are secular. However, in countries that call themselves ‘Islamic’, such a mature and moderate attitude is usually not seen. The laws and Constitutions in ‘Islamic’ countries tend to gravitate towards religiosity and intolerance. Although Indonesia has a secular Constitution, in 2003 Aceh province was allowed to have partial Shariah laws. In Turkey, the army has to watch like a hawk to ensure that secularism is not jeopardised. The best thing for Muslim-majority countries would be to introduce a constitutional dispensation such as the first amendment to the American Constitution which flatly states that the “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.

Ideally, political parties should not be based on any religion. They should distinguish themselves from each other by the economic, social, defence or health service programmes that they offer as well as by the character of their leaders. But today religion-based political parties are a fact of life. Consequently, people may have the choice of voting for either a secular or a religious party but even so it is imperative that the state has no religion and the government is neither for nor against any religion. The simple point is that “Islamic democracy” is just not true democracy. If religion and state are not kept apart from each other, they are both likely to be diminished. Religion flourishes best in the private non-governmental sphere.

Both Iran and Pakistan have made a mockery of Islam, and their governments have not been too successful either. Paradoxical though it may seem, Islam and Shariah may have the best prospects: to adapt, reform and flourish: in India and the United States rather than in any Muslim-majority country. Shariah basically requires that our laws be fair, just, equitable and sensible. Current American laws and the amended Hindu laws are in many respects more Islamic than Shariah laws as practised in many communities.

I find the distinction between deen (way of life) and mazhab (religion) to be not very useful. Deen and mazhab are the same as far as I am concerned. Trying to distinguish one from the other introduces complexities in what is supposed to be a simple faith for the masses. Islam for me is a matter of faith (iman) in the unity of god and His expectation that we shall be moral and righteous creatures. Having a rigid code setting up a comprehensive system or “way of life” that extends to all aspects of human existence sounds like a prescription for totalitarian or authoritarian oppression.

(Ghulam Mohiyuddin is a retired physician of Indian origin based in the US. This article was posted on the website NewAgeIslam.com on May 23, 2011. )

Courtesy, www.newageislam.com

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