Everyone’s eyes are watching the Arab world, and rightly so. The story is in not any way over yet! In my opinion, the Arab Spring could possibly be the biggest historical event I will live through, as it could change one of the most important international dynamics running through the last thousand years.
“Freedom is a great, great adventure, but it’s not without risks,” said Fathi Ben Haj Yathia, a Tunisian author and former political prisoner. If the risks are surmounted and we see the birth of a truly democratic Arab world, even if in only a few first countries, it’s possible we’ll witness a drastic change in the dialogue about Islam not only within the Arab Muslim world, but also among Muslims and non-Muslims alike in the Western world.
First, I’d like to note that democracy itself has beautiful roots in Islam. The first Caliph, Abu Bakr, was elected by the agreement of senior members of the community based on his qualifications for the post. Not only that, but the term ijma (إجماع) refers to deliberation on sharia, or law, that is based on ‘consensus.’ Some believe this refers only to scholarly consensus, but since it is based on the hadiith, or saying of Muhammed, “My community will never agree upon an error”, most take it to refer to the entire ummah, or community of followers. People also argue that this refers to the entire ummah and not the religious elite because classically there never was a clergy class or hierarchy in Islam comparable to the one present in Christianity (as described by Paul in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3).
All I wanted to point out here is that ‘democracy’ is not a forced idea that must be squeezed into Islam at all, as many people fret about in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. In fact, it even has deeper roots in the religion itself than in Christianity! Contrary to what most people think, sharia is not fixed at all and the will and beliefs of the people are central to the direction the community/ummah will take.
Second, the ummah has not been historically run by the best Islamic leaders or even very democratic ones. As with many political turns in Christian history, the fact that a head of state is “Muslim” doesn’t mean their policies represent Islam. So this is not a problem unique to Arab or Muslim communities at all. It has shaped a lot of Islamic history, including historical interpretations of what Islam is, how it has been practiced and the way it is perceived to be from those on the outside. (I’ll get to this last one in the next point.)
The future is still completely open at this point, but as far as how Islam will develop in practice– if the revolts continues to develop in a more democratic direction run by the people as opposed to corrupt religious or political bureaucrats, it will certainly open up a more flexible development in the religion. Re-open and keep open the doors of ijtihad. Religious and political elites will then need to develop with the people and rather than clinging to their own dogmatic and stiff interpretations.
As the NY Times article linked above discusses in more detail, the current fight in Tunisia for the ‘Separation of Mosque and State’ will also completely change a lot of Islamic political notions that have developed over the centuries.
One of my favorite authors, Tariq Ramadan, has been arguing for a lot of such change in both the Arab world as well as Muslim communities in the Western world. Seeing such change physically develop overseas will enable similar changes in opinion and scholarship throughout Western countries as well. Which greatly will facilitate a much less antagonistic, yet ever more diverse, society.
Lastly, (and this is speaking from a perspective I am much more personally familiar with because of my own upbringing and experiences) a truly democratic and mosque/state change in Arab Muslim countries will take away a relatively powerful, or at least often used, weapon out of the arsenal of a lot of fundamentalist Christian apologists and thus weaken the ability for such people to perpetuate an antagonistic Christian-Muslim atmosphere and ethos.
Besides the fact that separation of church/state and the practice of democracy were developed from an atheist philosopher (Spinoza) and a pagan culture (Athens), modern fundamentalist Christians have taken a lot of pride that it is ‘their’ societies that are open and democratic and that, currently, there is not the same tradition in Arab and Muslim societies. Of course if you take a longer historical view and compare the dark ages of Christian Europe with the height of the Ummayid and Abbassid Dynasties, the picture completely reverses itself.
But most people don’t take this historical perspective, and we end up with popular apologists like G. Moshay who ended his book by pointing out:
No truly Islamic nation is democratic and none has ever been so. In those Islamic nations where the democratic system is in operation it is seen as a necessary evil enforced upon the nation by the Western world. No freedom of expression or worship exists in any Islamic nation.
No freedom of expression or worship exists in any truly Islamic nation.
So what I am hoping for most is for these countries who are currently throwing off their un-Islamic leadership to show the world that democracy and other liberal values are just as much part of Islam, and that there is no civilizational war or innate incongruence between these two religions on the global or any other political scene.
This article was originally published in In a God Who Could Dance on March 4th 2011. Two years later, we still feel the points it argues and hopes for are just as relevant and important .