The intellectual roots of the current democracy movement in the Middle East lie with those Muslim thinkers who hold that there is conceptual compatibility between Islam, modernity and democracy. They put stress on concepts such as liberty, human rights and human dignity, freedom of thought, scientific inquiry, contextual interpretation of sharia, the legal principles of the Koran, support for democracy against theocracy, the rights of women, the rights of non-Muslims, and societal progress.
Their methodology puts stress on ijtihad ― systematic original thinking rooted in koranic exegesis (hermeneutics) ― over taqlid, the blind following of religion. In their view, Islam is to be interpreted in accordance with the needs of modern times; there should be educational reform through the introduction into the traditional curriculum of modern subjects such as medicine, engineering, science, social sciences and languages.
Among these early intellectual pioneers were Shah Walliullah and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan of India, and Rifai al-Tahtawi of Egypt, in the 18th and the 19th centuries. Their thinking has been represented in contemporary times by a group of Muslim intellectuals, affiliated to different ideologies, who may be simply categorized as liberal Muslims. All promote freedom of thought within Islam.
The political revolts in the Middle East are a demand for better opportunities in life, for employment and political freedom. The people of the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world seek the same fruits of development as enjoyed by citizens of other developing and developed countries. These opportunities have been denied them because of political authoritarianism or the presence of rulers who seek to stay in power for their life terms, be it in the Central Asian republics or elsewhere.
On the inter-sectarian Muslim front, the revolts in Middle East countries are attempts by minority sects to seek equal treatment and freedoms, as in Bahrain where the Shia majority is ruled by a Sunni minority, as was the case in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The current socio-political movement in the Middle East will have a worldwide impact on other Muslim societies that are witnessing an expanding youth population and a rising number of the poor, who demand more freedom, democracy and development. These demands have critical implications for intra- and inter-religious relations between Muslims and non-Muslims as far as politico-religious viewpoints are concerned.
For example, in the case of Thailand, the Muslims of the deep South have been closely following the events in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere. In their case, it is important to revisit and start implementing some of the practically possible recommendations of the 2005-06 National Reconciliation Commission led by former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, which so far have remained shelved.
As the Muslim world transitions between Islamism and post-Islamism ― with the rise of a new generation and different political and economic situations ― there are signs that this will be a long process involving many factors: intellectual, political and economic. For example, Pakistan will have to find an internal political balance in the aftermath of the Soviet and American invasions of Afghanistan and their consequences for Pakistan. Currently the debate about the political character of the Pakistani state, wedged between Islam and secularism, remains unresolved.
Iran, a state founded upon an Islamic revolution, is facing a political contest between the older generation of religious revolutionaries, and the young new moderates who seek reform of the political system.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s secularism is going through a change in which there is an attempt to strike a balance between politics and religion. Although Turkey is often cited by analysts as a model worthy of emulation by other Muslim countries, it is not an easy act to follow because of the unique character of the country and its political history.
The shape of future politics in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan ― each concerned about the impact of current events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran, Algeria and Libya ― is still not clear. Each Middle-Eastern country has a unique political history in terms of internal power structure, the position of the military, the security apparatuses and outside interests. Only time will tell.
The success of the political revolts in Tunisia and Egypt tell us that there is no inherent conflict between Islam and democracy, and that Islam and liberty need not be considered a contradiction in terms.
Imtiyaz Yusuf is professor of Islamics and religion at the Graduate School of Philosophy and Religion, Assumption University, Bangkok.
By Imtiyaz Yusuf
(Asia News Network)