Friday, July 19, 2019

Islam is compatible with democracy

Feb 28. 2019
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Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim scholar living in self-exile in the US, has penned an important article in the French newspaper Le Monde.

Gulen offers what is, in a sense, a revolutionary Islamic perspective on democracy, calling it a necessary alternative for all Islamic countries to systems that expose Muslims to a single strong leader. The points he highlights could be useful for Thai Muslims in understanding the real essence of Islamic thought in regards to democracy, human rights and universal core values. His main points are as follows:

1. Islam’s core values are not about a style of dress or religious slogans. They include respect for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, accountability of rulers, and inalienable rights and freedoms of every citizen.

2. The effort to make everyone the same is both futile and disrespectful to humanity. Participatory or democratic forms of governance, where no group (majority or minority) dominates the others, is the only viable form of governance for a diverse population.

3. Living according to your beliefs or worldview, on condition that it does no harm to others, and exercising fundamental human freedoms, especially freedom of speech, is what makes a person truly human. Liberty is a right given by the compassionate God, and no one – including a leader – can take that away. A person deprived of his or her basic rights and freedoms cannot be said to live a truly human life.

4. In contrast to claims by Islamists, Islam is not a political ideology; it is a religion. It does have principles that pertain to governance, but these account for at most 5 per cent of all Islamic principles. To reduce Islam to a political ideology is the greatest crime against its ethos.

5. In the past those who studied or spoke about the Islamic perspective on politics and the state made three errors. 

First, they confused the historical experiences of Muslims with the foundational sources of the Islamic tradition, the Koran and the Prophet’s authentic sayings and practices. Second, some cherry-picked verses of the Koran or sayings of the Prophet to legitimise their perspective and impose it on others. The spirit of the Koran and the Prophetic tradition (Sunnah) can only be understood with a holistic view and with a sincere intention to seek out the will of God. Third, some concluded, wrongfully, that democracy is fundamentally against Islam because Islam declares God is the only sovereign whereas democracy is based upon the sovereignty of the people. No believer doubts that God is the sovereign of the universe, but this does not mean that human agency, including thought, inclinations and willpower, do not exist or are excluded from God’s greater plan for humanity. Giving sovereignty to the people does not mean usurping it from God, but rather taking the right and duty to govern, which is endowed to humans by God, from a dictator or an oligarchy and handing it back to the people.

6. The “state” is a system formed by human beings in order to protect their basic rights and freedoms and maintain justice and peace. The state is not a goal by itself, but an agency that helps people pursue happiness in this world and in the next. A state is a result of a contract among humans, made up of humans, and it can neither be “Islamic” nor “holy”. 

The phrase “Islamic State” is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. Similarly, since there is no clergy class in Islam, theocracy is alien to the spirit of Islam. 

The points made by Gulen are crucial not just for Muslims but for everyone. The crises fomented by Muslims all around the world are not rooted in Islam itself but in those who misinterpret Islam and its teachings. 

Terry Hayden

Khon Kaen

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