In spite of Islam
Moataz-Bellah Abdel-Fattah explains to Gihan Shahine why democracy is severely lacking in Muslim-majority countries even though its principles are deeply-rooted in the basic tenets of Islam
Al-Ahram, 3 - 9 September 2009
As a firm believer in the benefits of democracy, Moataz-Bellah Abdel-Fattah attempts to find answers to the tough question of whether the attitude of ordinary, educated Muslims constitutes a barrier to the adoption of democracy. Abdel-Fattah is the author of eight books and several academic and journalistic articles in Arabic and English, but what is interesting about Democratic Values in the Muslim World -- and was probably the reason why the study was chosen as one of the most outstanding books in 2006 by Choice Academic Review -- is the fact that Abdel-Fattah allowed Muslims to speak for themselves rather than draw conclusions about them by equating all Muslims to "a group of extremists and anti-modernity radicals" who, according to Abdel-Fattah, "have been very vocal in their criticism of democracy".
"I used several empirical tools, such as survey and focus-group discussions, to colour a picture that has been brush-stroked in black and white in the West thanks to the Western neo-orientalist scholarship that does not distinguish between different Muslim sub-cultures and societies," Abdel-Fattah said. "Colouring the picture of Muslims' perception of democracy is analogous to breaking down the big stereotypical picture into its original components."
The book concludes that Muslims are so diverse that they defy any one-size-fits-all characterisation regarding their attitudes towards democracy. Some Muslim societies are in a struggle between the sub-culture of "democracy-as-a-must" versus the sub- culture of "dictator... but" that justified autocracy (example: Pakistan and Algeria). Other Muslim societies (Turkey, Mali, and Malaysia) have already settled this debate by respecting democratic values and institutions. Other cultures, (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) still perceive democracy as an alien concept or a solution to a problem they do not have.
"Other countries have a more complicated political culture," Abdel-Fattah said. "Egyptians, for instance, have general acceptance of democracy and give it lip service, yet they are not ready to sacrifice for it. But if the political elite decide to move forward towards a real liberal state, Egyptians would not object."
At the individual level, whether Muslims are supportive of democracy, personal experiences and perceived benefits of democratisation play an important role in shaping Muslim attitudes towards democracy.
"We can conclude, then, that Muslims are not passionately and irrationally anti- democratic as the popular media and some scholars in the West have often implied, but rather they are conditioned to viewing democracy with positive expectations or scepticism," Abdel-Fattah noted.
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Can Islam and Democracy Coexist? - National Geographic, 2003
Islam, the Modern World, and the West: Contemporary Topics - Resources by Professor Alan Godlas
Islam and Democracy - John Esposito and John Voll