In recent years, the Middle East has witnessed several examples of religious parties coming to power. These parties have usually encountered problems when it comes to dealing with a democratic system of governance. This has led to the fall of some — such as in Egypt — or to major challenges in terms of democratic values, such as human rights and public freedoms. Why are religious parties unable to deal with democracy? Is it the lack of necessary experience in governance, or are there other fundamental issues —linked to the intellectual and ideological structure of the religious parties — behind the problem?
Historically, Middle Eastern societies have been confronted with democratic systems of governance in a sudden manner. This has resulted in a great shock within these societies, particularly among intellectuals. In contrast, democracy came to the West gradually, through centuries of cognitive theories developed by thinkers of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment eras, and accumulated human experiments. Moreover, some aspects of a democratic system have been present in European societies since the Middle Ages. The most important of these aspects — when making a comparison with the Middle East — is the relative separation between the political and religious authorities within various systems of governance in Europe.
Islam and the Foundations of Governance, a book by Ali Abdel Raziq published in 1925 — shortly after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 — is a qualitative example of the shock that was produced at the time and subsequent reactions. The main idea of the book focused on rejecting the “caliphate” as the legitimate Islamic form of governance. Abdel Raziq pointed out that there is no specific system of governance prescribed in Islam, and that Islam did not forbid taking into consideration rational judgments and countries’ experiences in building their systems of governance. The book was harshly criticized by scholars of Islamic law in Egypt and other Arab countries. The author was tried and stripped of his position as a judge in Egypt, and many responses to the book were published.
Theologians in Islamic societies faced the shock of democracy with the following question: Is it possible to establish a political system to manage the state that is separate from the religious system? The question was raised against the backdrop of a prevailing ideology that Islam is the true religion, is unequaled by any other religion, and should provide human beings with all their demands, whether individual or collective. Based on that, these thinkers showed two types of reactions. The first radically rejected democracy, and described it as being contrary to and divergent from Islam in all cases. The second tried to reconcile Islam and democracy, based on different versions of “modernizing Islamic theology." The first reaction was adopted by the various Salafist regimes in the region, which conclusively rejected the democratic system by abstaining from holding elections, establishing political parties and other key elements of democracy. The second reaction was adopted by the religious parties that we are talking about.
The binary principle is the main problem of religious parties, as they try to combine the rule of God with the rule of the people in governance. The contradiction between the values of democracy and some provisions of Sharia law emerges here, posing a significant challenge to these parties. This challenge occurs because while they rose to power through democratic mechanisms, they could not comply with all values and elements of the democratic system. So they start to put restrictions and exceptions on democratic action in a variety of methods referred to as “religious democracy” by the religious parties.
The first theoretical attempt in history came with the Shiite Jurist Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, who considered that Islam can govern the community within democratic mechanisms, in an article titled “Khalafat al-Insan wa-Shahadat al-Anbia” (Victory the Role of Man, and Witness the Role of Prophets), where he mentioned the combination between the will of the people and that of God. The article was published in a collection known as Al-Islam Yaqod al-Hayat (Islam is Leading Life). The idea was developed in the Iranian Islamic regime by Islamic Revolution theorists, most notably Morteza Motahhar, Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini Behesht and Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who all have several publications on this subject.
The Iranian achievement in developing the idea of combining democracy with Islamic Sharia law is summarized by separating between legitimacy and acceptability. When Western political philosophers talk about democratic legitimacy, they clearly mean a system of governance that is accepted by the people. Yet, for the theorists of the Islamic Revolution and other Islamic parties in the Arab countries, legitimacy is adopted and based on Sharia law, and not the people’s will.
The will of the people only provides the possibility of activating the real legitimacy, which is religious legitimacy. Accordingly, democracy is only a means to access and maintain power, not a comprehensive approach to the political regime.
These theoretical efforts — in addition to the practical experiences of both Iran and Turkey, despite their differences — had a significant impact on the development of the political theory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Its political discourse shifted from absolute rejection of democracy as inherited from Sayyid Qutb, to the exploitation of democracy as an electoral tool, regardless of democracy’s values and other key elements. Moreover, Shiite religious parties such as the Islamic Dawa Party in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon share the Iranian vision on deeper theological and doctrinal levels.
Thus, in each of the models where religious parties took power — such as in Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and Iraq — lies an ambition similar to that of subjecting society to Sharia law, despite Sharia’s contradictions with the democratic model of governance. This raises fears among the opponents of these religious parties, especially in terms of human rights and public freedoms.
One may deduce from the foregoing that the religious parties cannot be fully molded within a democratic system, given their dual ideological principles. This duality would restrict democracy within the religious limits of these parties. This is why these parties are always facing social crises demanding them to abide by the values and principles of democracy and not to content themselves with using them as electoral tools that represent one aspect, and not all aspects, of democracy.
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