Political Models after the Arab Revolutions: Islam, Sharia, and Democracy – By Gudrun Krämer

A new loosely organised movement is earning respect among the proponents of Islamic democracy. Distancing itself from militant Islamism, the movement regards itself as a “New Centre” and aims to combine the principles of good governance with the preservation of cultural authenticity. By Gudrun Krämer


Protesters in Cairo are demanding free elections (photo: dpa)
Where are the democracy movements in the Islamic-influenced world heading? The representatives of the “New Centre” are primarily concerned with political co-determination, not with expanding cultural, intellectual and artistic spaces, writes Gudrun Krämer

Democracy, freedom and the end of corruption, despotism and violence … From Morocco to Iran, this is what demonstrators are currently calling for, and there is no reason to assume that they have a different understanding of what is meant by these terms than the rest of the world, including the West. They understand them to mean the rule of law, good governance and the respect for human rights.

Obviously they do not consider these values and institutions to be a threat to their cultural identity, precisely because these values are not exclusively Western but universally valid. The fact that devout, practising Muslims are calling for democracy in their own country must really be giving critics of Islam something to think about.

They are strangely quiet at present. Now there is no need to argue about whether Muslims can live in a democracy and can affirm a democratic society that is based on the rule of law. We already have the answer. On the other hand, it is not quite so clear whether a democracy that is explicitly based on Islam is conceivable and what possible form such a democracy could take.

The right to political participation

Thus far, the debate has been overshadowed by Islamist hegemony and Western dominance. With their theses and terminology, the Islamists have dominated the public debate about identity, state and religion, both in Muslim societies and in the West. Although the Islamist thesis that Islam is “religion and state” and consequently and necessarily requires the application of Sharia does not reflect historical reality, it was and is a hugely effective antithesis to secular ideas and authoritarian regimes.


Koran (photo: dpa)
Moderate tendencies in political Islam such as the Egyptian Wassat Party, are in favour of a contemporary reading of the Qur’an and anchoring basic political rights in an Islamic democracy

The repressive potential of this thesis lies before us: Iran illustrates it on a daily basis. What is less evident is the momentum of political “empowerment” that activities draw from it by deriving from Islam itself a right to political participation and the right to have a say in politics. That strengthened them both in the struggle against colonial rule and in their opposition to the authoritarian regimes in their countries.

As differently as these Islamic orders may be formulated today, they all have one thing in common: they derive their basic principles of politics and law from the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet (Sunna). The only way to do so – even if many claim the opposite – is by means of interpretation. Asking how Islam stands on human rights and democracy means reading the Koran and the Sunna with contemporary eyes. Although the Koran does contain references to a “right” way to act and the principles of a “just” order, it is not a constitution, nor does it impose a specific form of government on Muslims.

The “New Centre” of Islam

Among the advocates of an Islamic democracy, there is a new, more loosely organised movement that deserves to be considered; a movement that considers itself to be the “New Centre”, as distinct from militant Islam, and seeks to combine the principles of “good governance” with the preservation of cultural authenticity. Its representatives are to be found in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Morocco alike.

Read complete article in Die Zeit/Qantara.de 2011


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