Religion and Democracy

Paradoxes or Foundational Dialectic
By Charles W. Amjad-Ali

Dear friends, and especially my dear colleague, friend and at points mentor, Prof. Dr. Dr. Theodore Hanf, I am honored, indeed privileged to be here today, presenting on a theme which has been close to my heart for well nigh a quarter-century. Though Theo had set me a large parameter and canvas on which to set my presentation, I have restricted my conversation, both because of existential and contextual reasons, to a phenomenological examination of the issue. I focus on political theory, rather than policy, and concentrate on the monotheistic religions, particularly Christianity and its Western manifestations, and a much larger Islamic parameter, although mostly Sunni. I have dealt with these historically but only insofar as that history is critical for laying out the context in which some of these discussions took place.

The theme of the research project and the paper that Theo has asked me to produce brings together elements which until very recently were seen as highly problematic and could not be brought together in any serious theoretical or policy discussion and was even considered to be a no-no in theological discourse. The fact that today we are discussing it here is a major sea-change, one that for me is a sign of epistemic honesty which has been needed in our fields for quite some time.


There has been a confusion of categories in the West which emerges with the mixing of two seemingly inter-changeable bi-polarities which, in fact, should be kept distinct in order for a proper social analysis and prognosis. These are the bi-polarities of religion and politics, and church and state. The religion and politics bi-polarity deals with foundational issues of human participatory life and generates values which claim to have at least similar goals or ends (telos) even though they may be from different sources and principles, (arche). The church and state bi-polarity deals with institutional and juridical issues and the distinct spheres of their respective influence. While the polarities of church and state are separated and should be separated (especially where such distinct institutions do exist), religion and politics cannot and should not be separated. With the confusion of these bi-polarities the West has not only claimed the separation of church and state but has also claimed an (unreal) separation of religion and politics, hence our continual problem with understanding and working with Islam.

Any discussion of politics must also deal with the question of social change. I view social change as a public, self-conscious and deliberate activity and/or mechanism which, to a large measure, deals with the issues of distribution of power and scarce resources in any given human community. This is what gives social change political significance, in that it covers pretty much the same parameters as democracy does where electoral structures, though critical and necessary, are not sufficient without covering the other aspects of social change which I have articulated above. Both the political and social dimensions in human affairs are dependent on intersubjective activity, and are therefore fundamentally related to religion. By inter-subjective activity I mean any human interaction of which we are part, and which we need to do, and can do, together. Inter-subjective activity therefore, entails all acts which bring people together for participatory activity in the public arena. Since the activities and/or mechanisms for social change are largely dependent on the structure and role of authority in the public arena (which is a perennial question), religion and politics play important roles in determining the nature of social change, even though within the West the bifurcation of religion and politics has assumed almost epistemic permanence (but more on this latter).

Most theories of social change can be lumped together into two broad frameworks. The first, generated largely by Max Weber’s thesis in his famous work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , is a religio-cultural reading of social change and instrumental rationality. The other common theme runs through the works of people like Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons, which combines social differentiation and social integration for their reading of social change on a unilinear scale and is Progress oriented. Briefly, the theory states that a society and culture evolves/progresses from superstitious religious irrationality to a rational scientific basis for organizing social relations. It is apparent, both through the appropriation of these two social theories by political thinkers, and through the very political nature of these theories, that the issues of social change and politics are inter-related. Indeed they are interchangeable when one is involved in analyzing and theorizing about “values” which are constitutive in human affairs. It is also exactly at the point of values that religion becomes a very important key for understanding and evaluating this whole process.

Organized religion, through its claim of access to the sacred, represents those networks of powers designed to defend established ideas, values, norms, as well as power itself. Therefore, the basis on which we define and choose the arenas and space of organized religion, and organized polity, become very fuzzy in terms of our allegiances. Since we are connected to both the political and religious arenas (i.e. we are simultaneously homo religiosis and zoon politikon) through a whole web of relationships in community, politics, sociality, culture, economics etc., the problem is how to define our own roles in this nexus on a personal level. This is the axiomatic question which both the religious and the political realm pose on us; and this question defines the nature and character of change in those patterns of relationships and interaction in which we find ourselves. Put in another way, how we understand others and their underlying sources (such as imago dei) shapes our attitude and our interaction with them. Reciprocally our attitude and interaction with others and their underlying sources shape and reshape how we understand them.


In general, the fundamental question we face when we discuss democracy is the character of the basic unit that is to act as the locus politicus. In the West, for the last three hundred years or so, this has been the individual (preferably, but not necessarily, rational). The concept of the individual in democracy has been an expanding notion, escalating from land-owning white males only, to all white males over 21, to men of all races over 21, to men and women over 21 , and finally to all adults over 18. The role of other identity factors has been seen as an impediment to the freedom of this individual and his/her political choices. Yet in recent decades the politics of identity has emerged in ways not anticipated just a hundred years ago and it has begun to determine all contemporary discourses on democracy. The current debate on identity can be broadly defined, for the lack of a better term, as a conflict between ethnos (i.e., nation or ethnic group) and demos (i.e., the people in a political sense, thus our modern English word democracy – the power of the people). These two Greek words lie behind a lot of our contemporary politics.

We can generally use ethnos in broader terms to define the character of identity groups that are based on commonalities of culture, language, religion, or other similar factors – that is, for those groups who have a shared symbolic universe and shared horizons. These are normally treated as pre-political, “primordial” affiliations that need to be transcended in a rational political order. The assumption is that when such rationality becomes effective overall in a given society, then these affiliations and their symbolic universe and horizons will also wither away. Against this notion is the concept of demos which is a more politico-economic identity group (e.g., the concept of the “people” generated by the French Revolution and the concept of the “masses” during the communist revolutions).

Until recently, most western scholars have tended to either negate or overlook the ethnos factor in their theorizing and analysis of politics. In most cases ethnos was seen as a problem of superstitious and primordial political orders; that is, it was seen as being an issue restricted to the Third World and recently has been applied almost exclusively to Islam. This tendency, however, has begun to shift in some scholars since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of communism in Europe, and after the battles and genocide in the former Yugoslavia. Together these events led to the emergence of 23 new states, cut largely along ethnic lines, with the potential of a couple more looming large. Thus the imperative of ethnos in political discourse has been dramatically highlighted. Also, in those European states where the ethnos is not homogenous there are still tensions, which at times have been quite violent in character—for example, the Protestant-Roman Catholic battle in Ireland and the Basque-Spanish battle in Spain.

Another reason why ethnos has not been dealt with generally in political discourse is the confusion caused by the Hitler era, with its emphasis on the superiority of the Aryan race over all other races. Here a biological racial identity was promoted over other races, which resulted in a shying away from considerations of ethnos in later scholarship. We see a similar tendency of not dealing with ethnos in post-apartheid South Africa since 1994 because race and other distinguishing factors were all used in the service of the white regime. We have to differentiate between cultural identity (ethnos) and racial identity based on biological factors (bios) to properly assess the current political dilemma and its implications for democracy and just political order.


In the West the question of the religious dimension of social change has had a particularly problematic history. It has normally been cast in terms of the separation, or even divorce, of church and state, even though a religio-political motive lies behind each of these people.

The break-up of the medieval Catholic synthesis of church and state and religion and state was generated much before the Reformation by the work of such people as Marsilius of Padua and Laurentius Valla. Marsilius wrote Defensor Pacis (Defender of Peace) in 1324 in which he uncompromisingly resolved the perennial conflict of jurisdiction between ecclesiastical and temporal order in favor of the temporal, i.e. the state. He then went on to argue that the church should be stripped of its power in the temporal arena and that the state should have sole authority over all its subjects including the clerics. Defensor Pacis is considered to be the most influential contribution for the development of later political theory, and to have laid a firm foundation for all future attacks on the notion of a united Christendom ruled over by a central authority in Rome. Defensor influenced the work of such people as John Wycliffe (1330-1384), and the Reformers of the 16th century, especially John Calvin's notion of removal of the king by lesser-magistrates in the fourth book of Institutes. Laurentius Valla (1406-1457), who many regard as the father of historical criticism, challenged the authenticity of a number of accepted documents by carefully scrutinizing their literary style. His most significant contribution was the debunking of the famous "Donation of Constantine", challenging thus the primary basis for the claim to highest power in the spiritual and temporal areas which the document granted to the Pope through the hands of Constantine. Valla's critical method later stimulated a much broader attack by the Northern humanists on the theology, doctrine and political practices of the church. Following Marsilius and Valla, the person best known in this process is Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), whose main historical work, The Prince (1512-1513), searched for an “a-moral” reading of the political life (notice it is not “im-moral” but “a-moral”). He provided a critique of the Florentine Republic, rigidly rejecting all theological interpretations of the state and sought to discover those natural laws which should govern the life of the people in the state.

Then there is Martin Luther's On Civil Government (1523), written prior to the Peasant's Revolt of 1525. In this work Luther largely reacted to his being condemned as outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, but he also negated the Roman Catholic idea of the supremacy of the church over the state (echoes of Marsilius). After the Peasant's Revolt, Luther wrote a very different treatise, entitled Against the Theivish, Murderous Hordes of Peasants. Here he protects order and promotes the exercise of force by the polis only, by what he termed lawful authority. Whereas earlier Luther had challenged the existing authority of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, he now asks the newly created order of independent nobility to kill the rebellious peasants and Anabaptists.

We then have the Institutes of the Christian Religion written by John Calvin around 1559 where, especially in book four, he deals with the issues of religion and politics and church and state. He says that if the King does not fulfill his covenant or his duties then the lesser magistrates may throw him out. This is clearly a reiteration of Marsilius of Padua's position in Defensor Pacis of 1324.

In the West the question of the religious dimension of social change has therefore, had a particularly problematic history. It has normally been cast in terms of the separation, or even divorce, of church and state, even though a religio-political motive lies behind each of these people. The most debilitating effect has emerged largely since the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, especially the 30 years “bloody” war.

After the emergence of Catholic-Protestant plurality, Europe was wracked by religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially the Thirty Years War. The Document of Concord, which was mainly drafted by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), and the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 concluded these wars.

The Treaty of Westphalia is correctly interpreted as the beginning of the formation of modern nation-states and secular politics in Europe (secular here meaning mostly just non-Catholic, and nothing more intellectual than that, c.f. religious and secular priests). Further, the nation-states in the post-Westphalian phase assumed a homogenous ethnos (after all, the “nation” in nation-state was simply a matter of ethnicity), a homogenous ethos (linguistic, cultural, social, and ideological – mostly religious/denominational – foundations), a fixed topos (a territory in which this specific ethnos resided and its ethos was exercised), and finally borders beyond which other nation-states with similar characteristics existed. None of this can be repeated in other places unless the West assumes such exclusive omnipotent historical hegemony that what was a product of a particular history in a particular time and location must be universally and atemporally applied everywhere else. This puts the application of such concepts as nation-state and even democracy into jeopardy in Islamic states from their very inception.

This move towards homogeneity in ethnos and ethos that Europe set into motion in the construction of its nation states, continued to impact their migrant states as well. This is the case particularly in the USA, for despite its extreme heterogeneity (vis-à-vis ethnos and ethos ) and its very confused notion of the topos (and therefore almost no concept of borders, but always the emphatic symbol of frontiers), the new “nation-state” of the USA used the same process and grammar as the European post-Westphalian creation of nation-states. In order to generate a sense of loyalty (for the natural organic loyalty that existed in Europe was not present in the US) a transcendent homogenous ethnos and ethos had to be generated through new artificial generative myths. So whiteness, immigration of choice, forgetting the differing ancestries, and transcending old European tribal infighting were raised up as part of a new nationalism, all of which de facto and de jure excluded the Native Americans as well as the African slaves. In place of a common culture, symbols such as the flag, the constitution and even a reworked version of English with Germanic spellings, were generated as a new transcendent ethos. They also generated a new myth of topos, because there was no organic link between the land and the immigrant people. In this story the land was Terra Nullius – i.e., “no man’s land”, or simply empty land, or a land unoccupied by anyone. Through this myth they treated the Native Americans or First Nations (ethnoi) of America, as non-people. Their land was occupied and stolen, and whenever they resisted they were called the barbarians who were doing the aggression. Therefore they were beaten and put into reservations where their every movement was controlled. Through the Louisiana Purchase of April 30, 1803, the theft by another European nation was legitimized forever. Not only did Europeans have the right to this stolen land but their occupation was given a religious legitimation. This was done through the generation of yet another myth – of the Promised Land, and the migration to it, as part of God’s covenantal design for those who had faced religious persecution in Europe. So God justified the theft of land by God’s chosen people. To work this land, God was equally quickly put into service to justify the theft of the slaves’ labour. These actions were never acknowledged to be the fault of the invading people’s immorality, but were regarded as obviously part of God’s grand design. Such developments also took place in Australia and South Africa, etc., with similar justifications.

In these immigrant states, the more recent Third World immigrants who are people of colour and not of European origin, find themselves being treated as not-quite citizens. For, while they may be immigrants of choice like the Europeans, they are not white, so they only fulfil part of the requirements of ideological and paradigmatic citizenship. For the other part, however, – in their ethnicity or race – they remain closer to Native Americans and African Americans. Thus while having a highly pluralistic society the emphasis and paradigmatic value still remain highly homogenous and transcendent, and if a demand is made by these immigrants of colour for a different social structure they are told to go back from whence they came. This attitude has been most exercised against Muslim immigrants, both in these migrant states as well as in the European states. Given this attitude, and with an almost ontologically defined paradigmatic citizenry still restricted to white immigrants (no matter how many generations ago they immigrated), the project of building a society which reflects the genuine plurality on the ground is a very difficult one, claims to the contrary notwithstanding. The current use of the terms “multicultural” and “plurality” so frequently heard in the US and Australia are a false premise because they include no commitment to giving up the privileged status which is accorded to the normatives and paradigms of the white immigrant of choice criteria.

Thus even when the actual heterogeneity of these societies began to be recognized in the West, they still operated on an assumed homogenous ethnicity, linguistic, cultural and ideological ethos. On this homogenous ethos, a multiparty system could be built that would reflect a plurality of interests, but the multi-identities and pluralist societies had to be kept in check by continuing allegiance to the homogenous nationalist principles. Liberal political theory in the US in the 1950s post-war reconstructive period generated a paradigm based on the not-so-apparent but crucial distinction we have been discussing above, i.e., between plural politics (the multi-party system), which was to be encouraged, and plural society, which would be disintegrative of the homogenous nationalist principle which had been foundational for the modern nation-state since 1648. In this understanding, the former had to be promoted and the latter had to be, at the least, minimized, if not rejected out right. This homogenous identity and heterogeneous party system was then treated as imperative for democratic processes everywhere, irrespective of the actual realities in non-European societies. Yet, neither of these was functional in non-Arab Muslim societies.


To read this largely European history, however, as a valid development for the total oikoumene, (the whole inhabited world) is hegemonic. It advances a Euro-centric pseudo-universal which is seen as a genuine, rationally provable, universal applicable to, and valid for, all everywhere. That is not only bad historiography, it is also a blindness to other realities which exist. It is, in fact, an eclipsing of these realities as they impinge on history everywhere. But the European history is important, since the modern state is a product of this history. The European history determines the history of all those peoples who seek to be a modern nation with all dimensions of social change in it.

Throughout the vast ranges of world history and different peoples, it has been normal for religion to be closely linked with politics. The prejudice in the West of separating church and state has made Western scholars also very suspicious of the relation between religion and politics. But as we have said, while church and state is an institutional issue, religion and politics is a more fundamental issue of life and the meaningfulness of human existence. It concerns human beings' inter-subjective activity as they live together. Because of the inability to make, or even see, the distinction between the foundational bi-polarity of religion and politics, and the institutional bi-polarity of church and state, Western scholars have had serious difficulties in understanding, or even appreciating, those societies and cultures where such distinctions have not existed, and where this sort of atomization between religion and politics is almost considered a moral death. In the study of such societies and cultures, there has been an imposition of unquestioned epistemological and metaphysical prejudices. This has led to an inability to see fundamental values in societies where religion and politics are very closely linked, or are seen as inter-critiquing axiomatic structures.

It is apparent that the character of democracy and even the nation-state will have a different manifestation in those societies that are dominated by Islam. Islamic societies struggling to establish a democratic political order are averse to reducing the basic political unit to the individual, and instead project the ethnos and demos factors into the political discourse. This is a fundamental challenge to the foundations of liberal democracy with its emphasis on the isolated vying individual. Further, the debate in Islam on the contemporary role of the umma (which is the conjoining of the ethnos and demos factors into one universal identity), and its status in the state is clearly a most critical issue. In this way Islam is contributing a very novel element to the larger democratic discourse. Raising the ethnos and demos factors as a prerequisite for democracy also highlights the inability of liberal democracy to deal with these components in a fundamental way. This becomes much more apparent where we have fundamentally pluralistic ethnos and demos and not just pluralism along denominational and clannish lines. In fact, the experiment with and demand for democracy that is emerging in Islamic states will always be tinged with the ethnos/demos factor, which is very difficult for a liberal structure to accept. The only way it knows to catalogue this ethnos/demos–based democracy is through the negative nomenclature of “fundamentalism,” “tribalism,” or “primordial politics.”

The other factor that impedes the emergence of a proper understanding in terms of the question of democracy in an Islamic context is the confusion in the West, due to its history, between the proper institutional separation of church and state and the improper extrapolation and extension of this to a separation of religion and politics which are ontologically connected. Officially, Islam has never had an institution like the church, nor has it had a priestly class, so the separation of church and state makes no sense. Neither does the transference of the western notion of a theocratic state, which was based on the power of the church and the priestly class. The separation of religion and politics is irrelevant, illogical, and nonsensical in an Islamic context, which has a hard theological and philosophical commitment to keeping the two together in order to provide ethical and moral parameters for the political order and to show the relevance of religion in its ability to be translated into the political order. Both religion and politics also demand a high singular loyalty which pervades all orders and not the overly simplistic, polytheistic-sounding, two spheres with their respective gods, which is often justified through the current incorrect reading of Luke 20:20-26.

The close linkage of religion and politics is, of course, very central to Islam. For the Muslim the idea of Islamic nationhood is part and parcel of any discourse on politics. Islam contains both an ethical ideal and guidelines for a polity. Further it regards the whole Muslim world as being fundamentally one in its concept of umma, which should be constituted ideally as one state, more on this later. At the same time since it has no clear ecclesiastical structure or clerics - unlike Christianity - Islam considers the notion of separation of church and state as a meaningless debate. However, a completely different approach to such a separation has been practiced by Islam from its earliest days. The fact that the Prophet was victorious in 632, and captured Mecca, which was one of his central goals from at least 622, if not 612 with the beginning of the revelation, but decided not to make it the capital of the new state of Islam, but left Medina as its political capital, indicates this difference which needs to be elaborated and further argued for the sake of contemporary Islam. The fact is that the religious qibla (the point of reference and therefore the direction of prayer) , remains permanent whereas the political capital of the caliphate changes from Medina to Kufa, then Damascus and thereon as far afield as Spain and Istanbul. But none of these political poloi ever acquired the status of being religious topos. Herein lies the potential of differentiation which the West accomplished through the notion of the separation of church and state.

With the development of post-Reformation and post-Enlightenment secularism in the West, religion was privatized for the proper functioning of the state. By contrast, in the Muslim world, Islam from the very beginning was the grundnorm for the polity and for the umma – which was a normative transcendent homogenous ideological community rather than one based on homogenous ethnos, ethos, and topos. From its very inception in the early seventh century and through many later developments in Islamic polity over the next 800 or so years, this grundnorm function of Islam remained more or less intact. While the idea of Muslim nationhood along these lines was established in Islamic political discourse from its very beginning, the identities of its citizens along ethnic, linguistic or other similar bonds were not subsumed under some paradigmatic homogenous ethnos and ethos but instead their plurality was maintained, but within the Islamic umma. This was seen as a sign of God's mastery and creativity:

Among His other signs are the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours. Surely there are signs in this for all mankind. (Surah Al-Rūm – “The Greeks” [lit. Byzantines] 30:22).

This creativity existed so that people could identify themselves into tribes and nations and in this way they could compete with one another in the doing of the good:

Men, We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you might get to know one another. The noblest of you in God’s sight is he who is most righteous. God is all knowing and wise. (Surah Al-Hujurā 49:13)

Compare this to the traditional Jewish and Christian exegesis of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 in which the human community’s plurality is viewed as being part of God’s punishment for arrogance:

Now the whole earth had one language and few words. … Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, …” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. …” … the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

They key difference between these two approaches is that while the emergence of secular, liberal bourgeois politics in the West demanded social and ethnic homogeneity and allowed a multi-party system within the state, Islam asked for homogeneity in following Islamic law, while allowing for heterogeneity in cultural and social life. So while almost all of the major political theories in the West have argued for the necessity of this homogeneity as a prerequisite for state formation, Islam has kept claiming the homogeneity on the basis of Islam itself. Since Islamic political theory developed during the heyday of the existence of the Islamic state, with its multi-cultural, social, national, and tribal affiliations, Muslims have had difficulties with the “modern” western concept of a nation-state which emerged only after 1648, because Islam’s emphasis has always been on state-nations, i.e., a single Muslim state encompassing the entire umma (state), which contains many nations (ethnoi) within itself. In this context a state characterized and limited on the basis of ethnos, ethos and topos, is incorrect and unsustainable. The only relevant topographical or geographical character demarcation recognized by Islam is the one grounded in the ideological boundaries of the Islamic state, i.e., Dar-al-Islam – the abode of Islam, and Dar-al-Harb – the non-Muslim states which is an abode of war or struggle (or jihad). This topography is therefore not restricted to physical realities but to ideological and spiritual ones.

In spite of this idealization, the historical facts of early Islam give a slightly different picture. Between 622 and 661 AD, the Prophet, and after his death the four rightly guided and pious caliphs (Khulfa-e-Rashdeen), headed all three branches of the government (namely, executive, legislative and judiciary) on the basis of their religious standing. This was the case, however, for only 39 years (from 622-661 AD), and if we take away the rule of the Prophet in Medina from 622 to 632 AD (i.e., ten years), then we have a period of only 29 years for the rule of the Khulfa-e-Rashdeen. But even within that time, the fact is that the last three of these four caliphs (viz., Umar, Uthman and Ali), who together ruled for just over 26 years, were murdered by other Muslims for various political reasons. Only the first caliph (Abu Bakr) being quite old when he took the office, died a natural death after ruling for just two and a half years. There is also a claim in some Muslim traditions that the Prophet himself was poisoned from within the community. This goes to show that even in this “golden age,” power was challenged by those within the earliest umma in spite of the religious justifications for this power. The continuing debates on the priority of one caliph over the other and the process of succession (or usurpation as some still see it), which was challenged from the beginning, led to a very early schism between the Shi’a and Sunni factions, and to a further division in the Kharajites (still within the first 39 years). Added to this is of course the two parties of the Muhajir and the Ansar (the Immigrants and the Resident Helpers), which is initially set for the convenience of the Muhajir in 622, but then acquires permanence in the fact that all four rightly guided Caliphs were taken from the Muhajir and no Ansar was ever considered for that leadership position. So the character of Dar-al-Islam and Dar-al-Harb and their location is not as easy to distinguish as some would like to claim, especially in the contemporary times in order to promote or create a new consciousness of jihad. In ideal form, an Islamic polity calls for a single Muslim state which should encompass the entire umma and negates separate Muslim states. Islamic law deals with an individual on the basis of his being a Muslim, the territory of the state to which he belongs becomes an issue only to the extent that such a territory is, or is not, governed by Islamic law.

The possibility of this kind of state-nation (i.e., an umma based polity, and the distinction between Dar-al-Islam and Dar-al-Harb) came largely to an end with the colonization of Muslim states that were outside the so-called Middle East, cf. the Mughal rule in India, and the various sultanates that spread through South East Asia. In the Middle East itself, the destruction of the Ottoman Empire after the First “World War,” through the direct intervention of the British colonial structure, led to the emergence of the first secular polity in Islam – Kamal Ataturk Pasha’s struggle for a constitutional democratic modern Turkey which came to fruition in 1923. This was the final nail in the coffin of the medieval Islamic state and all the structures that Islamic political theory, philosophy and theology had generated to date. There was almost no material available to deal with the post-caliphate Islamic nationhood, and also for Muslims living as minorities in states which were controlled by other religions or ideologies. Today they constitute close to 28% of the total Muslim umma and yet the constant reference within the Islamic political discourse is on the basis and premise of a majority Muslim state. People like Tariq Ramadan and all who are dealing with this experience seriously, amalgamate the Islamic experience with the liberal bourgeois politic rather than attempting to construct a political theory from within Islam that produces a theoretical construct which takes the experience of Muslim minority as a prerequisite for the construction of the umma-based polity.

The various revivals of the Salafi conservative movement and the others which surfaced such as the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia, Qutb in Egypt, and Maududi in India (later Pakistan), could not impede the struggle for, nor the later emergence of, nation-states with large Muslim populations and an Islamic identity (cf. Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc.). After the emergence of these post-colonial states, these same Salafi Muslim theologians, who had first seen them as heretical, began to demand that these states exercise the full panoply of Islamic political ideals within these highly territorially restricted states. In other words they paradoxically asked for the revival of the caliphate and umma-based Islamic polity inside of individual, topographically and geographically determined Muslim states, without taking cognizance of either the contradiction entailed in such a demand nor the defunctness of the foundational parameters that are necessary for such an Islamic polity. So initially Maududi and other ulemas in India railed against the demand for an independent Pakistan for the Muslims of India, because such a demand was fundamentally against the state-nation umma-based Islamic polity, but after its formation they demanded the application of shariah, etc., and claimed that their salafi/wahhabi understanding of Islam was essential for Pakistan. This contradiction continues to plague the current political and theological debates within Islamic discourse and shows both the anachronistic tendencies as well as the intellectual laziness which prevents them from dealing seriously with the contemporary realities which face Islamic faith and theology.


When discussing the current situation of Islam and democracy, one needs to recognize three points. First, whatever the position of the elites in Muslim societies vis-à-vis the West, the population at large generally perceives the West as a threat to its existence. This leads to a tension for the critical thinking “moderates” (read elites) as it puts them between the Scylla of kleptocratic but established political regimes of the post-colonial status quo, and the Charybdis of a large majority of poor “unwashed masses” (which includes the lower middle class) who have been left out of any possible state largesse and find cultural, symbolic, and political comfort in the more radical, militant, but also conservative, Islamic movements. For they see in them a hope for a more just economic arrangement and the possibility of political participation for the masses. This reaction has grown exponentially since the US invasions of Afghanistan and particularly Iraq following September 11, 2001. It has also been fuelled by the already existent and subsequently rising anti-Muslim, racist and xenophobic rhetoric of the European nations, and the easy equation of terrorism and Islam by the US and its allies. The relatively recent colonial experience, and even more recent neo-colonial domination, all influence and inform the current perceptions of the West in the Islamic world. These attitudes are intensified when public statements are made either against a particular state with an Islamic identity or against Islam itself. Serious consideration needs to be paid to the perceptions, apprehensions, and anxieties of populations in both the Islamic and western worlds, if peace is to have a durable role within these societies and within the larger international comity of nations.

Second, we need to deal with the seemingly “schizophrenic existence” of a radical Islamic identity with its vision of a trans-national Islamic ummah which exists (not always harmoniously) alongside a radical nationalist identity that strongly presumes a nation-state along modern lines. This seeming schizophrenia is further distorted by questions of ethnic and linguistic identity. That is to say, on the one hand, there is the supra-nation-state ideology, represented by the Islamic concept of ummah, while on the other hand there are the so-called “primordial identities” which lie deeper than the post-colonial transcendent national identity. And at the same time, most people also support, in the middle of these two sets of identities, some concept of the modern nation-state, which is at odds with these other identity commitments. When the modern nation-state fails to meet its declared ideals, in terms of services and public morality, then people very quickly and almost pathologically turn to the other options, i.e., Islamic identity and/or sub-national identities. The three-pronged quest for identity (i.e., supra-national Islamic, transcendent nationalist, and sub-national ethnic, linguistic, and tribal identities), and the attempts to integrate these conflicting identities, remains one of the crucial issues of political debate in contemporary Islamic states, as well as in other post-colonial states. This task challenges the concept of democracy as understood in the West and is judged in the light of Islamic theology and ideology.

A third issue is the desire, on the one hand, to preserve at least those aspects of the modern nation-state (weakened and threatened as it may be), that follow an instrumental rationality and through that provide for the efficient working of systems and institutions, yet on the other hand, to give that system at least a veneer of Islamic legitimacy. The problem, however, is that these institutions are largely the product of a particular historical evolution in western social and political theory and statecraft. Although there is an adoption – and in some case even a certain amount of adaptation – of these systems and institutions to the local contexts, in most cases there is either a conscious ignorance or rejection of the underlying geist (spirit), which is quickly replaced by an Islamic spirit or ideology. In other words, in order to justify the existence of these instruments, they are renamed and claimed to be Islamic. For example, the shift in Pakistan of the nomenclature from Parliament to Majlis-e-Shoora (originally an unelected Council of Advisors to the caliph) becomes a critical shift because now the institution of parliament does not have the sense of being made up of elected legislators, but rather it simply connotes a body of advisors appointed by the head of the state. Interestingly, no mention is made of the equivalent analogue of the modern office of the head of state, which would be the medieval office of caliph. So we have elected presidents and elected parliaments but the latter’s name has been changed to meet the need for an Islamic veneer. The former office has instead often simply been usurped by the most western institution in these countries (i.e., the military), although while they re-dub the parliament “Majlis-e-Shoora,” they do not take on the title of Caliph for themselves. This shift in nomenclature and the Islamic veneer placed on these very western institutions causes anxiety in the West and among westernized elites in Muslim societies because they see this as a slippery slope, leading to the reestablishment of an anachronistic form of polity.

These above three tension points produce a high level of anti-western rhetoric, which is fed as a regular diet to the general populace to gain their political support. At this point peoples’ participatory expression begins to surface (which is, of course, critical for any democratic society), and clearly targets the status quo, which is seen to be western, secular, liberal, and even anti-Islamic in character. So what is largely seen by the West and by westernized elites within these societies as a fundamentalist thrust against the modern state, its instruments and institutions, is paradoxically a phenomenon that is partly dependent upon the modern concept of democracy and the equally modern value of a high level of peoples’ participation for its success against the status quo. In this sense the more traditional groups see themselves as victims of the modern controlling elites who are the agents of the West in the Islamic states. They use traditional religious symbols for evoking political activity and anti-West sentiments to attack the ruling groups that control the state’s institutional structures. The contradiction between the upholding of traditional values and symbols, and the use of people power against the status quo, dominates the current political process and practice in most Islamic states. This seeming contradiction, however, is not readily apparent to the controlling elites of these societies and even less so to western political theorists and analysts. Hence the very inaccurate predictions by western pundits about Islam and Muslim countries that we have witnessed over and over again in the recent history. The lack of accurate perceptions of these issues is also one of the major obstacles to coming to terms with Islamic societies and their role in the international arena. It also poses a serious threat to peace processes vis-à-vis these nations and for future development in these areas.

Modern nation-states which have majority Muslim populations are either a product of the end of colonialism, or a creation of the direct intervention of the West, through the breaking of the Ottoman Turkish Empire as mentioned above. Except for Iran, most of the non-Arab Muslim states have large heterogeneous ethnic and linguistic communities. Islam has been seen as the transcendent ideology that was to hold these heterogeneous multi-social and multi-cultural societies together. In this sense, Islam was to play the same ideologically transcendent role in these newer Muslim states that secularism did in the West after the collapse of Christendom.

It is now quite apparent that using the rhetoric of Islam as a binding or cohering glue has failed, in spite of the “head in the sand” attitude of some of the Muslim leadership. Islam, as interpreted and used as a tool, clearly failed to provide the cohesive opposition against the state of Israel in the two wars of 1967 and 1973. It failed to provide the necessary integration in the 1971 conflict between what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh. It clearly did not have any kind of irenic and binding force to stop one Muslim state from attacking another during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988. Nor did it stop Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait. And it was clearly incapable of bringing Muslim states together against the US during the first Gulf War of 1991. Although one wants to see a homogenous Islamic response to the US and its war coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Islam still does not play either a peace-making role, nor is it able to bind Muslims together in the way that either the West claims or that Muslim leaders would like. It must be said, however, that we have witnessed a lot more cohesion and anti-western unity in the Islamic world over the last six years, than in a long time. This seems to be growing because of a perception in the Muslim world of the character and constancy of the attack against Islam and the daily new manifestations of this attack in Europe and by the US.


An Islamic perspective on democratization demands a different understanding of democracy and political order, one that clashes in some very fundamental ways with the Liberal understanding of democracy and politics that now dominates international political discourse. If there is to be an international order grounded in a just peace, one has to push for a plurality of political orders and democratic expressions. Peace is most threatened when the historical basis and experience of a particular people is hegemonically thrust upon others who have completely different histories and experiences. This pseudo-universalizing challenges Islamic states most particularly as they possess their own ideals of polity that have a clearly worked out moral and philosophical basis. These have a clear application in their own political orders and thus Muslims would like to experiment with people's participation on a different scale that cannot be judged along Liberal political lines.