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Are Muslims calling for democracy or elections?

“…democracy is more than elections”(1).
Tzipi Livni – Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, Washington Post, February 24, 2011.
Brave protestors are still on the streets struggling against many of the tyrannical Arab regimes. The world continues to watch the efforts of once-ordinary people who finally shook off their fear of their dictatorial regimes and chose dignity instead.
In the aftermath of the uprising an important question remains unanswered; are Muslims calling for democracy or elections?
The question exists because Western news reporters and camera crews report demonstrators calling for democracy but what does this mean to them? CNN and the BBC may report that they use the phrase democracy but there’s an unsurprising bias, particularly when the Western media scour the streets for those who can explain their ideas in English. Do we take these calls at face-value or do we investigate if that’s what they are really calling for?
There’s no doubt ‘democracy’ is recognised as a contested and elusive term(2). So we could take a simple meaning which depends on procedural elements such as civil rights, particularly fair elections; the rule of law; equality before the law; economic opportunity and a fairer distribution of wealth; accountability and transparency as well as an end to the corruption of crony capitalism. All of this fits within what many ascribe to democracy.
However, we could also take a deeper meaning of democracy that includes Western values, not least the notions of secularism and that legislation comes from man. This meaning of legislation through popular will and separation of church from state is essentially a rejection to the Right of Allah SWT, as al-Hakim, to be the sole legislator and as al-Malik, to be sovereign alone.
Awareness of this conflict between the two definitions means it is clear we must guard against employing the term ‘democracy’ so carelessly.
One answer on what the people want comes from the explicit calls for Islam by demonstrators from Tunis and Cairo to Sana’a to Benghazi, easily available on YouTube but conspicuous by their absence in Western news reports.
Another comes from the calls of the Islamic jurists motivating the people to rise on the basis of Islam. Al-Arabiyya reported the publication of a statement of 90 ‘Ulema from various countries supporting the uprising but condemning democracy adding:
“In democracies, people might vote for things that are prohibited in Islam like establishing brothels, allowing homosexuality, drinking alcohol, and usury, and prohibiting the call for prayers or the veil”(3)
This was supported by a fatwa by the Network of Free ‘Ulema of Libya telling all Muslims it was their Islamic (rather than democratic) duty to rebel stating:
“They (the government and its supporters) have thereby demonstrated total infidelity to the guidance of God and his beloved Prophet (SAW)…this renders them undeserving of any obedience or support, and makes rebelling against them by all means possible a divinely
ordained duty” (4)
Yet another answer comes from the objective polling data taken from reputable bodies. The Pew Research Centre’s Global Attitudes Project asked Muslims if democracy was preferable to any other kind of government in a report published in January, 2011(5). They found strong agreement in Lebanon (81%), Turkey (76%), Jordan (69%), Nigeria (66%), Indonesia (65%), Egypt (59%) with Pakistan trailing in behind (42%).
However, when Muslims were asked in the same poll if Islam was seen as a positive rather than negative influence in politics it found impressive margins in favour of Islam in Indonesia (91% positive to 6% negative), Egypt (85% to 2%), Nigeria (82% to 10%), Jordan (76% to 14%) and Pakistan (69% to 6%). A separate Pew report on Religion & Public Life from April 2010 found substantial majorities of Muslims polled in sub-Saharan Africa who favoured making shari’ah the official law of the land including Djibouti (82%), DR Congo (74%), Nigeria (71%), Uganda (66%), Ethiopia and Mozambique (both 65%), Kenya (64%) and Mali (63%)(6).
This coincides with previous polls. The Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland conducted a major survey in February 2007 in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Its summary concludes:
“On average, about three out of four agree with seeking to “require Islamic countries to impose a strict application of sharia,” and to “keep Western values out of Islamic countries.” Two-thirds would even like to “unify all Islamic counties into a single Islamic state or caliphate”(7)
The Centre for Strategic Studies (CSS) at the University of Jordan surveyed Muslims in Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria back in February 2005(8). It found approximately two-thirds of Muslim respondents in Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt stated that the shari’ah must be the only source of legislation; while the remaining third believed that it must be “one of the sources of legislation”. By comparison, in Lebanon and Syria, a majority (nearly two thirds in Lebanon and just over half in Syria) favored the view that shari’ah must be one of the sources of legislation.
So the desire for rights is clear and the desire for Islam is clear. The people may sometimes use the term ‘democracy’, which will be eagerly seized on by western media networks, but there is clearly awareness that Islam provides the rights that people want.
Some Muslims, fearful of being labelled extremists have gone to great lengths to downplay any fervour for Islam in governance while the Western media have reported events to support their bias for democracy. However, this should not lead to confusion. Muslims have risen, with iman in their hearts. They’ve put their lives on the line facing tanks, jets, artillery, machine guns and snipers, chanting loudly that they want the fall of their regimes and that they want their rights.
There is certainly more to democracy than elections and it should not surprise any of us that the people of a Muslim-majority region want Islam.
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