Do you Really Want Islam Running the State’s Waste Management?

There is much talk these days about democratization in Egypt. But even the most optimistic among us realize that this will be a long and slow process. Nevertheless, the seeds for future democracy are currently being planted by an intellectual engagement from the youth of Egypt. But despite the attractiveness of the idea of democracy around the world, it remains a contested term. This is particularly true in the Islamic world. In other words, what would an Islamic democracy look like? What components of the state do you want run by Islam and which by pragmatic democratic means?

For successful democratization of Egypt Islamic groups must be part of the political process. Even more specifically democratization should align itself with Islam as much as possible otherwise it will not succeed. This begs the question about which aspects of Islam are most amenable to democratization and which are not.

Democracies struggle if they are not run well. Egypt has a staggering amount of work ahead and for now we can only point to numerous challenges including creating a constitution, developing strong institutions, solving problems of leadership, and creating communicative and associational freedoms. And all of these must be consistent with basic principles of Islam. This will be a challenge because, in general, there is not a strict separation of the temporal from the spiritual in Islamic culture. The importance of separation of church and state as we know it in the West is not so apparent to Muslim culture. And if we lecture Muslim leaders on the importance of secular governance they will point properly to the failures of ideologies like nationalism, socialism, and secularism to deliver good governance.

But mainstream Islam can be politicized because Islam is a religion that values the mundane; in other words, the everyday activities of life, such as running the Department of Waste Management, are regarded as a form of piety. This is an important issue in political Islam because it can help teach accountability on earth. The entanglement of religion and politics can be a positive thing if the spirituality of religion is used to advance justice and equality. Islam does not stipulate a required political structure, but it does foster a fair and equitable political order.

In the West we argue that the privatization of religion is necessary to keep democratic governance fair. But this won’t hold for Muslim cultures. They want something we might call “religious democracy.” It’s possible that the idea of a religious democracy is completely untenable, a contradiction in terms. And there are numerous examples where this would be true of Islamic interpretations. We would not expect, for example, democracy to take root in a country like Iran because Iran has no liberal understanding of the separation of church and state. But other models are possible. Islam in the political realm can embolden people sufficiently that the public demands competence and accountability, and can be removed when necessary.

I’m arguing for the possibility of a native democratic paradigm that is realistic. Turkey is typically cited as a country that is both Muslim and democratic. And although it is a good model of religion and democracy it remains flawed and still too dependent on the military for stability. In Egypt, the state will remain neutral in matters of faith and religious structures must place the common good ahead of scriptural interpretation.

Islam and democracy will coexist in Egypt if Islam respects its classical heritage of peace and harmony instead of human claims to represent the word of God. Islam’s concern with justice can serve as a foundation for a well running civil society. Still, a watchful eye must be kept on the lookout for any attempt to deprive people of the civil good on the basis of religiosity. A native Islam and democracy project must include the concept of “the citizen.”

The key to a native Islam and democracy is to recognize the relationship between the religion and the well-being of all citizens and the nation-state. The ethical politics of Islam can serve as a guide for the good of all humans. Only then can Islam both serve the spiritual needs of the community and properly manage the state bureaucracies.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on February 21, 2011, in Democracy. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Do you Really Want Islam Running the State’s Waste Management?.

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