Liberal Democracy and minority rights:

the role of education, religion and culture rapprochement

Ali Salman

This is the text of my speech at the Europe-Muslim World Democracy Forum organized by the Europe Conservatives and Reformists Group led by MEP Syed Kamall on 19th February 2019 at the EU Parliament, Brussels.

Let me begin by thanking MEP Syed Kamall and MEP Amjad Bashir for giving me an opportunity to speak in this important forum and also for meeting some old and new friends here in Brussels!

I will start my contribution by referring to the introductory paragraph of the agenda which pertains to this session. In my view, this short passage is a good summary of not-so-good understanding about the nature of “Political Islam”, liberal democracy and minority rights in what we refer as the “Muslim world”, but let me quickly qualify it by calling it Muslim-majority nations, or may be even OIC member countries.

I will respond to these well-understood positions:

  1. Political Islam has an impact which has raised suspicion towards non-Muslims, leading to violence and curtailment of religious freedom.
  2. Muslim intellectuals are making efforts to legitimize legal and political equality of Muslims and non-Muslims.
  3. Religious minorities are declining in Muslim-majority countries.

Hence the hypothesis is: political Islam is suppressing religious minorities despite intellectual efforts by modern Muslim scholars to reinterpret Islamic knowledge and define legal and political equality between Muslims and non-Muslims, which is failing.

Let’s unpack Political Islam. In simple words, it is the idea that in Islam, the religion commands total life, including politics. Pakistan’s Maulana Mawdudi was one of the most prominent proponents of this idea which has proved highly influential in inspiring worldwide political movements. Once considered his protégé, another Pakistani scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi (considered his anti-thesis) has turned the whole idea of Political Islam on its head- by arguing that setting up a political authority is not a religious obligation of Muslims.

Not just intellectually, but at the level of realpolitik as well, Political Islam has failed. Let’s do a quick survey.

In Pakistan, Political Islam has no mass following and what we observe now is actually scattered pockets of support which is actually rooted in ethnicity, sparse urban following, and/or manifestation of support from the military establishment.

In Malaysia, Political Islam does have street power to stop major reforms but it does not have the power of delivery. PAS has remained in power in the North eastern state of Kelantan for more than forty years and Kelantan remains the poorest state of Malaysia.

In Iran, where Islamists actually brought revolution, the economic situation remains worrisome despite of enormous oil reserves and the power that Iranian clerical regime holds over the policy making. We are just witnessing what terrible economic consequences an oil-rich country can bring on its people- in the shape of Venezuela.

In Bangladesh, Political Islam never flourished, though what we now see is another form of democratic fascism where rule of law has been shattered.

In Indonesia, two largest Muslim organizations, Muhammadiya and Nahdlatul Ulema remain highly influential but not involved in direct politics.

In Turkey, AKP is associated with Political Islam, but this position is contentious and rivalled, and before it entered into current authoritarian phase, it is credited with significant economic development.

These large countries, undoubtedly, democratic in the sense of procedural and institutional framework, comprise almost half of the OIC member countries population and half of its GDP show that Political Islam is now dead.  

Let me now turn to the status of religious minorities in some of these countries. I am more familiar with at least two countries mentioned- Malaysia, where I am currently based; and Pakistan, where I come from.

In the case of Malaysia, it is correct that non-Malay population (particularly Chinese) which has remained a minority but exert economic influence, is decreasing. However, in Malaysia, all policies have ethnic lines, and in this case, these lines neatly overlap with religious lines. Hence, to argue that political Islam in Malaysia is responsible for suppressing religious minorities is not tenable.

In the case of Pakistan, it is true that religious minorities, that includes both Muslims and non-Muslims by the way, are finding it increasingly difficult to survive. However, it is not correct to attribute this failing of the state to political Islam in Pakistan.

In Pakistan, the constitution actually provides for equality and non-discrimination on the basis of religion, gender and ethnicity, however the state remains abysmally weak to enforce its writ, giving individuals and groups extra ordinary power to act as a state within state. However let’s appreciate that even in Pakistan, the courts are now striking back. Two landmark judgements- Tasaddaq Jillani in 2014 and Saqib Nisar in 2018- show the importance accorded to protection of religious minorities by the superior courts. Most recently, the Chief Justice of Pakistan has upheld the Supreme Court decision to acquit Asiya Bibi who unfortunately had to spend nine years in the prison on death row, before acquittal. A couple of years ago, a trial judge found the killer of slain governor of Punjab Salman Taseer guilty of the murder and awarded capital punishment to his assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged. (The judge left Pakistan since then!)

As should be obvious by giving these two disparate examples, the problems faced by religious minorities are not caused by “Political Islam”- rather we can find absence of rule of law and poor governance as primary factors.

There is no inherent incompatibility between Islam and democracy and also Muslims communities worldwide are desirous of representative governments. However the quality of these democratic institutions are as good or as bad as anywhere else. In Europe, we see that the right wing, ultra- nationalism is getting more democratic space; in the US, we find that democratic choices have led to ‘America, first’ symptom.

Obviously the basic administrative ability of states in most of the Muslim majority countries is significantly weaker than their counterparts in Europe and US and hence the discussion over the future of liberal democracy in the Muslim majority countries is often blind sighted by discussion on Political Islam. It only helps in masking real problems.

Let’s now turn our attention to the intellectual dimension of the status of minorities in Islam, which is highly contentious one. In fact, the debate on ‘equality in Islam’ always ends up at two major criticisms- women and minority rights- leading to this claim that Islam does not allow equality on the basis of gender and religion. I will restrict myself to the issue of minority rights here.

To begin with, let’s establish a simple fact, which will demonstrate gravity of the problem. 

Quran- the main source of Shariah- provides supportive and critical sets of arguments about equality between Muslims and non-Muslims. I will mention two verses for each position.

For example:

“You are the best community evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong and you believe in God. If only the People of the Scriptures had believed, it would have been better for them. Some of them are believers but most of them are transgressors.”

Al-Imran, verse 110

“O you who believe, take not the Jews and the Christians for friends and protectors. They are but friends and protectors to each other. He among you who turns to them for friendship is [one] of them.”

Al-Ma’idah, verse 51

These verses become the basis of arguments in support of Muslim/non-Muslim animosity.

But we also have “other” verses.

“Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does good, they have their reward with their Lord, and there is no fear for them, not shall they grieve.”

Al-Baqarah: 62

“This day [all] things good and pure are made lawful to you. The food of the People of the Book is lawful to you and your food is lawful to them. And so are the chaste from among the believing women and the chaste women from among those who have been given the Scriptures before you.”

Al-Ma’idah 5: 5

After a thorough review of Islamic literature on this issue, eminent contemporary jurist and scholar Hashim Kamali concludes that the “the text here permits beneficial exchange, hospitality, and inter-marriage between Muslims, Jews and Christians.”

Kamali follows by an extensive commentary on the sources of hadith and fiqh literature as well as contemporary discussions by Muslim intellectuals on this subject.

The broad conclusion is that the fiqh has disagreements on the equality and ultimately it becomes an issue of interpretation rather than an explicit religious commandment.

Hashim Kamali concludes rather boldly and I quote:

“[Hence] it becomes necessary to abandon all that is disagreeable to the general regime of equality between Muslim and non-Muslim citizens, whether it is the jizyah, military service or employment to government positions, except for the office of the head of state, which should be reserved for Muslims.”

In addition to these intellectual efforts, let me also say that in most of the cases, the constitutional law in Muslim countries provides for equality and shuns all types of discrimination. This means that the post-colonial Muslim societies and nation-states have actually resolved this tension pragmatically. They have resolved the ‘minority rights’ problem at the level of fiqh, at the level of law and at the level of politics. The bewildering chasm between this statement and actual situation on the ground in the Muslim lands should invite our attention to the status of rule of law, good governance and ‘civilizational Islam’, rather than ‘Political Islam’ or superficial discussion on the compatibility between Islam and liberal democracy.

Thank you for your kind attention and I hope it can generate some discussion.   

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