The World Movement for Democracy convened on February 1-4, 2004 in Durban, South Africa, for its Third Assembly on “Building Democracy for Peace, Development and Human Rights”. More than 600 democracy activists, practitioners, and scholars from more than 100 countries participated in the assembly (www.wmd.org).
The Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy (Washington DC) and the Sisters-in-Islam organization (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) co-organized a workshop on “Democracy in the Muslim World: Obstacles, Difficulties, and Best methods”. The panelists were Haytham Manna (from Syria), Slaheddine Jourchi (from Tunisia) Zainah Anwar (from Malaysia) and Ayesha Imam (from Nigeria). The panel was moderated by Radwan Masmoudi, President of CSID.
Mr. Masmoudi spoke about the current crisis in the Muslim world despite all its potential and enormous resources. He indicated that Muslims feel obligated to choose between Islam and modernity (or Islam and democracy) because they are faced with outdated and inappropriate interpretations of Islam that are hundreds of years old and not applicable to the modern situation. Masmoudi added that the international community and governments have been too willing to tolerate and acquiesce to undemocratic regimes in the Arab and Muslim world (in the name of stability) but this is beginning to change as people realize that real stability can only be achieved through democratic process.
Mr. Manna mentioned the historic development of the Muslim civilization, and earlier civilizations, up to colonialism. He spoke about the difficult situation that the political elite found in the Arab world after independence, and indicated that religious reforms (of both Christianity and Islam) did not succeed in changing the expansionist and empire-building tendencies in both religions. The only solution is to recognize the rights of the citizens, regardless of their religion, in order to build modern democratic states. Manna stressed the importance of engaging in dialogue (both internal and external) in order to build consensus and harmony.
Ms. Imam spoke about the experience of Muslims in Nigeria, and indicated that conservative Muslims are first and foremost concerned about protecting the Muslim identity. This is being done at the expense of Muslim women rights who were deprived of their right to vote until 1976. Strict adherence to Shariah and Hudud (punishment) laws have resulted in discrimination against women and poor individuals. While someone who steals $50 can have his hand cut, people who embezzle millions of dollars often go unpunished (because there is no hudud punishment against embezzlement). She concluded that the Nigeria experience stressed the importance of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims, and the need to search for a positive definition of Islam and Shariah that protects and supports freedom and justice.
Mr. Jourchi spoke about the difficulties of democratic transitions in the Arab world, and explained that there is no society that is against democracy in principle, but there are problems of implementation and practice. The failure is in the strategies adopted by the democrats, especially since Arab history does not provide many examples of democratic rule. Arab countries are not all the same, but each country has its own specificity. The challenges that remain have to do with how to weaken the hold of governments, and their control over the political process, without resorting to violence. Democracy promotion in the Arab world must take place with and without the co-operation of the regimes, and he called for ending the ideological wars between national and secularist forces on one hand and Islamic and Islamist movements on the other. There can be no democracy without the participation of the Islamists, and also that democracy will be in danger if Islamists dominate the state and public discourse.
Ms. Anwar stated that Islam is being used as a political ideology by some groups who want to monopolize Islam. Muslim women, in Malaysia and other parts of the Muslim world, are now trying to defend their rights under Islam by putting forward their own interpretation of Islam. Conservative religious scholars do not have the right to speak in the name of Islam, which belongs to every Muslim man and woman. Even non-Muslims in Muslim-majority countries, such as Malaysia, have the right to express their concerns about Islam, and their rights as full citizens and equal partners.
After long discussions and debates about the best methods for promoting and strengthening democracy in the Muslim countries, most participants emphasized the following recommendations:
- The necessity to continue this type of exchange and debate, and call upon the National Endowment for Democracy, and other democracy foundations, to support these and similar initiatives and networks.
- Religious dialogue is also very important, not only between Muslims of various groups and tendencies, but also with members of other faiths in order to promote religious harmony, understanding between civilizations, and peace.
- Muslims need to develop a modern and tolerant interpretation of Islam, based on the Islamic principles of Shura (consultation), Adl (justice), and Hurriya (freedom), as necessary conditions for developing democracy and peaceful coexistence.
- Islamic movements and religious leaders must be engaged in a dialogue about their vision and social project in order to arrive at a consensus on the type of society and government that Muslims seek and deserve. Exclusion and oppression will only lead these movements to more violence and radicalism.
- Secularism should not be forced as the main objective as it is currently misunderstood as anti-religion. True secularism is in fact a protection of religion from the State, and of religious freedom from government interference. Secularism is not a condition for democracy in the Muslim world, but can be developed through dialogue and common interests.