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by Amir Taheri
Benador Online
May 19, 2004

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am glad that this debate takes place in English.

Because, were it to be conducted in any of the languages of our part of the world, we would not have possessed the vocabulary needed.

To understand a civilisation it is important to understand its vocabulary.

If it was not on their tongues it is likely that it was not on their minds either.

There was no word in any of the Muslim languages for democracy until the 1890s. Even then the Greek word democracy entered Muslim languages with little change: democrasi in Persian, dimokraytiyah in Arabic, demokratio in Turkish.

Democracy as the proverbial schoolboy would know is based on one fundamental principle: equality.

The Greek word for equal isos is used in more than 200 compound nouns; including isoteos (equality) and Isologia (equal or free speech) and isonomia (equal treatment).

But again we find no equivalent in any of the Muslim languages. The words we have such as barabari in Persian and sawiyah in Arabic mean juxtaposition or levelling.

Nor do we have a word for politics.

The word siassah, now used as a synonym for politics, initially meant whipping stray camels into line.( Sa'es al-kheil is a person who brings back lost camels to the caravan. )The closest translation may be: regimentation.

Nor is there mention of such words as government and the state in the Koran.

It is no accident that early Muslims translated numerous ancient Greek texts but never those related to political matters. The great Avicenna himself translated Aristotle's Poetics. But there was no translation of Aristotle's Politics in Persian until 1963.

Lest us return to the issue of equality.

The idea is unacceptable to Islam.

For the non-believer cannot be the equal of the believer.

Even among the believers only those who subscribe to the three so-called Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam ( Ahl el-Kitab) are regarded as fully human.

Here is the hierarchy of human worth in Islam:

At the summit are free male Muslims

Next come Muslim male slaves

Then come free Muslim women

Next come Muslim slave women.

Then come free Jewish and /or Christian men

Then come slave Jewish and/or Christian men

Then come slave Jewish and/or Christian women.

Each category has rights that must be respected.

The People of the Book have always been protected and relatively well-treated by Muslim rulers, but often in the context of a form of apartheid known as dhimmitude.

The status of the rest of humanity, those whose faiths are not recognised by Islam or who have no faith at all, has never been spelled out although wherever Muslim rulers faced such communities they often treated them with a certain measure of tolerance and respect ( As in the case of Hindus under the Muslim dynasties of India.)

Non-Muslims can, and have often been, treated with decency, but never as equals.

(There is a hierarchy even for animals and plants. Seven animals and seven plants will assuredly go to heaven while seven others of each will end up in Hell.)

Democracy means the rule of the demos, the common people, or what is now known as popular or national sovereignty.

In Islam, however, power belongs only to God: al-hukm l'illah. The man who exercises that power on earth is known as Khalifat al-Allah, the regent of God.

But even then the Khalifah or Caliph cannot act as legislator. The law has already been spelled out and fixed for ever by God.

The only task that remains is its discovery, interpretation and application.

That, of course, allows for a substantial space in which different styles of rule could develop.

But the bottom line is that no Islamic government can be democratic in the sense of allowing the common people equal shares in legislation.

Islam divides human activities into five categories from the permitted to the sinful, leaving little room for human interpretation, let alone ethical innovations.

What we must understand is that Islam has its own vision of the world and man's place in it.

To say that Islam is incompatible with democracy should not be seen as a disparagement of Islam.

On the contrary, many Muslims would see it as a compliment because they sincerely believe that their idea of rule by God is superior to that of rule by men which is democracy.

In Muslim literature and philosophy being forsaken by God is the worst that can happen to man.

The great Persian poet Rumi pleads thus:

Oh, God, do not leave our affairs to us

For, if You do, woe be to us.

Rumi mocks those who claim that men can rule themselves.

He says:

You are not reign even over your beard,

That grows without your permission.

How can you pretend, therefore,

To rule about right and wrong?

The expression "abandoned by God" sends shivers down Muslim spines. For it spells the doom not only of individuals but of entire civilisations.

The Koran tells the stories of tribes, nations and civilisations that perished when God left them to their devices.

The great Persian poet Attar says :

I have learned of Divine Rule in Yathirb ( i.e. Medinah, the city of the Prophet)

What need do I have of the wisdom of the Greeks?

Hafez, another great Persian poet, blamed man's "hobut" or fall on the use of his own judgment against that of God:

I was an angel and my abode was the eternal paradise

Adam ( i.e.) man brought me to this place of desolation

Islamic tradition holds that God has always intervened in the affairs of men, notably by dispatching 124000 prophets or emissaries to inform the mortals of His wishes and warnings.

Many Islamist thinkers regard democracy with horror.

The late Ayatollah Khomeini called democracy " a form of prostitution" because he who gets the most votes wins the power that belongs only to God.

Sayyed Qutub, the Egyptian who has emerged as the ideological mentor of Safalists, spent a year in the United States in the 1950s.

He found "a nation that has forgotten God and been forsaken by Him; an arrogant nation that wants to rule itself."

Last year Yussuf al-Ayyeri, one of the leading theoreticians of today's Islamist movement, published a book ( available on the Internet) in which he warned that the real danger to Islam did not come from American tanks and helicopter gunships in Iraq but from the idea of democracy and rule by the people.

Maudoodi, another of the Islamist theoreticians now fashionable, dreamed of a political system in which human beings would act as automatons in accordance with rules set by God.

He said that God has arranged man's biological functions in such a way that their operation is beyond human control. For our non-biological functions, notably our politics, God has set rules that we have to discover and apply once and for all so that our societies can be on auto-pilot so to speak.

The late Saudi theologian, Sheikh Muhammad bin Ibrahim al-Jubair, a man I respected though seldom agreed with, sincerely believed that the root cause of all of our contemporary ills was the spread of democracy.

" Only one ambition is worthy of Islam," he liked to say, " the ambition to save the world from the curse of democracy: to teach men that they cannot rule themselves on the basis of manmade laws. Mankind has strayed from the path of God, we must return to that path or face certain annihilation."

Thus those who claim that Islam is compatible with democracy should know that they are not flattering Muslims.

In fact, most Muslims would feel insulted by such assertions.

How could a manmade form of government, invented by the heathen Greeks, be compared with Islam which is God's final word to man, the only true faith, they would ask.

In the past 14 centuries Muslims have, on occasions, succeeded in creating successful societies without democracy.

And there is no guarantee that democracy never produces disastrous results. (After all Hitler was democratically elected.)

The fact that almost all Muslim states today can be rated as failures or, at least, underachievers, is not because they are Islamic but because they are ruled by corrupt and despotic elites that, even when they proclaim an Islamist ideology, are, in fact, secular dictators.

Let us recall the founding myth of democracy as related by Protagoras in Plato.

Protagoras's claim that the rule of the people, democracy, is the best, is ridiculed by Socrates who points out that men always call on experts to deal with specific tasks but when it comes to the more important matters concerning the city, i.e. the community, they allow every Tom , Dick and Harry an equal say.

Protagoras says that when man was created he lived a solitary existence and was unable to protect himself and his kin against more powerful beasts.

Consequently men came together to secure their lives by founding cities. But the cities were torn by strife because inhabitants did wrong to one another.

Zeus, watching the proceedings, realised that the reason that things were going badly was that men did not have the art of managing the city ( politike techne).

Without that art man was heading for destruction.

So, Zeus called in his messenger, Hermes and asked him to deliver two gifts to mankind: aidos and dike.

Aidos is a sense of shame and a concern for the good opinion of others.

Dike here means respect for the right of others and implies a sense of justice that seeks civil peace through adjudication.

Before setting off Hermes asks a decisive question: Should I deliver this new art to a select few, as was the case in all other arts, or to all?

Zeus replies with no hesitation : To all. Let all have their share.

Protagoras concludes his reply to Socrates' criticism of democracy thus:" Hence it comes about, Socrates, that people in the cities, and especially in Athens, listen only to experts in matters of expertise but when they meet for consultation on the political art, i.e. of the general question of government, everybody participates."

Traditional Islamic political thought is closer to Socrates than to Protagoras.

The common folk, al-awwam, are regarded as "animals "( al-awwam kal anaam!)

The interpretation of the Divine Law is reserved only for the experts.

In Iran there is even a body called The Assembly of Experts.

Political power, like many other domains, including philosophy, is reserved for the " khawas" who, in some Sufi traditions, are even exempt from the ritual rules of the faith.

The " common folk", however, must do as they are told either by the text and tradition or by fatwas issued by the experts. Khomeini coined the word "mustazafeen" (the feeble ones) to describe the common folk.

In the Greek tradition once Zeus has taught men the art of politics he does not try to rule them.

To be sure he and other Gods do intervene in earthly matters but always episodically and mostly in pursuit of their illicit pleasures.

Polytheism is by its pluralistic nature is tolerant, open to new gods, and new views of old gods. Its mythology personifies natural forces that could be adapted, by allegory, to metaphysical concepts.

One could in the same city and at the same time mock Zeus as a promiscuous old rake, henpecked and cuckolded by Juno, or worship him as justice defied.

This is not possible in monotheism especially Islam, the only truly monotheistic of the three Abrahamic faiths.

In monotheism for the One to be stable in its One-ness it is imperative that the many be stabilised in their many-ness.

The God of monotheism does not discuss or negotiate matters with mortals.

He dictates, be it the 10 Commandments or the Koran which was already composed and completed before Allah sent his Hermes, Archangel Gabriel, to dictate it to Muhammad:

Read, the Koran starts with the command; In the name of Thy God The Most High!

Islam's incompatibility with democracy is not unique. It is shared by other religions. For faith is about certainty while democracy is about doubt. There is no changing of one's mind in faith, while democracy is about changing minds and sides.

If we were to use a more technical terminology faith creates a nexus and democracy a series.

Democracy is like people waiting for a bus.

They are of different backgrounds and have different interests. We don't care what their religion is or how they vote. All they have in common is their desire to get on that bus. And they get off at whatever stop they wish.

Faith, however is internalised. Turned into a nexus it controls man's every thought and move even in his deepest privacy.

Democracy, of course, is compatible with Islam because democracy is serial and polytheistic. People are free to believe whatever they like to believe and perform whatever religious rituals they wish, provided they do not infringe on other's freedoms in the public domain.

The other way round, however, it does not work.

Islam cannot allow people to do as they please , even in the privacy of their bedrooms, because God is always present, everywhere, all-hearing and all-seeing.

There is consultation in Islam: Wa shawerhum fil amr. ( And consult them in matters)

But the consultation thus recommended is about specifics only, never about the overall design of society.

In democracy there is a constitution that can be changed or at least amended.

The Koran, however, is the immutable word of God, beyond change or amendment.

This debate is not easy.

For Islam has become an issue of political controversy in the West.

On the one hand we have Islamophobia, a particular affliction of those who blame Islam for all the ills of our world.

The more thin skinned Muslims have ended up on regarding every criticism of Islam as Islamophobia.

On the other hand we have Islamoflattery that claims that everything good under the sun came from Islam. ( According to a recent PBS serial on Islam, even cinema was invented by a lens-maker in Baghdad, named Abu-Hufus!)

This is often practised by a new generation of the Turques de profession, Westerners who are prepared to apply the rules of critical analysis to everything under the sun except Islam.

They think they are doing Islam a favour.

The opposite is true.

Depriving Islam of critical scrutiny is bad for Islam and Muslims, and ultimately dangerous for the whole world.

The debate is about how to organise the global public space that is shared by the whole humanity. That space must be religion-neutral and free of ideology, which means organised on the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

There are 57 nations in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Not one is yet a democracy .

The more Islamic the regime in place the less democratic it is.

Democracy is the rule of mortal common men.

Islam is the rule of immortal God.

Politics is the art of the possible and democracy a method of dealing with the problems of real life.

Islam, on the other hand, is about the unattainable ideal.

We should not allow the everything-is-equal-to-everything-else fashion of postmodernist multiculturalism and political correctness to prevent us from acknowledging differences and, yes, incompatibilities, in the name of a soggy consensus.

If we are all the same how can we have a dialogue of civilisations, unless we elevate cultural schizophrenia into an existential imperative.

Muslims should not be duped into believing that they can have their cake and eat it. Muslims can build democratic society provided they treat Islam as a matter of personal, private belief and not as a political ideology that seeks to monopolise the public space and regulate every aspect of individual and community life.

Ladies and gentlemen: Islam is incompatible with democracy.

I commend the motion.

Thank you

* The motion was carried by 403 votes for, 267 against and 28 undecided.


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