“Islam & Democracy”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen conferences, panels, symposia, and roundtables organized around the theme (announced in big, bold letters): “Islam and Democracy: Are They Compatible?” Here’s a newsflash: Religion and State don’t mix well. Just save yourself money and go home.

But I suspect that’s not the question that is really being asked. I think the question that is being alluded to in those conferences is this: Can Muslims Have Democracy? Which is a bit a like asking: Can Brown People Have Democracy? Can Black People Have Democracy? Can Gays Have Democracy?

We live in strange times, when we constantly have to point out the obvious: that people are people, and that we’re all the same. If Muslims want democracy, they’ll get it for themselves; they don’t need Bush for that.

I bring this up because I just read Reza Aslan’s opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times yesterday, about an early form of democracy in 14th century Arabia.

Yet the selection of Abu Bakr was meaningless until the entire Muslim community pledged an oath of allegiance to him. In fact, Abu Bakr’s appointment as caliph was delayed because partisans of Muhammad’s nephew and son-in-law, Ali, refused to swear allegiance. It was only after this powerful faction, the Shi’atu Ali, or the Party of Ali (a.k.a. the Shiites), relented and took the oath that Abu Bakr was allowed to assume his leadership role.

Perhaps it seems wrong to call this a democratic process. After all, Abu Bakr was appointed rather than directly elected. But it required community approval nonetheless. The Greeks may have invented democracy, and the Romans may have transformed it into republicanism, but throughout the Middle East, from the Nile in Egypt to the Oxus in Afghanistan and beyond, no other experiment in popular sovereignty had even been imagined, let alone attempted.

Aslan is the author of the excellent No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which you really should read.


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