This morning there was a radio interview with Associate Professor Lily Zubaidah Rahim of the University of Sydney about her new book, Muslim Secular Democracy: Voices from within. You can listen to the interview or download it (it’s only a few minutes) from this RN page here. Where I depart from the interview itself I use grey font.
In sum, Lily Rahim argues the significance of the five most populous Muslim nations — India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and Bangladesh — thriving in either full or hybrid democratic state.
Most Muslim majority states today were originally conceived as secular or quasi secular democracies. But since the mid twentieth century many of these states have moved closer to the Islamic state paradigm — that is, with the onset of Islamization and political Islam that swept through the Muslim world in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
A return to the Caliphate?
The interviewer asks if it is not a fact that the Caliphate, the union of religion and the state, that is at the heart of Islam.
Rahim argues (along with other scholars, including Muslim scholars) that the “Islamic State” is really a modern-day twentieth century construct and that the seventh century Caliphate was a phenomenon unique to that period. The Caliphate thus cannot be repeated. The Islamic states that have arisen in more recent times are not replications of the Caliphate. Rather, they are modern attempts to legitimize ruling elites.
Failure of theocratic and secular autocracies
Today it is becoming increasingly clear that experiments with Islamic states have been failures in promoting citizenship rights, modern dynamic economies, social justice, democratic rights. Obvious cases: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan . . . .
Yet neighboring these countries we have others ruled by secular autocrats (their states are not run as Islamic states) where the human rights situations are as bad or worse: Saddam’s Iraq, the Shah’s Iran, Syria.
Rahim argues that today Muslims are increasingly and overtly rejecting both authoritarian Islamic states and authoritarian secular states. The Arab uprising was the most obvious illustration of this. This is also borne 0ut in many surveys such as those of the Gallup Poll and Pew Attitudes Survey and the World Values Survey. All these surveys show that Muslims reject the various forms of authoritarian rule.
The Middle Path — Wasatia
What we find in the studies is the yearning among Muslims for a middle way — “Wasatia/Wasatiyyah Democracy”. (See, for example, Wasatia, Al-Wasatiyyah – The Lost Middle Path, Wasatiyyah -The Balanced Median)
Muslims are not supportive of neither theocracy nor “the assertive secular state” such as that of France (Laïcité) or Turkey (though Turkey has moderated recently with the AKP government) where religion is not permitted in the public sphere.
The interviewer summarizes the sum of Rahim’s argument as:
Muslims in France don’t like being told they cannot wear a hijab and Muslims in Iran don’t like being told they must wear a hijab.
It is this compulsion that is rejected by many Muslims.
Why the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged ahead from the Arab Spring
Yet in the recent elections in Egypt we have the Muslim Brotherhood winning electoral success. Rahim finds that this is another example of where many Islamist parties achieve political success after a prolonged period of authoritarian rule. Rahim sees this as the result of such groups like the Brotherhood having established very strong roots and networks within the local communities during that period and they have been able to draw upon these community roots when running for elections.
Certainly Islamist groups like the Brotherhood did not initiate the Arab uprising, but they benefitted from the ousting of the autocratic Mubarak in Egypt, for example because of their grass-roots networking. Liberal and secular democratic movements lacked anything like this.
In the case of Syria, we have no clear idea yet on the identity of the Syrian rebels.
Hope for the future
But with respect to nonviolent protests in other parts of the Muslim world, this is the kind of paradigm [Wasatia democracy] that many democrats in the Muslim world are attracted to (as opposed to the violent groups for regime change). We cannot make sweeping generalizations about the processes of regime change in Syria, in Egypt, in Tunisia, etc since they are all quite different political scenarios.
And it is the variety of situations throughout the Muslim world that Rahim explores in detail in her book.
Such research does not allow for simplistic assumptions that the problem is “Islam”. In fact such research refutes such popular simplifications. I’d love to get a copy of the book, but it is the better part of $100. A pity. It sounds like the sort of information that should be far more readily accessible to the wider public.