Islamic Democracy: No Oxymoron

Islam and Democracy: Religion, Identity, and Conflict Resolution in the Muslim World

John L. Esposito and John O. Voll

Oxford University Press

288 pp.

$17.95 paper, $39.95 cloth.

God Has Ninety-Nine Names

Judith Miller

Simon and Schuster

574 pp.


One of the more widespread misconceptions about the Muslim world is that you can't have democracy and Islam at the same time.

Two new books examine the critical and woefully misunderstood relationship between political Islam and the chances for democratization in the Muslim world. Each comes to very different conclusions.

John Esposito and John Voll, who have previously written numerous books about Islam (e.g. Esposito's "The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?" and Voll's "Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World"), clearly have the historical and theoretical knowledge with which to question popular American knowledge about Islam.

Although it is more difficult reading than Judith Miller's "God Has Ninety-nine Names," Esposito and Voll's "Islam and Democracy" is nevertheless worth the effort for anyone interested in better understanding political Islam. Esposito and Voll avoid social science jargon, provide brief historical overviews of all the countries they consider, and carefully define all their terminology, including what is meant by both "Islam" and "democracy."

Are Islam and democracy compatible? According to Esposito and Voll, the answer is a guarded "yes." Both political Islam and democracy are evolving ideologies, the authors point out. Democracy as it is practiced currently in the United States - with two-party elections and separation of religion and state - is not the only way in which people can participate in their government.

In ancient Greece, legislators were chosen by lot rather than elected, a method some modern scholars have suggested is more representative than the current system of campaigns and elections.

Democracy evolves out of the needs and traditions of specific societies. It can take many forms, so that if what evolves in the Muslim world is not like democracy in the contemporary West, it can still legitimately be considered a form of democracy.

Through careful examination of the political writings of contemporary Muslim thinkers, Esposito and Voll conclude that there is much in Islam that supports participatory government: the central Islamic concepts of consultation, consensus, and varied interpretation of opinion, for example. Moreover, the authors place political Islam in a global and historical perspective, from its rise in the 19th century as an anticolonialist movement to its current affinities with other third-world insurgency movements.

This background helps to explain why many Muslims throughout the world - to the great surprise of Westerners - feel that their choice is not between Islam and democracy, but rather between Islamic democracy and pseudo-Westernized dictatorships.

As Voll and Esposito point out, "Most governments in the Muslim world are relatively authoritarian while being committed to programs of modernization using Western models.... As a result, authoritarian political establishments have become identified with secularist approaches."

How do Islamic concepts translate into practice? To answer this, the authors look at six Muslim countries (three of them non-Arab, since Arabs are only one-fifth of the world's 1 billion Muslims) which currently have either Islamic governments or strong Islamic insurgency movements.

Of particular interest is what these scholars say about Iran and Sudan, two countries that the United States defines as terrorist, but which apparently enjoy more popular support than Western-backed secular regimes.

Esposito and Voll use these countries' problematic human-rights records to examine another problem, namely, that in a theocratic democracy, it can be the will of the majority to persecute groups regarded as heretical - secularists and leftists in Sudan, Bahais and secularists in Iran. And this occurs despite the fact that Islam specifically guarantees the rights of non-Muslims to practice their faith.

Whether or not Islamic democracies can resolve this problem remains to be seen. As the authors observe, Western democracies have survived similarly intolerant practices. The authors' intent is not to act as apologists for political Islam, but to examine it objectively and consider the questions concerning governance and justice that the study of political Islam raises.

In contrast, Judith Miller decides rather too readily that political Islam and democracy are incompatible. Miller, who was for many years the Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times, approaches her subject as a journalist, by telling the reader about recent events, some of which she witnessed personally. To understand these events, she relies primarily on interviews with government officials. That is, of course, an important part of the picture. But it is a part already widely reported in the American press.

The book has two major shortcomings. First, the title, "God Has Ninety-Nine Names" is intended to suggest that Islam has many forms, but Miller fails to give the nuanced examination of Islam's many interpretations that her title implies. She cites no Arabic or Farsi sources and seems unaware of the debates about the nature of Islam now so prominent in both Iran and the Arab world. Nor does she take into account the arguments of scholars like Esposito and Voll.

Second, Miller relies more heavily on emotionally loaded terminology than objective evidence to make her points. For example, she repeatedly uses epithets like "terrorist" and "neo-fascist" to describe Islamists without defining what she means by "terrorism" or showing why these same groups couldn't be termed "insurgents" or "conservatives."

Unfortunately, because Miller's book is more widely available, readers are likely to read it alone and miss Esposito and Voll's careful, scholarly, and thought-provoking insights.

While Miller's book is easy reading, it adds little to Westerners' knowledge of the Muslim world. Esposito and Voll is a more challenging but more informative choice.

*Judith Caesar taught in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Her book on the Middle East, "Escaping the Tribe," is forthcoming from Syracuse University Press.

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