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Democracy & Justice in the Muslim World

Let us now look at the present-day Muslim world. Of the 57 Muslim countries that are members of the OIC, only 13, or 23 percent, have democracy, while 44 do not. Out of these 44, 31 have ‘pseudo- democracy,’ 5 have absolute monarchy, 3 have dictatorship, and 5 are in transition.23 However, even the 13 countries, which do have democracy, have it only in a formal sense. They hold elections and the democratic structures provide an altemance of power. Powerful vested interests, nevertheless, get elected and re-elected. The poor and disadvantaged are in most cases not free to vote as they wish and are poorly represented in the echelons of power.

As a result of this lack of democracy, there are constraints on the freedom of the press. Only 4 Muslim countries are free in this respect. Countries that have freedom of the press, but where television is controlled by the state and is, therefore, not free, are placed among the partly free. By this definition, 14 countries are partly free, while 39 are not free. The absence of freedom of the press contributes to poor governance, lack of transparency, unhealthy policies and corruption.

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The state of corruption can be gauged against the Corruption Perception Index (2007) that Transparency International has developed and according to which 180 countries have been ranked. The index ranges from 10 (least corrupt) to 0 (most corrupt) points. A score of 5 indicates a borderline country. Only 4 Muslim countries are above this borderline, and even they do not have a high score — 6.0 is the highest, and 5.0, the lowest, is just on the borderline. 49 Muslim countries are below the borderline and no data are available for the rest. Most probably, the countries for which data are not available are also below the borderline. This, in spite of the fact that the Qur’an emphatically prohibits wrongful acquisition of wealth and the taking of bribes (Al-Baqarah 2: 188 and An-Nisa 4: 29).

There is another impact of lack of democracy on socioeconomic justice. Corruption combined with lack of freedom of expression tends to corrupt the courts as well. Consequently, the power elite do not generally get punished. This makes it difficult to root out the evil. If only the poor get punished, then there is a rise in discontent and a decline in social solidarity. There is a close relationship between weak governance, which lack of accountability brings about, and corruption, injustice and slow growth. Weak governance, corruption and slow growth are all closely related.

How does socio-economic justice get affected by this? Corruption leads to ineffective use of public resources for development with justice. A substantial part of resources goes to corruption. The rich become richer and the poor become poorer. There are some Muslim countries where as much as 50 percent of a project cost goes to kickbacks. This reduces the rate of economic growth, hurts need fulfillment and employment, and raises inequality of incomes and wealth. This is but natural. Ineffective use of its resources by the government leads to reduced investment by the private sector. If a businessman wishes to do something, he has to pay a bribe. This leads to a rise in the transactions costs and a decline in investment and employment opportunities. The consequence is accentuation of inequalities of income and wealth.

Legal justice also suffers because the courts also get corrupted: when the government gets corrupted, the courts also get corrupted. There is, therefore, substantial need for reforms.

The Way Ahead

Nevertheless, there is no room for pessimism. Changes are taking place in the Muslim world. These need to be accelerated. The question is: where to start? Should we try to overthrow the illegitimate governments that are the source of the problem? The answer is, emphatically, No. We should adopt the method that the Prophet (PBUH) had himself adopted. He did not try to remove Abu Jahal and Abu Sufyan and the other leaders of his society from their positions. He did not even speak about it. This is because he knew that once he raised this issue, they would redouble their efforts to suppress Islam. So his method was to bring about socio-economic reform. He tried to uplift the socio-economic condition of the people and to bring about an improvement in their lives. He concentrated on this through education, moral and socio-economic reform, and provision of financial facilities to the poor to fulfill their needs and to be able to stand on their own feet. Zakat was used to a great extent for this purpose.

This is what we need to do: emphasize education and moral and socio-economic uplift, and provide financial facilities to the poor for self-employment. Once the socio-economic condition of the poor improves, then the power structures will automatically collapse. This happened in the early Muslim society, when the Prophet (PBUH) brought about socio-economic uplift. After the collapse of the authoritarian power structures, it became possible to improve the condition of the people even more. General prosperity spread in the early Muslim society. It is reported that in certain periods of Muslim history, the rich went out to distribute zakat but could not find anyone to accept it because the condition of the poor had substantially improved.

This does not mean that political reform should be postponed.

It should be pursued, but through peaceful means. Use of violence is not justified because modem governments have sophisticated means for suppressing revolt and for torturing and impoverishing those involved. Any effort to overthrow prevailing governments by resort to violence may lead to enormous losses in terms of both life and property. It may also destabilize the societies, slow down development and reform, and accentuate the existing problems.

The best way to bring about political reform is, therefore, through peaceful struggle. It is not right to say that peaceful struggle cannot be successful. Peaceful struggle is succeeding and authoritarian governments are falling everywhere. In 1974, only 39 or one-in-four of all the countries around the world were democratic. Today 115 countries, that is, one-in-two, use open elections to choose their political leadership. Peaceful struggle is the best way to bring about change in the government.

Can the Western World Help?

This raises the question of whether in today’s globalized world the Western world can help. They can if they wish to. They can help by not supporting the dictators and putting pressure on them to bring about democracy. They can also help by monitoring elections so as to ensure that there is no rigging. They can also help by promoting socio-economic uplift. If socio-economic uplift is ensured, then the power structures will automatically collapse some time or the other.

The Western world cannot, however, help by doing what the United States did in Iraq: attacking a country, ruining its infrastructure gnd economy, killing and impoverishing people, and destroying their means of livelihood. This is the worst way to bring about democracy. Everyone knows by now that this violent and undemocratic method was not adopted to bring about democracy. It was adopted to provide security to Israel and to have full control over the oil resources of Iraq and, subsequently, the entire Gulf region. This ill-conceived and ruthless attack by the US has not only destroyed and destabilized Iraq, but also created hatred for the US in the entire Muslim world. So the best way in which the West can help is not by attacking countries, but by trying to help in socio-economic uplift, ensuring democracy, and putting pressure on authoritarian governments to bring about change.

When we talk of help in ensuring democracy, we do not mean just the monitoring of elections. We mean support to a number of institutions, including a free press; an independent and honest judiciary; socio-economic justice; healthy monetary, fiscal and commercial policies; proper laws and their effective enforcement, and so on. All of these are necessary to make democracy successful. Therefore, it is in the long-run interest of the West to promote these aspects in Muslim countries.

Can Islam Play an Important Role?

We now come to the question of whether Islam can play a useful and catalytic role. The answer is yes. Islam stands for democracy and the well-being of the people. And it can help create desirable moral qualities like honesty, integrity, punctuality, devotion to duty, diligence, frugality, and faithful fulfillment of all socio-economic obligations. All of these are needed for development. Islam embodies these values and has even the charisma to create them in people. It is now generally realized that there can be no economic development without moral development. Unless people fulfill their contracts, unless they work hard and conscientiously, and unless fraud and corruption are reduced, there can be no development. What can help in this is moral development along with institutional reforms and the ability of the people to obtain proper rewards for the work they do. Islam can also help curb conspicuous consumption and raise saving and investment. Another major contribution it can make is the promotion of family and social solidarity. We need to bear in mind that lip service will not be effective.

Secularism will do the opposite of this. It will lead to more and more conspicuous consumption and, thereby, promote dishonesty and corruption. This is because one of the major causes of these ills is living beyond the available means. When people spend too much, they have to somehow obtain the money needed for this purpose. The normal way to get it is through dishonesty and corruption. Thus, the more conspicuous consumption there is, the greater will be the motivation for these ills.

Secularism will also adversely affect family solidarity by promoting sexual promiscuity as it has done in most secular societies.

However, there is a need for reform in the understanding of Islam itself to remove the rust that has become deposited on it over the centuries of decline. There are so many things that are essentially un-Islamic but have become a part of the Islamic panorama. Dr. Murad Hoffmann, a dedicated German Muslim, has rightly emphasized: “I know of nothing better to propose than to urge the Muslim world to become ‘fundamentalist’ in the original sense of the word - to go back to the real foundations of our Islamic creed, and to analyze the factors that were instrumental for the Madina, Andalus and Abbasid experiments.” In this reform, we need to put greater emphasis on the human being and the institutions that affect his behaviour and well-being so as to be able to realize the maqasid al- Shari'ah (objectives of the Shari’ah).

The Shari’ah aims at promoting brotherhood, justice, honesty, integrity, punctuality, diligence, fulfillment of all socio-economic obligations, and a number of other good qualities. In sharp contrast with this, there is nowadays greater emphasis on appearances rather than substance. Appearances are also important but substance is more important.

This brings us to the final question: the relevance of socioeconomic justice in the Muslim world to globalization. Socioeconomic justice in the Muslim world will help accelerate development in the Muslim world and reduce the prevailing unrest. This will promote greater trade and greater mutual dependence of Muslim countries and the rest of the world. The greater the mutual dependence, the lesser will be the motivation for conflict. The whole world will consequently be better off.

By way of conclusion, I wish to emphasize that the future of Muslims is bright. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were

M. Umer Chapra


Source: Essays on Muslims and the Challenges of Globalisation, Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad. Republished with permission.