Democracy in the Middle East

If democracy must be tied to Islam in order for it to produce a democratic society in the Middle East, then the principle of shura is the greatest opportunity.  Shura is a religious and political consultative decision-making process employed by rulers that is considered either obligatory or at least desirable by Islamic scholars.[x]  Some Islamic scholars have said it is “essentially parallel to the democratic principle in Western political thought” (emphasis included in original statement)[xi]  Shura is predicated on three basic precepts: that all persons in any society are equal in rights; that public issues are best decided by a majority; and that justice, equality, and human dignity are best realized under shura governance.[xii]

With the understanding that Islam should be the chief source from which to draw democratic principles and invitations, those involved in the democratization of the Middle East are provided with more than adequate means of conjuring an organic manifestation of Islamic democratic principles.  Sadek Jawad Sulaiman, former ambassador of Omanin Washington and Islamic scholar, asserts:

The famous rhetorical question asked by the second Khalifa, Omar Ibn Al Khattab, “When (implying by what right)… when did you enslave the people, knowing that they were born free by their mothers?” speaks volumes about Islam’s innate resentment of anything that arbitrarily violates personal freedom.[xiii]

Islam stipulates “rida al awam,” or, popular consent, as a prerequisite to the establishment of legitimate political authority and “ijtihad jama’i,” or, collective deliberation as a requisite to the proper administration of public affairs (Shi’as hold to this belief more strongly than do Sunnis).  Furthermore, there exists within Islam the principle of collective responsibility (mas’uliyah jama’iyyah) for the maintenance of the public good of society.  Islam also asserts freedom as the natural state of man (similar to Rousseau’s conception of man and his inherent need for democracy).  By all appearances, Islam and democracy support one another.

The importance of a successful democracy in Iraq cannot be overstated.  The incredible opportunity afforded to the United States and the region through President Bush’s bold policy could usher in a new era of peace, stability, security, and economic prosperity.  The ability to prove (politically) that democracy can work, and work for the benefit of Muslims in Iraq, will do much to persuade a majority of Muslims in the Middle East that democracy is not only a viable form of government, but a spiritually affirming one.  In like manner, the consequences of failure are equally far-reaching.  A failed state of Iraq would demonstrate to the region that democracy is untenable and destabilizing; it would give credence to the measures taken by autocratic states to suppress popular movements; it would stifle any movements toward modernization by moderate Islamic jurists and leaders.

Whatever difficulties lay ahead in Iraq, they must be met with public determination and a willingness to employ democratic values over American values, and Islamic principles alongside political machinery.



If America chooses to promote “American democracy” as it has defined it in Tocquevillian terms—which includes the moral, economic, and political qualifications—then the only tenable way of doing so is as it was done in post-WWII Japan.  This method includes almost complete subjugation of the people and the undemocratic techniques of promoting democracy.  Because this is not possible—America is not at war with the Muslim people as it was with the Japanese people, cannot force them to embrace defeat, and does not have the stomach to promote democracy in an undemocratic way—America must be much more discerning in its promotion of democracy in the Middle East.  Democracy must influence Middle Eastern societies at the place where they would mind the least but would affect them the most: holding religious leaders accountable to the people.  In this manner, Middle Eastern democracy will grow organically as American democracy has grown organically.  Due to the importance of the rule of law, the principle of shura in Islam, and the ubiquitous nature of Islamic polity in Muslim societies, democracy as a governmental structure and a social institution is equipped to help Muslims achieve their goal of religious accountability, influence the whole of Muslim societies in a lasting way, and achieve US interests of peace and stability within the Middle East.