While interesting and useful as a scholarly exercise, Voll and Esposito's essay would have very dangerous consequences as the basis for an analysis of the current situation or, even worse, for U.S. policy. Any hint of a policy along the lines they propose would set off panic among incumbent regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. Radical fundamentalist opposition to a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict would dramatically intensify, as would regional instability and violence.
Here are four specific criticisms:
A string of quotations. Writing that their interpretation can "provide a foundation for contemporary Muslims to develop authentically Islamic programs of democracy," they recall those academics who showed, through selected quotations and best-case hopes, that Marxist-Leninism is compatible with democracy. In other words, the odd quotation by a Muslim thinker who theoretically reconciles Islam and democracy does not mean that such is the stand of radical fundamentalist movements or a plan that an incumbent fundamentalist regime would implement. It would be very nice if these political forces were persuaded by a moderate version of Islam but they exist precisely by virtue of having their own interpretations. The essay evades this point with disconcerting ease by failing to cite such figures as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, his counterparts in other countries, or the evidence from Islamic history and doctrine.
The odd quotation by a Muslim thinker who theoretically reconciles Islam and democracy does not mean that such is the stand of radical fundamentalist movements or a plan that an incumbent fundamentalist regime would implement.
There is no evidence that existing fundamentalist movements in Tunisia, Jordan, Pakistan, or elsewhere build on the often obscure traditions cited by Voll and Esposito. These groups do far more than just "affirm that democratization consists of more than simply importing a set model from the West." They have specific views incompatible with democracy. Moreover, it is quite ironic to reject the idea of the West exporting its notion of democracy--despite some Muslim support for it--while urging the West to export a notion of what Islam should be. Similarly, it is somewhat misleading for the authors to assert that "a hierarchical, dictatorial system has often been condemned as non-Islamic"; in fact, mainstream Islamic thought has long apologized for dictatorships so long as the ruler could claim to be a good Muslim.
There is no evidence that existing fundamentalist movements in Algeria, Egypt, Pakistan, or elsewhere build on the often obscure traditions cited by Voll and Esposito.
Radicals prevent evolution. The writers are correct to point out that Islam is not innately less democratic than Christianity. But it is a stronger force, resembling Catholicism in the Middle Ages more than Catholicism today. While evolution is possible, of course, it will be a very long-term process. As radicals reach power, they retard this process by installing an interpretation of Islam, government structures, and practices that could become hegemonic in the region. Other regimes would intimidated into appeasing the new victors by distancing themselves from the United States. Only the radicals' failure will convince them and others to change course.
In the long run, Islamic societies may produce their own flavor of democracy, just as Christian concepts were reinterpreted to permit democracy over a long period of time (though reactionary opposition to this evolution remained strong until recently). Even so, many democrats were strong advocates of secularism, separation of church and state, and religious pluralism. In the Muslim world, radical fundamentalists are more likely to play a role paralleling authoritarian movements in Europe that retarded the development of democracy there.
The authors are also right to point out that the West cannot export its style of democracy to Muslim societies. That said, moderate regimes like those in Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia better blend Islamic and traditional culture with citizens' rights than do their radical fundamentalist rivals.
Pretty words. To argue, citing Mawdudi, that Islamic theocracy would be governed "by the whole community of Muslims including the rank and file" sounds good, but so does the dictatorship of the proletariat. To begin with, this theocracy excludes non-Muslims and secular Muslims. And when Mawdudi says that every Muslim "capable and qualified to give a sound opinion on matters of Islamic law is entitled to interpret that law of God when such interpretation becomes necessary," he implies that clerics are the most qualified and that a dictator will determine both when interpretation is necessary and what the correct conclusion will be.
When Fazlur Rahman speaks of the masses' "participatory association . . . through directly ascertaining the will of the ummah" in decision making, he hints at the relationship between ruler and masses in Iran, Nasser's Egypt, Mao's China, Castro's Cuba, or Qadhafi's Libya. In fact, Voll and Esposito propose a political philosophy that has much in common with such disparate Third World regimes as Cuba or China, Iraq, Syria, and various African socialist models. Such systems begin with a charismatic leader accepted as legitimate by the masses, a coherent ideology rooted in local history, popular mobilization, state control of institutions and resources for ostensibly ethical purposes, and so on. Fidel Castro said, in terms close to the Islamic thinkers cited, "Within the revolution, everything; outside of it, nothing."
Professors Voll and Esposito never note that the type of government they describe closely approximates the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran has elections, popular legitimacy, and pluralism at least among Islamic factions. Perhaps the authors do not put the argument in the Iranian context because they realize this is unlikely to persuade U.S. policy makers to back fundamentalist takeovers elsewhere.
To argue, citing Mawdudi, that Islamic theocracy would be governed "by the whole community of Muslims including the rank and file" sounds good, but so does the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Intolerance. The paper's most intriguing notion is that Islam could develop the idea that rule in accordance with God's will is given to "the community as a whole," a concept reminiscent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's view of the popular will. But again the source of anti-democratic belief and structure is very much present in the authors' own citations from Muslim writers. To set aside a single, all-embracing standpoint as the sole legitimate one--and a view endorsed by God at that--means in practice, a party or leader interprets the general will and determines who subscribes to the proper principles and thus can participate in governance. Dissidents must be silenced, proscribed, or killed. When all citizens should unite behind the rightly guided ones to struggle against enemies at home and abroad, the inevitable outcome of this approach--as with its many equivalents--is to bar political parties, free speech, and even a peaceful change in government as dividing the people and weakening the nation. This, of course, is quite different from the Islamic view of existing moderate governments. They are guided and restrained by Islamic thought, culture, history, and preferences. Yet this is quite different from being dominated by a systematic, militant interpretation of these things.
The same applies to the promising notion cited from Khurshid Ahmad that "God has revealed only broad principles and has endowed man with the freedom to apply them in every age in the way suited to the spirit and conditions of that age." But, again, radical fundamentalist groups have very specific, narrow views of those principles. Hamid Enayat has written that what is needed is to adapt "the ethical and legal precepts of Islam" to democracy. But fundamentalists want to subordinate democracy to Islam's principles. Ideas compatible with democracy are found more commonly among moderate, anti-fundamentalist pro-state ulama in countries like Egypt.
Fundamentalists want to subordinate democracy to Islam's principles.
The fundamentalist approach innately develops a polarization stimulating repression and civil strife. The forces of good can never give up power to others, for they are by definition the forces of evil. Once others are defined as heretics and enemies of God, democracies become impossible. To make matters worse, Islamic ideology's transnational nature encourages it to subvert neighbors. With rivals at home or abroad portrayed as anti-Islamic, it is hard to, respectively, yield power or co-exist with them peacefully.
Forty years ago, scholars wrote essays such as the one by Voll and Esposito to insist radical Arab nationalists were authentic, progressive, and should be supported. There is no need to repeat those errors by helping Islamic radical forces to gain power.