Democracy in practice

In 2013, I was in Egypt and wrote this piece.

On June 8, 2014 Sisi staged a military coup and succeeded as the Egyptian people who stood for democracy didn’t support the president they had elected and have since been living in self-invited slavery.

Today as I write this (July 18, 2016) a coup happened in Turkey but the people defeated it. So democracy apparently has more meaning in Turkey than it had in Egypt. But now what? And what really is the position of democracy in the Muslim world?

A brief, even cursory look at the history of Muslim rule shows that after a brief period in the Khilafa Rashida where the first two Khulafa were ‘elected’ by a group of leaders, in the period of the third Khalifa fault lines appeared and it all fell apart leading to his assassination and the installing of the fourth by force. That was contested and resulted in a huge amount of entirely preventable bloodshed and the nature of Khilafa changed from elected leadership (not in our conventional sense but still elected) to hereditary kingship which became the norm and remained that way until 1923 when the institution of Khilafa itself was abolished; the instrument of it ironically being a Turk, Kemal Pasha a.k.a. Ataturk. We had good and bad kings, called ‘Khulafa’ in this entire period but not a single one was ever elected. They were all hereditary monarchs, until even the title of Khalifa was abolished and the Ottoman Khilafa was dismembered and the pieces distributed to loyal allies of the Western powers who destroyed the Khilafa and who were content to be called Malik (king) instead of Khalifa. The Ottoman kings also used the term ‘Sultan’ and not ‘Khalifa’ though the institution was still called the Khilafa.

Democracy is very difficult to sustain in a Muslim country. We Muslims have no experience of oppressive feudalism like Europe did. Europeans suffered it for centuries, then fought and defeated it and so value democracy. We didn’t suffer oppression on that scale, ever, so we don’t see the need for democracy. This was not the case of mediaeval Europe. People suffered for centuries, died in their millions and eventually democracy emerged. We are used to benevolent dictatorships and monarchies. Authoritarian rulers are the norm in our society. Public participation in the sense of one man one vote has never been the rule in Islamic society. Our way at best, is consultation with leaders, experts and the powerful who advise the ruler but the ruler decides. Is this democracy? Is this better than democracy? Many people will probably say, ‘Yes’, after Brexit which wouldn’t have happened if it had been decided by economic and political experts instead of by a vote taken from people who didn’t understand the first thing about its implications. So one man one vote is not always the best thing – which even I with an almost pathological hatred for totalitarian rule and authoritarian rulers – have to admit. What is the alternative?

We don’t understand people power. We have oppressive kings in the Middle East but they are oppressive only to their opponents. To the general people they are very good. If you are a Saudi in Saudi Arabia, the only place better is Jannah and you have to die to get there. So the vast majority of locals are very happy. Don’t be carried away by the reporting of protests in the media which is very selective with what they show and then they try to interpret it in the way they want you to perceive it. If you don’t believe me ask yourself how many headlines, TV programs or Opeds you have seen about Sisi’s oppression in Egypt. On the contrary he is America, Israel and Saudi Arabia’s best friend and recipient of billions of dollars of aid and military supplies. While the man he deposed, the democratically elected President of Egypt, Mohammad Morsi, languishes in prison. So what’s the value of democracy?

Having said that today even the democracy we see in the world (West) is not really in a pure form as in the Greek city states from where it takes its name. It is mostly an oligarchy in one form or the other – most obviously in America but also in most of Europe. Take Rome, which also took its inspiration from Greece. Democracy lasted for a very short time. After the assassination of Julius Caesar (who incidentally was killed because he was seen as being in danger of declaring himself to be an emperor) his successor – Augustus Caesar, actually became an emperor and Rome remained an empire until its demise almost 1000 years later. Today, Western countries follow the example of Rome to the last dot.

Take the UK where feudal titles and privileges are still alive and well. I can list the kind of things that Kings and the Nobility of Europe were allowed to do as their legal right including all kinds of atrocious acts. Islam prevented this kind of despotic behavior from rulers, so Muslim masses never had to suffer this humiliation and pain. Islam didn’t permit kings to confiscate property or to inherit the property of their subjects if they didn’t leave a will. Prince Charles is Duke of Cornwall in the UK which calls itself a democracy. See the Rights of the Duke of Cornwall and ask yourself how democratic all this is:

The Duchy includes over 570 square kilometers of land, more than half of which lies in Devon. The Duke also has some rights over the territory of Cornwall, the county, and for this and other reasons there is debate as to the constitutional status of Cornwall. The High Sheriff of Cornwall is appointed by the Duke, not the monarch, in contrast to the other counties of England and Wales. The Duke has the right to the estates of all those who die without named heirs (bona vacantia) in the whole of Cornwall. In 2013, the Duchy had a revenue surplus of ₤19 million, a sum that was exempt from income tax, though the Prince of Wales chose to pay the tax voluntarily. Since the passing into law of the Sovereign Grant Act 2011, revenues of the Duchy of Cornwall pass to the heir to the throne, regardless of whether that heir is the Duke of Cornwall.  

Now how democratic is that? We are not talking about medieval times but about medieval laws in modern times about which Western media is silent and Western public, ignorant. Incidentally there is not a single Muslim king nor has there ever been – no matter how personally evil – who had or exercised such rights, because Islam has specific inheritance laws guaranteed by the Qur’an which no Muslim ruler can dare to question.

So also laws of governance, rights of subjects, freedom of the ruler and so on which no Muslim ruler could or can afford to ignore without risking both his temporal authority and fate in the Aakhira (Hereafter). So even though rulers may not necessarily have believed in the Aakhira so much, they didn’t dare cross the lines laid down by Islam for fear of general rebellion. The Muslim world didn’t see serfdom and feudalism like Europe because Islam saved them. So under Muslim rule there was never enough resentment built up to bring in democracy as an alternative. Muslims lived under kings who were both good and bad but who Islam held in check so that they never became as evil and oppressive as many medieval kings of Europe who incidentally sowed the seeds of their own demise by their oppression. People can accept the impious actions of kings (some actions are actually even expected and appreciated – people get a vicarious thrill from looking at the high living of their kings) as long as they are not personally hurt.

Our history is the history of conquest and its economics – though actual conquests stopped over 300 years ago but the hangover still remains. All you need to do is listen to various Islamic lectures and ask how many of them speak about conquests, wars, bravery, sacrifice and how many speak about social work, industry, creating products or services and you see where we draw our inspiration from. I have nothing against bravery. I believe physical courage and toughness is critical even in our present day sedentary lives and a very important element of effective leadership. But I also believe that we have to wake up and get out of our Empire mindset and realize that it was a glorious phase in our history but it is over. Today we have to draw inspiration from the use of knowledge, technology, systems and markets. We have to learn a whole new set of skills and contribute in a whole new bunch of ways to be viewed as productive and contributing members of society. Stories of previous martial glory are good only if they can be translated and connected to modern phenomena drawing application lessons for today. That is why I wrote my book, Leadership Lessons from the Life of Rasoolullah (free versions are available on Kindle, iBooks and Google Books). This means a whole new way of teaching and learning while keeping alive our link with our great history. It is not about denying our past but about relating to it in ways that help us to make our future even more glorious and praiseworthy. Our Muslim country economics has gone the same way – we have replaced state income from spoils of war to oil revenues. Local people never had to produce, pay taxes or show enterprise. They were on the dole and remain that way. Countries are bank accounts, not economies.

What we get confused also is with the time scale of history. The days of history are centuries and its years are millennia. We try to interpret history in our human life terms, where 24 hours is a long time. Add to this our frenetic lifestyles with focus on speed and our perception gets seriously flawed. 200 years ago (and if you take the First World War into consideration, the period reduces) there was blood in the streets in Europe. That is two days ago. Today there is blood in the streets in the so-called Muslim world (read Middle East). I see this as a natural and normal process of political development and maturity. The pain is serious. But so is all growing pain. It is a stage that has to be passed through, not bypassed.

Democracy like anything else can’t be enforced. Notwithstanding all of the above, the fact remains that democracy as we know it, is the best and most suitable form of government today. The rule of minorities, whether it is kings or oligarchs, has to and will end. As the saying goes, ‘There will only be five kings left in the world; four in the pack of cards and the King of England.’ All equally powerful.

This is where Turkey comes in and the reason why it is so important. Turkey is an experiment to see (and show) what Muslims will choose to do with their future; with the way they chose to govern themselves. The language is important and so I have not said, ‘How they choose to be ruled.’ That is the nature of most democracies today – we have substituted rulers. We have not become rulers. It is the purpose of democracy to give a voice to the individual about what his or her future should be like. It is in the mechanics and logistics of this that we seem to falter and which we have to overcome so that justice and compassion rule instead of self-interest and greed.

So what to do?

From the Muslim perspective I need to add two more elements to my argument:

  1. Effect of religion (Islam) on developing democracy
  2. Preparing consciously for democracy under Islam’s mantle

Effect of religion (Islam) on developing democracy

What Europe did when it adopted democracy instead of feudalism and monarchy was to jettison religion. The Christian Church had always supported kings and legalized all kinds of oppression, even atrocities because kings contributed to their coffers. Commoners also did but naturally the political power of kings was greater. The Roman Catholic Church learned what happens when you oppose kings too much. Anglican Christianity was born with the King of England as its head instead of the Pope. They never made that mistake again. This resulted in overall alienation of people from religion and the separation of the Church from temporal authority and government all over Europe. The Church tried to bend over backwards by permitting all kinds of innovations and even sins in order to get people back into the Church especially when people suddenly became a very important, if not the only, source of income after the demise of feudalism and monarchy. But they never really succeeded. Christianity in Europe declined and continues to do so although it has made big gains in the East and in Africa. But that is another story, not relevant to this discussion.

Islam on the other hand has always played a very active, participatory role in government and as mentioned earlier was a regulator on kings and commoners. The speech of Abu Bakr Siddique (RA) when he became the first Khalifa set the tone of the relationship of Islam to the State. He said, ‘As long as I obey the Book of Allahﷻ and the Sunnah of His Messengerﷺ, you must obey me. But if I go against the Book of Allahﷻ and the Sunnah of His Messengerﷺ you must not obey me.’ This was the foundational principle of the Muslim State. Even when rulers were clearly not obeying the Book of Allahﷻ and the Sunnah of His Messengerﷺ personally, they didn’t cross certain invisible lines for fear of losing their authority and life. So the State was always held in check. This also affected the economy and so there was never the kind of abject poverty and oppression that the serfs of Medieval Europe suffered. Compulsory charity (Zakat) is a part of the Islamic Creed. There is a huge focus on charity itself over and above this. All festivals are based on charity, Ramadan is a time for charity and there is a share for the poor person in almost every spending of the rich. Most importantly this money doesn’t go to the ‘Church’ as in the case of Christianity making priests rich, but it goes to the poor people of the land.

On the other hand, Islam is silent on people power or democracy. This is in keeping with the general principles of the Shari’ah where broad guidelines are given but you are left to use your intelligence and creativity to find solutions keeping within the boundaries of the Shari’ah. Allahﷻ doesn’t micromanage. For government the boundaries are to be just, compassionate, support the weak and powerless, enjoining good and forbidding evil. Islam advocates consultation as a general principle but doesn’t specifically say what form that should take or who should be consulted. Our history has a few examples of consultation with powerful people, but not a single one of a general consensus building like what is the norm today in all democracies. Like all human processes this is also not perfect and in some cases (as I mentioned earlier) it may even be the wrong thing to do, but it is now something that has come to be expected of functioning democracies – election, referendum, consultation are all powerful words.

Preparing for democracy

Having said all of the above the fact remains that democracy has come to stay. It is by far the better option of all the options of government that we have. It is not perfect and will have to be experimented with and changed until it becomes as close to perfect as anything that involves human choice can be. Democracy is not distinct from the idea of the ‘Nation State’ which itself needs to change as it is the cause of so much negativity all over the world. Democracy started with the Nation State and its citizens but must mature to become relevant to the idea of Global Citizen. Only then will we abolish boundaries and wars. Muslim countries are not unique and don’t stand apart from the rest of the world in this respect. We are all in the same boat. However Muslim states are behind by at least 200 years in terms of their evolution of government. We are still stuck with monarchies and dictatorships with dictators calling themselves ‘elected’ after orchestrating elections to their tune. The citizens of Muslim countries must reject all forms of totalitarian rule and use the power of the collective to take control of their countries and destinies. We saw the power of the people in the failed coup in Turkey where the people clearly demonstrated a very mature understanding of real democracy and their willingness to pay for it with their lives. The world in general and the Muslim world in particular owes a debt of gratitude to the people of Turkey for teaching us a lesson in taking charge of our lives and destiny. As I have said before, ‘We will not be asked, ‘What happened?’ We will be asked, ‘What did you do?’ The people of Turkey showed us how to answer that question.

Muslim countries need to prepare to become democratic. And that is NOT by running revolutions. For a revolution to succeed a huge amount of ground work needs to be done. Failure to do that will result in lives being lost in vain. We saw the most recent example of that in Egypt where in the so-called Arab Spring, Hosni Mubarak, one of the most oppressive of dictators was deposed, not by foreign aid but by the people of Egypt. However very soon it became clear that those who were successful in throwing him out, had no idea what to do with their new-found authority and freedom. So very quickly they lost both to another dictator, Sisi. Sadly, this is not the first time that this happened in the Muslim world. But we seem to be very slow learners. We are good at getting all charged up with emotion and fighting for a just cause. But we do almost nothing to set up systems and processes to fill the power vacuum that results from the removal of any system. Vacuums get filled, not necessarily with good things. As we have discovered repeatedly. Yet we don’t learn.

So what must we do?

The best example of what we must do already exists before our eyes and has done for decades – the Shadow Cabinet in the British Parliament. The Shadow Cabinet is the Cabinet of the Opposition Party, which is not in power and exists on the principle of asking one powerful question; ‘If the ruling party falls out of power tomorrow, how will we run the government?’ This question is based on the assumption that a time will come when we, the Opposition Party, will have the reins of power in our hands. So we must prepare for that day. And they do. The Shadow Cabinet has all the same roles as the ruling party, dealing with Finance & Fiscal Policy, Foreign Policy, Defense, Commerce etc. who create policies to deal with these subjects based on the ideology of the Opposition Party. That way when power devolves to them, they are ready.

My question to those who talk about the need for democracy in Muslim countries is, ‘Where is your Shadow Cabinet?’

Please remember that though I gave the example of the British Parliament, for a Shadow Cabinet to exist it doesn’t need to be in Parliament. We can and should set up think tanks which can play this role and create policies in the light of Islam.

In order to succeed we need four other things:

  1. Scenario Planning & Critical Thinking
  • Conceptualize What-If scenarios and prepare multiple plans to deal with them.
  1. Healthy debate
  • Use debate as a tool to fine tune the scenarios by finding faults and correcting them
  1. Openness to learning and change
  • Open minds and egos that are not fragile. Focusing on solutions, not on one-upmanship. Willing to look at new ideas and approaches that may be very different from what we have become used to.
  1. Willingness to collaborate with diverse people
  • Willingness to work with people who are not like us, don’t think like us, don’t believe what we believe, but have the knowledge and skills that we need.

The West is brilliant at all of the above and so they are successful in evolving a form of government that guarantees them peaceful transitions of power. If we want our blood off our streets, we need to live and work together as human beings; appreciating knowledge, collaborating across psychological boundaries and seeing the good in each other. Democracy in Muslim countries is not easy but it wasn’t easy for others either. Democracy is possible if we are ready to do what it takes to make it happen.

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The article is well written.I feel that as you rightly pointed out earlier generation of Muslim rulers remained in check because of the fear of Akhirah. And when today we find blood shed it is not because of lack of democracy but lack of such benevolent dictators. The rulers and general people both have become immoral at heart. I don't feel evolving towards democracy (by that I mean – democracy of type India) may be a right thing but yeah if we can evolve towards democracy of type seen during Abu Bakr R.A. that would be great. And that requires… Read more »


That is leadership. How do we find one to follow it ?
Very well said as always Sir

Omair Ahmed

JazakAllahu Khairan for a great analysis as always. What remains to be seen is we putting it into action Insha'Allah.

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