Few Muslims would dispute the notion that Islam should guide their private as well as public lives, since the Quran and the Sunna - the tradition of Prophet Muhammad - which the two primary sources of Islam's religious law, or Shari'a, provide instructions on virtually every aspect of life. Muslims differ, however, on the varying readings of what Shari'a means, and hence the diverse Islamic schools of jurisprudence, or Fiqh. The wide spectrum of Fiqh schools in Sunni or Shiite Islam varies across two key dimensions: interpretation (verbatim vs. socially-conditioned interpretation) and authority (identity of those qualified to make interpretation and the nature of their political power).
The Arab Spring exposed both the hypocrisy of the established religious authorities, who issued fatwas against the pro-democracy protests in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and the bankruptcy of the radical militants' ideology. Arabs who protested in the streets across religious, age, and gender divisions were motivated by aspiration for the universal values of freedom and human rights- a consensus even the staunchest of Islamists cannot ignore.
In the matrix, Sunni schools endorse whoever the Muslim community chooses to lead it as legitimate ruler, while Shiite Islam assigns religious and political leadership to the decedents of the Prophet (as infallible Imams), on behalf of which the Shiite scholars act as agents. Moderate Sunni schools (Hanafi and Maliki), as well as some Shiite schools adopt socially-conditioned interpretations based on logic deduction by scholars; while the conservative Sunni schools (Hanbali) adopt a strict version of verbatim interpretation. In reality, however, the Islamic world has been divided into three classes: secular government that consigns religion to personal life (Egypt); ostensibly-religious, but essentially secular government that sanctions intrusive authority of clerics (Saudi Arabia); and outright religious government (Iran).
Ironically, rivaling Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran invoke Shari'a to maintain their dictatorial regimes and oppress political freedoms using the same maxim - rebelling against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted as sovereignty belongs to God and not to the people. Combined with the discriminatory practices against women and non-Muslim minorities, as well as the electoral victories of anti-Western Islamists based on the example of "one man, one vote, one time," in Sudan, Gaza, and Algeria, the notion that Islam and liberal democracy are incompatible gained popularity.
Shari'a has also been invoked for purposes other than domestic oppression. Iran's deception of the international community with regards to its nuclear program is believed to stem from the Shiite concept of taqqiya - permission for believers to hide the truth from nonbelievers to protect the religion - which is arguably justified in the Quran (3:28; 16: 106). It is no wonder, then, that there are those who believe that Islam permits devout Muslims to deliberately lie to and cheat non-Muslims to promote the religion of Islam anytime and anywhere.
Even worse, Shari'a has been invoked by radical, militant Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda, to justify committing terror attacks against non-Muslim civilians in the West, as well as their fellow Muslims under the guise of Jihad. Here, Jihad is understood as the duty of every Muslim to wage war against all non-Muslims with the ultimate aim of the ruling the world.
These patterns of abusing Shari'a by authoritarian Muslim rulers and militant groups bring us back to the two key dimensions of Fiqh schools: interpretation and authority. Works of radical Islamic theorists as well as regime-co-opted religions are essentially the product of a selective interpretation process that at one time adopts explanations provided by medieval clerics, and at another makes an independent interpretation, according to the current political agenda and self-interests, and not reason.
Less known, however, is a great legacy of sensible Islamic scholars who warned against this abusive process long time ago. Muhammad Abdu, the enlightened Islamic scholar of the nineteenth century, viewed reason as the ultimate virtue of Islam; therefore any dogma contradicting morals or the core values of Islam - justice, consultative governance, and mercy - should be ruled out. On authority, Ali Abdel-Raziq of the early twentieth century, argued persuasively in his 1925 seminal treatise, Islam and the Foundations of Governance, that Islam does not suggest any particular type of government, religious or otherwise, because the Prophet's divine mission has been to establish a community of believers, not a body politic.
The relevance of the above discussion to the ongoing, groundbreaking developments in the Arab-Islamic world and the West cannot be exaggerated. On the one hand, the Islamists have an unprecedented window of opportunity that, if taken properly, would allow them not only to revive the religion of Islam in a constructive and beneficial way, but also to present the world with an example to be emulated. Islamist forces in the Arab world should introduce a face of Islam that shows the deeper and truer meaning of Jihad - one's internal struggle to maintain faith, and the struggle to improve the Muslim community. This is especially true at a time when the people are becoming wary about allowing the boundaries of politics and religion to blur, raising legitimate questions about what Islamist rule has brought to Iran (oppressed people whose nation's resources are squandered by the political elite and wasted on exporting terrorism, building nuclear armament and revolution-export business) or the Sudan (poor, oppressed people having their nation split into two after a long, bloody and losing war).
Initial signs in the right direction have already appeared in revolutionary Egypt where ideologues of Jamat al-Islamiyya, who took up arms against the Mubarak regime in the 1980s and the 1990s, now search for a form of Islamic liberalism that is inclusive of other political forces in society. In Tunisia and Libya, where Islamists are expected to dominate the next elections, leaders and citizens tend to reject the Saudi and Taliban models - seen as sheer dictatorships - and opt instead for the Malaysian and Indonesian ones that combine Islam and modernity. If this approach is sincere and given enough effort to mature into coherent policy, it would lead to the emergence of a democratic Islamic state model that would respond to the reforms Muslim societies require, and turn Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations prophecy into a mere academic discourse.
On the other hand, the economic turbulence that many Western democracies are experiencing and the growing gap between the rich and poor in most advanced economically nations raises questions about the sustainability of the world's economic system. Islamic banking is becoming increasingly more attractive alternative since its interest-free finance - based on Shari'a prohibition of payment for loans of money - responds to the very dilemmas that caused the current global economic crisis: lending capital and mortgage transactions. This could lead the already growing Islamic banking to thrive world-wide, and offer some example of modifying business practices with the rules of Shari'a.
Although the decades-long abuse of Shari'a to justify oppression, deception, and terror, and despite the fact that democracy is a Western-born concept, Islam and liberal democracy are essentially congruent. In his 2004 book Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA brilliantly departs from the traditional approach to this case - i.e., asserting that ideas of representation between leaders and led are commended in the Quran (42:38) - and adheres to the core values of Islam, including diversity and justice, which resonate with those of liberal democracy and human rights. It is these works of Abdu, Abdel-Raziq, and Abu El Fadl, and their application to contemporary concrete needs of the people that would lead to the revival of an Islamic world that lives in peace and could potentially make a significant contribution to civilization.
The rising Arab youth want to be free and live with dignity without abandoning their Islamic roots. Thus, it is not the mere adoption of Western values of freedom and human rights that will determine the successes of the newly emerging Arab regimes as a result of the Arab Spring, but how well these values are incorporated into the Islamic way of life without violence and unending strife.
Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Web: www.alonben-meir.com
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