Are Muslims anti-democratic subversives or champions of a more democratic way?
Under a dictatorship it is clear that the ruler is in full control of where the nation is going and how to get there. Any attempt to change the ruler is suppressed and no one expects they have the right to influence him. That said he would do well to pay some attention to the people’s opinion or risk rebellion fermenting.
Democracy is sometimes defined as “Rule by the people” though it can never be that the people can all rule at the same time. At most the people can elect an administrator and tell him where to go. However, if there is no unity of opinion among the people there will be millions of backseat drivers all shouting different directions to the administrator and he will genuinely have no choice but to ignore most of the noise coming from them. The most realistic definition of the current Western style democracy is found in the Merriam-Webster dictionary “a form of government in which people choose leaders by voting.” Not rule by the people, not even electing administrators to carry out the peoples will, but “voting for leaders”.
Just like a dictator, the democratic leader will pay enough attention to the opinion of the people to avoid a level of dissatisfaction great enough to risk rebellion. If popular opinion grows on an issue they can bend policy a little to keep the people happy or, if the leaders prefer, they can turn on the propaganda to change minds, sow confusion and break up the unity of the people.
In Western democracies the propaganda machine is now running 24/7 to keep ahead in the game, with a complicit media continually shaping popular opinion. Not only so people will buy things they did not know they needed, or bomb countries they had never heard of, or willingly give up freedoms to protect them from an invisible threat but, and this is really the genius of it, forming the public opinion before the policy change is even suggested. By doing so, leaders can claim they are just obediently following the people’s will: “You asked for this! Democracy is working for you!”
Occasionally, despite the government’s best propaganda efforts, the people will unite strongly on a single issue and the leader will make a U-turn to avoid rebellion. The last time it happened in the UK was after the poll tax riots in 1990. Other times if it looks like rebellion is unlikely, the people can be ignored; as happened after the peaceful million people march against the invasion of Iraq.
Sometimes, if it becomes unavoidable, the leader is forced to allow the people to decide an issue with a referendum. But, it is so rare, with only one UK wide referendum in the last 40 years, it only makes obvious how little the people are allowed to rule in a Western democracy.
The power of a leader who can take the nation in almost any direction he pleases is of course noticed by corrupt, self-interested people or groups. They compete to take the wheel in order to drive it in a way that suits their interest. There is no defined limit to the potential prize giving them plenty of enthusiasm in seeking to be the elected leader. There exists no shame for them in fighting a dirty election campaign; while the more morally sound candidates are less inclined to fight and seem to form a minority (there was only one Tony Benn). It is also the case that a population without a shared vision is going to be impossible to please. The job of the leader will, therefore, be very unpleasant. Few good people working for honest satisfaction and occasional thanks would have to endure abuse from colleagues competing for power and from an exigent population.
The difference between democracy and dictatorship is in practice quite small. Though, in its best current examples, the differences are still valuable and should be appreciated. However, we should use our brains when the power-holding leaders claim it is the ultimate system anyone could ever wish for when it is so clearly unrepresentative of the people’s will.
Imagine the effect on the democratic system, particularly on reducing the power of the leaders, if the majority of the people had a shared vision of the direction and priorities of their society. If the people gave clear directions to the leader they would be able to judge the effectiveness and integrity of their leading; the leadership would have less ability to put self-interest first, and the corrupt people would have less interest in fighting for the position of leader. If that single problem of unity was solved the people would be able to turn the tables and force the leaders to become administrators of their will. A true democracy. But, any sane person knows the chance of all the people uniting on all the diverse matters of life is zero. In fact, you could say the only chance of that happening would be if by a miracle. Like the miracle of receiving clear guidance by revelation.
If the majority chose to follow a revealed system it would still be democratic in the sense that the people have decided. But it would be a theocratic democracy. Much more democratic than the near dictatorship democracy of a disunited people as described above, it would enable people to lead from the bottom up using the agreed criterion of their choosing. Crucially, the people would be voting for the way of life, not just voting for leaders who would dictate the way of life.
Clearly though, this would not be in the individual interests of the leaders of current democracies. Because they did not invent it, it will not include any elements of self-interest. Examples have shown that leaders consider people trying to choose another system by voting for it or by opting out of the system of voting as a subversion of the fundamental democratic form serious enough to warrant aggressive suppression.
The few hundred New Age Travellers viciously beaten and their homes destroyed by the police during the “Battle of the Beanfield” in 1985 were merely daring to opt out. There was no risk or fear at all that everyone would want to stop paying tax and live in old buses but what could not be allowed was for even a small group to visibly “flaunt the system”. In the opinion of the leaders, that would set a dangerous precedent.
If Muslim parents attempt to steer their child’s majority Muslim school toward Islamic values using the schools democratic system of governance it would be branded a Trojan Horse scandal. If a Muslim was to gain a political position in order to promote Islamic values it would be branded as Entryism. If some Muslims say that it is un-Islamic to vote they will be labelled extremists. To try to use the democratic system to change the system is considered, by the leaders, to be a subversion of the fundamental democratic form, regardless of the rights or the potential benefits for citizens.
Some subversions of democracy should rightly be guarded against. So called “illiberal democracies” where the leaders progress backwards to outright dictatorships can be judged by their country’s “constitutional liberalism”; the enshrined rights of the people. Examples of which are: freedom to practice various religions; legal justice; freedom of speech; right of assembly and protest.
For geopolitical reasons, Western powers have always preferred friendly dictatorships in the Muslim world; consistent and easy to deal with. However, as Western people having been sold the superiority of democracy it seems hypocritical for their governments to deal with dictators and the pressure has been to encourage global democratic reform. As Egypt and Gaza found out though, it is only on condition it is a disunited Western style democracy where the leaders retain almost full control.
Unfortunately, to non-Muslim Western people the wise Sharīʿa restrictions on some individual liberties in favour of societal health looks superficially like the limits imposed by illiberal democracies. It is, thus, easy to sell them the idea of aggressive and even military opposition to Islamic governance, even where it was democratically agreed. Compounding that image problem, ISIS are claiming they are implementing the true Sharīʿa, a fiction much loved and propagated by Western media.
Western governments make proud claims about the constitutional rights of their citizens but there is a continuous battle in every democracy between disingenuous governments, who see people’s rights as inconveniences, and rights campaign groups such as Liberty in the UK, who challenge them. One struggle Liberty faces is informing the public of their rights in the first place and the importance of defending them. Unfortunately, constitutional legislation does not make for a fun read. In fact, it can be so impenetrable for regular people that highly paid specialist lawyers are needed to thrash out their meaning in courts.
The contrast of that to the Qur’ān is a clear proof of the superhuman nature of the divine legislation “made easy to understand and remember”; loved universally by all Muslims; placed with reverence on the highest shelf in every Muslim home; memorised in its entirety by millions; stunningly beautiful to listen to it can cause people to cry who do not even understand the meaning. Muslims recite part of their constitution and bill of rights five times a day with their prayers and every Ramaḍān they listen to the complete book recited, in which everything is made clear.
The unifying effect for the people is obvious, as is the limiting effect it would have over the state administrators to stop them straying too far away from the interests of the people. They will know each citizen has the ability to scrutinise them from memory without the need of a lawyer.
Foreign and domestic policy has made it clear that Western leaders are fundamentally opposed to ‘Islām the system’ even though ludicrously they claim to be fine with ‘Islām the religion’. But, they do not seem to know enough about Islām to have formed very specific opinions. Rather, to them, it is just “that thing” that causes them inconvenience and has been frustrating some of their plans on and off for hundreds of years. Listen to any Western leader when Islām is discussed and their almost total ignorance of it shines through. I believe it is simply that Islām, like communism, is a competing system to the one they have developed to suit their interests. They see that Islām does not favour elites and enable corruption but favours the common man and that is all they have bothered to understand about it.
As Muslims in the West we need to keep on trying to educate the common man on the benefits of the Islamic system for individuals and society as a whole. If leaders refuse to consider the benefits then change inshā Allāh will come from the bottom up, just as it did at the time of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam).
 Quran (54:17)
 Quran (16:89)