Chair: Martin Bright.
The panellists were:
Ziauddin Sardar, author and columnist for the New Statesman
Samir el-Youssef, a Palestinian novelist and critic
Tahmima Anam, a novelist from Bangladesh
Michael Gove, Conservative MP and the author of Celsius 7/7 – a controversial take on Islam and the attitudes of western governments to it
Ghazi Hamad, the official spokesman of the Palestinian Hamas government
Martin Bright: In a way, the question is daft, because of course the two are compatible. If you are a Muslim, can you be a democrat? Is that the question? Is the Quran anti-democratic? Perhaps a more interesting question is whether a political Islam is compatible with democracy. Should western democracy engage with political Islam? Is an Islam that demands an Islamic state incompatible with democracy, even when it aims to create that state through the ballot box?
Michael, you’ve been accused of being an Islamophobe (as I have sometimes). Is Islam compatible with democracy?
Michael Gove: We all know prominent figures in British public life who are Muslims whose religion provides them with spiritual nourishment, who are also democrats who operate in the media and in parliament – MPs such as Khalid Mahmood and Sadiq Khan, who are impeccable democrats. We also know there are countries where there is a majority Muslim population, from Turkey through Malaysia to Indonesia, which are also democracies, all countries with open and plural political systems, all recognisably democracies.
But why is it that so many countries with a majority Muslim population are not fully functioning democracies? Or, if they do have elections, as do Iran or Egypt, they have poor human rights records.
There is an interpretation of Islam that sees it not just as an explanation of private conscience, but as a total political system: an answer to all life’s questions; and, more than just an answer, a call to action. And this philosophy of political Islam can be traced to certain thinkers, all of whom have emerged in the past hundred years – people such as Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Maududi, founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami movement, which operates in Pakistan, Bangladesh and the UK. Their vision is of a world in which all of us have to recognise Allah as sovereign, not just in the hearts of believers, but over the entire globe.
How do we in the west engage with people who believe in that total and, in some cases, totalitarian vision?
Ziauddin Sardar: How do you define Islam, and how do you define democracy? Suppose you are on the receiving end of certain western policies. Suppose you were in Iraq or in Afghanistan, you could say that these guys come and tell us exactly what we should do, how we should live, and if we refuse to follow their democratic way they threaten us with force – they actually invade us. So what Michael Gove has said about Islamists could apply to the west as well, because that’s how we look to certain parts of the world.
Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood can be considered fundamentalist. Yes, some of Sayyid Qutb’s thought is absolutist. But why did he become an absolutist? He was a literary theorist, a teacher; his ambition was to write. He became as he did because he was tortured by Nasser. The Muslim Brotherhood was not a violent organisation in the Fifties and Sixties – he was tortured and transformed.
There are certain countries – for instance, Bangladesh – which are highly democratic, highly Islamic countries. At the same time, there have been fundamentalist parties which profess democratic ideas. One is now ruling Turkey.
Our double standards are turning people against democracy. In Palestine, Hamas is a very good example. These guys keep telling us: “Look, we believe in democracy; we have participated in a democratic process; we have legitimately won elections. Now let us rule. Let us fulfil the mandate that we have won.” And what do we say? “Democracy means everyone but you, because you’re carrying a label of Islamist.” Muslims have their extremists, but let’s focus on the large majority of Muslims and see what they want. And if you ask them, all will tell you that they want democracy.
MB: Hamas is one of the organisations that has concerned
the west. Can you reassure us, Ghazi Hamad, that Islamism is compatible with democracy?
Ghazi Hamad: I think there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy if you look at the verses of the Quran.
Democracy is not only in politics. It is also in the culture and behaviour of people. In the first verse of the Quran, Allah said, I have created people, all people are as one nation, male and female, and I have created them in order that they can live and coexist and work together and talk together. This is the origin of democracy, that people respect each other. In other verses in the Quran, Allah said Muslims should respect other religions. This is also part of democracy.
There are just three verses that talk about political issues. First, Allah is the super-governor. The second principle is that anyone who becomes a governor should be chosen by the people. And third, Allah said democracy means coexistence between the governor and the people. There is no contradiction between Islam and democracy.
Hamas came to power through democratic elections. All the western world stands against Hamas. When Hamas won the election, I was in London and met many people, and I told them you have to build bridges, not impose embargoes and sanctions. You have to listen. For example, you say Israel is democratic. But Israel killed people in the name of democracy and built settlements in the name of democracy and built the wall in the name of democracy and expelled the Palestinians in the name of democracy.
Why be a democrat?
MB: Samir has another, perhaps different, Palestinian perspective.
Samir el-Youssef: I’m going to follow Michael and say: “No, Islam is incompatible with democracy.” And the reason is
that Islam is a monotheistic religion and, like all monotheistic religions, it believes in one God and one word, one freedom, one truth and one justice – and how can you have democracy with that? It is as simple as that. It’s nothing to do with Islam only; Judaism and Christianity are the same way. You can’t have democracy and a monotheistic religion.
But why should you be a democrat? Assuming there is a group of people living somewhere in the world and they’re happy with themselves and they’re not democrats, what has this got to do with us? Why not let them live the way they like? The real challenge is not spreading democracy across the world, particularly not the way George Bush is trying to spread democracy; the challenge for people who call themselves democrats or liberals is diversity.
Tahmima Anam: I come from Bangladesh, which has a majority Muslim population, and I think our relationship to Islam can be defined as what the literary critic Harold Bloom calls “anxiety of influence”.
In Bangladesh, we have two major parties, neither of which is Islamic. There is a third party called Jamaat and both parties believe they need Jamaat in order to win an election. So every time there’s an election, each, even though they call themselves secular, says: “Oh, we need Jamaat in order to win the vote,” and every year Jamaat gets more and more of the popular vote. Does this mean people are voting for Jamaat because they believe in an Islamic state or in Islamic values, or is it because we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that there’s an Islamic force in the country and we need to engage with it? The Muslims Michael Gove was talking about are unrecognisable to me. I don’t believe people want an Islamic state.
MB: Michael, I want to quote something from your book:
Since no Arab nation currently allows a flourishing secular space for opposition to grow, there is nowhere for people who want to protest to go, apart from underground and into the arms of the Islamists. Given the massive and spectacular corruption of the Saudis and the House of Mubarak, it is perhaps a wonder that more are not tempted by the Islamist promise.
MG: I do believe that the reason Islamist parties have done
so well is the corruption and oppression of the regimes that happen to be in power. The people who were running the Palestinian Authority until very recently were palpably corrupt; support for Hamas was partly an expression of disgust. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are both countries run by small cliques which are also spectacularly poor at running their countries, let alone ensuring that the riches in the country go to the right people. In both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the small space allowed for dissent is given to Islamists, so it’s not surprising that people who offer a purer, more austere form of politics can gather support. The same thing happened here in the 17th century when the Cromwellian, parliamentarian, Puritan revolution against rule by a small royal clique led to massive upheaval. So it’s not just something that’s specific to one time or to one cultural background.
But, to take Ziauddin’s argument head on, why is the situation in Egypt and Saudi Arabia as it is? I’d flip it over. The two countries in the Middle East where America is least popular are Egypt and Saudi Arabia, because America and the west more broadly support the rules of those regimes. And I look at the one country in the Middle East where America is genuinely popular – that may change – and that is Iran. One of the reasons is that America and the current Iranian regime are at loggerheads, and among the young, the middle class, the public intellectuals, there is far more sympathy for America. So, has it been in the west’s long-term interest to back oppressive and corrupt regimes? And what can the west do to ensure that it is genuinely on the side of people who do want to move to a democratic and plural future?
I’d love to be convinced that Hamas was making the transition that other former terrorist or terrorist movements have made from their past into a more promising future. But, for me, the evidence isn’t there.
ZS: I think we need to get away from that idea – and it is a modern, 20th-century idea – that Islam can be transformed into a state. Once the state becomes the arbiter of politics, religion, morality, ethics and everything else, you end up with a nightmare dictatorship, which is what you have in Saudi Arabia and certain other Gulf states.
What they did in Indonesia was different. They said Islam and politics does not equal Islamic state, but Islam and politics equals civic society, and it is a duty upon you as a Muslim to participate in the political process. Which is exactly what Hamas argues, but, at the end of the day, the political process is not going to lead to the imposition of the sharia. What we need in Muslim countries is a space for genuine Islamic discourse. It’s not just that there is no secular space, but that there is no space in most Arab countries for any kind of discourse to come forward.
This space does not exist because various dictatorships are supported and enforced by certain western countries.
TA: The problem is not Islam, it’s sharia. Samir, you were
saying that all monotheistic religions promote undemocratic structures, but we’re not talking about Judaism and Christianity, we’re talking about Islam. Why are we talking about Islam? Because so far we haven’t seen an Islamic party or a political Islam that does not believe in the imposition of sharia law. That’s the problem: the equation of Islam with sharia law, which is undemocratic, violent and sexist.
GH: You cannot judge Islam for what happened in Arab countries. The people who brought totalitarianism to Arab countries were non-Muslim governments: Hosni Mubarak, Saddam Hussein. Syria is not an Islamic state. All these are secularists, nationalists, communists who brought totalitarian government and regimes to Arab countries. Until now, Islam has had no opportunity to show the truth: that there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy – even in
Gulf countries and Algeria and Morocco. These are not Islamic states, so I think that this is very important not to say Islam is responsible.
S el-Y: Yes, the secular can be as totalitarian as any other regime and we have seen totalitarian regimes in Russia, Germany. But 400 years of Islamic rule in the Arab world and the Ottoman empire, what did they bring but backwardness? You said that secular regimes brought the destruction. They didn’t; the ruin of Islamic Ottoman empire rule was already there.
Dangers of a pure Islam
MB: Is it possible, Ghazi, to have a legitimate political system without Islam, in your view?
GH: There is no contradiction between Islam and freedom, between Islam and democracy, between Islam and justice, between Islam and education and between Islam and liberalism.
ZS: If only your version is authentic we must all submit. That is a horrendous idea. I think that is the problem with Islamic movements; that is the problem with Hamas; that essentially is the problem with Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh. They participate in elections, but once they start saying, “Our Islam is the only Islam that is acceptable,” they end up in a kind of authoritarian state. And that’s what we see in Saudi Arabia, most of the Middle East, in Iran: people saying “This is the pure Islam”. That’s why I think we should stand up against the Islamic state and fight for civic societies.
S el-Y: There is actually an Islamic democracy or democratic state – Iran. It is a democratic state, but who would want to live there? Let’s face it: nobody would want to live there, and yet
it is a democratic state. This would be my question to Ghazi –
I am an atheist; I don’t believe in God. What would you do to me if I lived in Gaza? You would kill me, I know that, so don’t come here and tell me about human rights!
GH: Hamas has chosen a Christian to be a minister in the government. We never kill anyone in the name of Islam. It is not a real democracy when, for example, you kill Saddam Hussein and you support other dictatorships in Arab countries! Why? Why? The US is the biggest democratic regime, and it killed millions of Iraqis and says this is democracy.
This is not democracy.
MG: Is Iran a democracy? Yes, people vote, but they only vote for candidates chosen by the Council of Guardians.
Just imagine if Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were to look through a list of candidates from other parties at the beginning of a general election, and say, “No, that party can’t stand, that individual can’t stand.” Would we call that a democracy? Iran is not a democracy.
TA: If I have a constitution, if I have franchise, if I have citizenship, if I have clean political institutions, I don’t need to bring God into politics, and God certainly doesn’t need me. We don’t need to bring religion into politics to underscore the importance of religion in our everyday lives. Bringing Islam into politics is dangerous – and I certainly don’t endorse it.