Islam 'Conflict with democracy' centres on non-Muslims' status


Syrian philosopher Sadik Al-Azm spoke to AKI ahead of the publishing in Italy of the second edition of his book 'Enlightened Islam' by Di Renzo Editore

Rome, 26 July (AKI) - Syrian philosopher Sadik Al-Azm believes that while "there exists a conflict between Islam, in its original form, and democracy, this problem can be solved easily".

"To do this Islam needs to jettison certain laws, first and foremost the concept of 'ahl al-dhimma'" the so-called 'protected' status granted to followers of the only two other religions recognised by Muslims - Judaism and Christianity, "Al-Azm said in an interview with Adnkronos International (AKI).

In practice, ahl al-dhimma, which is gaining popularity in an increasingly Islamised Iraq, allows non-Muslims, and only Christians and Jews at that, to follow their religion, while effectively stripping them of their political rights and privileges.

Abolishing ahl al-dhimma "paves the way for the concepts of citizenship and equality of all people before the law" Al-Azm , who lectures at universities in Lebanon, Syria and Germany, told AKI.

Similarly, the Syrian philosopher argues that Islam must reappraise its stance on slavery, which he says is at best ambiguous.

"Islam fails to address in a direct and fundamental manner the issue of slavery from a judicial level".

"If we consider Islam as a complete doctrine and religion, then it can only be in tune with itself. But if we consider it in relation to history and real life, over the 1,400 years of its existence, then what emerges is its unique ability to adapt and integrate with a variety of human conditions.

"There's no doubt that Islam in its historical sense has changed to enable it to exist within nomadic civilisation, the industrial society and that based on commerce", Al-Azm said.

"Every attempt to change Islam's original doctrine requires our voluntary and rational intervention", Al-Azm explained, referring to the 'ta'wil' or the process of 'auto-revision' and interpretation of the Koran's texts.

For the Syrian philosopher, the West has placed too much emphasis on the issue of the hijab, the headscarf many Muslim women wear, since the an obligation to wear the garment has not place in Islamic tradition, he maintains.

"The headscarf is of secondary importance compared to the problems caused by the dictates of the ahl al-dhimma; those relating to slavery; the Shiite concept of 'government of the juror' (in force in Iran); and, the Sunni concept of 'sovereignty' - all of them at odds with the vision of democracy.

"Throughout history, the vast majority of people living in Muslim countries were peasants, bedouin nomads or shepherds and instead of the headscarf they wore the traditional bedouin dress, suitable to the climate, to the environment and to the work being done. That's why a hijab did not exist", he said.

"Even the notion of restricting a woman to the interiors of a house is an urban and sedentary notion" alien to the tradition of Muslim people, according to Al-Azm.

While the birth of fundamentalism in the modern age can be traced to the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 in Egypt, the defeat of Arab states by Israel in 1967 gave Islamic extremism its real impetus, the philosopher said.

The Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a response to the demise of the Muslim caliphate of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, "but it remained marginal until 1967 when a void that the fundamentalists were able to fill became suddenly and violently manifest" Al-Azm said.

Since then, what has been emblematic is the failure by Arab nations to "integrate with the concept of modern science, or the capacity to produce scientific knowledge in a progressive sense" while instead "simply importing ready-made technologies from abroad".

Still, the Muslim Brotherhood, at least in its Egyptian and Syrian incarnations has begun to change the terminology of its political discourse according t Al-Azm, who describes this as "huge turning point".

Gone are phrases referring to a "caliphate" or "the Koran is our constitution" while expressions such as "republic" or the concept of equality before the law, human rights, citizenship, civil liberties and even civilian government and gender equality are gaining currency.

"In all this the Turkish model is very important. I'm convinced that had it not been for [Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and his [Islamic-rooted] Justice and Development Party, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would never have had the courage, some two years ago, to propose programmes to reform their country", Al-Azm said.

Recent attempts by Islamic fundamentalists to win power through the ballot-box, send a mixed message, the philosopher argues.

For the most part "these cannot be described as a success, but rather as small progress, after the attempts [by these fundamentalists] to appropriate power through violence, especially in the case of Egypt and Syria", he said.

Also the "principles of [an acceptance of] electoral competition cannot be applied to movements such as Hamas (in the Palestinian territories) and Hezbollah (Lebanon) since these are national liberation movements operating in an Islamist guise".

"If Islamist factions want to govern through the ballot box in a way that won't lead to the tragic Algerian model (where the annulment of the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front's election victory triggered a bloodbath in the 1990s) then they have to behave like an elected majority, which doesn't mean having the go-ahead to demolish the foundations of the state.

"Political Islam needs to reassure other parts of society that democracy means the majority governing while respecting the rights of the majority", Al-Azm said

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