Interview with the Lebanese scholar Karim Sadek on Islam, Democracy and the Tunisian thinker and co-founder of the Islamic Ennahda party, Rachid Ghannouchi.
One of the main critiques of Islam often brought forward is that Islam is not compatible with democracy. What is your opinion?
Let me first say that even if we accept, for the sake of the argument, that the claim of the critic is correct, we should ask why is it a critique of Islam if it is not compatible with Democracy. It is important not to take this for granted, especially if we care about having a constructive engagement with those we are criticizing. Further, the terms in the question are not clear. Are we, for instance, talking about Islam and democracy on the level of society, on the level of the individual, or on the level of the state? Consider the state level for a moment. A meaningful approach to the question of whether Islam and democracy are compatible on the level of the state requires us to avoid two rather unhelpful if not empty extremes. If, for instance, we understand democracy thinly enough, say in terms of democratic elections, we could easily maintain a conception of an Islamic state that is democratic. And if, alternatively, we understand democracy thickly enough, say as having a vibrantly alive open and free democratic public sphere, we could easily maintain a frail conception of an Islamic state that is democratic. Depending on what level we are talking, and depending on how we cash out the terms of the question, we will get different answers and the significance of our answers will markedly differ.
In my own research I draw on the work of Rached al-Ghannouchi, as representative of a trend in Islamic revivalist thought and movements, and argue for a conception of politics that is characteristically Islamic and radically democratic. By radically democratic I refer to conceptions of democracy that put the emphasis on democratic will-formation in the public sphere rather than (and without neglecting) elections and constitutional protection of rights. So, yes, in my opinion Islam and democracy are compatible.
Why did you become interested in Rached al-Ghannouchi’s work? And what do you find interesting in his work?
When I was doing my PhD. in Philosophy at Georgetown University, I got introduced to Axel Honneth’s recognition-based critical social theory, which struck me as potentially very helpful for explaining the rise of Islamic movements in terms of struggles for recognition. That in turn led me to look into Islamic movements, so I attended a course on Islamic thought at the Arabic Studies department. That is when I first read Ghannouchi.
What interested me most in Ghannouchi’s writings is the critical attitude it exemplifies. Ghannouchi neither rejects nor indiscriminately adopts Western models of democracy and/or modernity. Fundamentally, Ghannouchi rejects the blind acceptance of the Western secular perspective and its guiding assumptions as setting the criteria for success in determining whether and how Islam can be democratic and/or modern. And here I am more than supportive. Further, and importantly, Ghannouchi is also critical, and again in a nuanced fashion, of Islamic revivalist movements. While he acknowledges the different achievements of such movements, he is critical of their ability to understand and connect with the everyday realities of Muslims as social members. For instance, he traces the failures of the Islamic movement (in Tunisia) in appealing to the working class and to women on its inability to connect to the difficulties those groups face in their respective social realities. We could agree or disagree with Ghannouchi’s position and arguments, but I find his critical attitude to be very healthy, and his attention and sensitivity to everyday social reality to be extremely important.
The upshot of this healthy critical attitude is that the way out for Muslim societies implies neither a wholesale rejection of Western notions, ideals, and achievements, nor the dogmatic application of an outdated understanding of Islamic principles and values. What this promises, in my opinion, is the possibility of simultaneously addressing the worry that many Muslims have over the survival of the Islamic identity in the modern world, on the one hand, and the worry that many other Muslims and non-Muslims have regarding Islam’s alleged undemocratic and exclusionist nature, on the other hand.
How in your opinion is Ghannouchi negotiating the idea that the state should have an Islamic character, on the one hand, with the principle that all citizens – including secular, other religious, ethnic, sexual minorities – should enjoy the same rights and freedoms, on the other hand?
Ghannouchi argues for equal rights and freedoms on the basis of Islam. From the perspective of the theoretical model of the Islamic state he puts forward, all citizens are to enjoy equal rights and freedoms because, and not in spite, of the Islamic character of the state.
Ghannouchi is clear that all individuals have the right to choose their religion away from any pressure or coercion. This freedom is the result of human’s God-given responsibility and agency. Drawing the implications of religious freedom, for instance, Ghannouchi argues that all individuals are to enjoy the freedom to exercise, express, and defend their religion and beliefs more generally, including atheistic ones. The point of such inclusion is to reflect Islam’s respect for all human beings as equal and free agents irrespective of creed, color, ethnicity, etc. Consequently, on his theoretical model of the Islamic state, the state is to respect and protect that openness and diversity. All citizens are equal in the eyes of the state, be they Muslims or not.
Ghannouchi also clarifies that equal treatment does not necessarily imply non-differential treatment. Sometimes, treating citizens equally requires treating them differently. On Ghannouchi’s view, differential treatment is justified when it relates to matters of creed. For instance, he illustrates, prohibiting the non-Muslim from drinking alcohol is unfair, just like prohibiting the Muslim to get a divorce is unfair. Further, and crucially, Ghannouchi’s efforts for inclusive citizenship in his theoretical model of the Islamic state come to the fore when we look at the implications of accepting someone’s creed. Ghannouchi notes that to accept someone’s creed implies acknowledging their right to defend it and to show its advantages over, and the disadvantages of, what differs from it. That is why he allows non-Muslim citizens to preach to Muslims and attempt to persuade them to join their creed. Citizens of all faiths are welcome to engage in public debates, to defend their views, criticize others, etc. Thus, Ghannouchi’s model recognizes all groups by securing the opportunity for each group to express its identity in public. Finally, and even more crucially, Ghannouchi maintains that if such openness in public debates undermines Muslims’ faith, then Muslims are to turn to their religion in search for stronger and more cogent arguments. Disagreement with the different other is not a threat but an opportunity for growth. There is an important lesson here to all of us living in a pluralistic world.
If there are conceptual challenges in Ghannouchi’s work according to your opinion – any ideas how to overcome them?
Like any other work, Ghannouchi’s work faces different challenges. I will briefly note one such challenge by way of building on my answer to the previous question. I just said that on Ghannouchi’s theoretical model of the Islamic state all citizens enjoy equal rights and freedoms. I argued elsewhere that as far as we are adopting the perspective of the state (i.e. how the state relates and perceives its citizens), Ghannouchi’s model does a good job in granting equal rights and freedoms to all citizens. Things, however, get problematic when we shift to the citizens’ perspective (i.e. how they look at the state, its foundations, and laws). To see this, consider the requirement that non-Muslim citizens must pay allegiance to the Islamic state, i.e. acknowledge, and commit to, the Islamic character of the state. But what exactly does such acknowledgment and commitment mean and entail? The challenge here is to give an account of the “Islamic character of the state” that is sufficiently Islamic without undermining the equality of non-Muslims once they pay allegiance to it. I have argued that one way to deal with this challenge is to seek an overlapping consensus (to use John Rawls’ term) on the necessary requirements of maslaha. (I develop this point in “Maṣlaḥa and Rāchid al-Ghannūshī’s Reformist Project,” in Maqasid Al-Shari’a and Contemporary Muslim Reformist Thought: An Examination, Adis Duderija (ed), Palgrave 2014.)
Another challenge Ghannouchi faces is that of squaring a commitment to pluralism with a commitment to Islamic unity, or social solidarity in the Islamic state that grows out of an Islamic society. The challenge is that while pluralism tends towards inclusion, solidarity tends towards exclusion. It is important to note that this challenge is not particular to Ghannouchi’s political thought. Solidarity is important for any society, and pluralism is characteristic of modern societies. So any political arrangement for modern societies faces that challenge. With that said, Ghannouchi’s own response to this challenge is interesting and promising. He argues that in Islam unity is to be achieved through pluralism. It is unfortunate that Ghannouchi does not sufficiently develop this idea. But we can do this for him, and that is part of what I do in my own work.
Dr. Karim Sadek completed his PhD in philosophy in 2012 with a dissertation on Islamic Democracy. Since then he served as a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Arts and Humanities at the American University of Beirut (AUB), a Research Fellow at the Oxford Center of Islamic Studies, and taught Philosophy at AUB and Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, Turkey. He currently is a fellow in the Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe program in affiliation with the Freie Universität zu Berlin.
Tanja Tabbara is head of the Africa department at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation.