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Democracy, Islam and Christianity

by Iftekhar Sayeed

 

 

“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church...” (Mathew 16:18)

The Church has endured a long time – a remarkably long time, given that recorded human history is only 5,000 years old. The Roman Catholic Church was the prototypical civil society. It was destined to be at war with the state. Today it is a state.

Civil society – and thereby democracy – is explicitly identified by Larry Siedentop with Christianity. He observes: “For the Christian God survives in the assumption that we have access to the nature of things as individuals. That assumption is, in turn, the final justification for a democratic society, for a society organised to respect the equal underlying moral status of all its members, by guaranteeing each 'equal liberty'. That assumption reveals how the notion of 'Christian liberty' came to underpin a radically new 'democratic' model of human association. Thus, the defining characteristic of Christianity was its universalism. It aimed to create a single human society, a society composed, that is, of individuals rather than tribes, clans or castes.”

Consider carefully the above statement: you are a son or daughter, father or mother, brother or sister, uncle or aunt only secondarily. You are an individual first. In Muslim society, such a view would be regarded with curiosity at best, with derision at worst. In Muslim society, we have our roles as fathers or uncles or nephews and nieces. We know what our obligations and duties are towards each other. In short, in Muslim society, the family comes first.

“And he said unto them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9: 23)

Siedentop continues: "Christian and liberal norms have always had difficulty with assessing the claims of the human family, often treating it  primarily as a preparation for adult freedom - a view which can perhaps be traced back as far as Jesus's radical pronouncement on the need to reject family ties when the service of God, in conscience, requires it." In Bangladeshi society, which is primarily Muslim, the individual never emerges from family life: he or she is prohibited by religious and social sanctions from doing so.

 At every stage of one’s life one is told what to do – by elders, by relatives, by non-relatives.... As such, there is no ‘private life’. Civic equality is, therefore, rejected in the very process of primary and secondary socialization.

Siedentop is uncomfortable with multiculturalism: "If - and of course this is a crucial assumption - Islamic schools teach the radical subordination of women, if they teach that daughters must obey their fathers at whatever age, and that sisters are subordinate to brothers, do we really want public funding for such schools? For such funding amounts to a kind of endorsement of views which most of us find abhorrent, views which run directly contrary to our intuitions of justice."
This caricature* of Muslim society serves a useful purpose: it reveals that Muslim values of subordination are totally at odds with western values of equality, precluding the emergence of a genuine civil society. 

Christian society developed in the faith that the world was about to end. This faith is different in Islam. The world will end some day – on a day to be decided by the Almighty. The whole tenor of Christian ethic – that you should give up your earthly possessions and form a brotherhood and not raise families – was premised on the notion that the world was going to end very soon. “And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick. And he said unto them, take nothing for your journey....” (Luke 9: 2-3)

 The world did not end but the Christian ethic remained. A priesthood emerged – something unthinkable in the Muslim world. And this priesthood, as I have observed, was the first civil society. It was an association of individuals, to which all were welcome. And it was definitely and deliberately beyond the family. The priesthood developed in a violent world – the Middle Ages. And it contributed a great deal to that violence. Civil society, as an expert on the subject communicated to me in private, is an arena of conflict.

Of the spoils of the Battle of Badr, the Koran says: “They will question thee about the spoils. Say: The spoils are God's and the apostle's” (8:1) “....And know ye, that when ye have taken any booty, a fifth part belongeth to God and to the Apostle, and to the near of kin, and to orphans, and to the poor, and to the wayfarer, if ye believe in God, and in that which we have sent down to our servant on the day of the victory, the day of the meeting of the Hosts.” (8:41) 

This is clearly a military message. We forget today how every ruler in the Muslim world was a military ruler. It was a devout, Muslim army that – for a hundred years – conquered parts of Asia and Europe.

Here I would like to take leave of religion and focus on history. For a holy book is hardly any guide to the subsequent history of the people. The Koran enjoins jihad, and yet Islam has been one of the most peaceful of all civilisations. The Bible enjoins love, and yet Christians inaugurated the slave trade, and destroyed two civilisations and conquered or plundered the rest.

For nearly fourteen hundred years every Muslim ruler has been a military ruler. Today, only one out of five Muslim majority states is a democracy. No civilian has ever ruled over the Muslim world before the Europeans came. The blind sheikh, Umar Abd al Rahman (implicated in the first attempt on the twin towers in 1993) has issued a fatwa banning all political parties, including Islamic ones. And rightly so. Mullahs should be the conscience of society.

How did we forget our own history? What explains this amnesia? In our society, the reasons are clear. We have been conquered, and conquered people admire their masters. Furthermore, our intellectuals get their degrees and continue their careers in the west, even if they are domiciled here. Notice a simple fact: no seminar is ever held on the fate of the Palestinian people. Why? Because those who would hold such a seminar will find their careers terminated in the west. And since they possess the keys to learning, they have allowed us to forget our own history. As for the political mullahs, the last thing they want is for a military ruler to deprive them of power. The rest of us, of course, are blinded by the wealth of the west. Corruption reigns.

Take Ibn Khaldun. In his Muqaddimah, he analyses the rise and fall of dynasties in terms of asabiyyah, or group solidarity. The group acquires its military strength through kinship; it emerges from the tough environments of the desert and overthrows – militarily – the weak, sedentary rulers. The family then becomes dispersed and softens. One of them becomes a king and employs mercenaries. And then a new group emerges from the desert. The emphasis on military strength is all too evident and taken for granted. It would still have been taken for granted had not the Europeans arrived.

A thousand years separated the resurrection of the state in Western Europe from its collapse with the western Roman Empire. The terminus of this lacuna saw the emergence of the institution – parliament - that would constrain sovereigns. Such a lacuna was unique to Western Europe. The end of the interregnum saw the transition from one set of roles – priest, lord, serf – to another – reformed priest, merchant, wage-worker, bureaucrat. Both the Renaissance and the Reformation were historically unique. Nowhere else did such a wrenching change in roles ever take place: a change that inevitably rendered people conscious of the difference between the roles of individuals and the individual with roles.

If we are to survive the mayhem that has engulfed our society since the democratic transition, we must return to our history before we were conquered and degraded. Only then will we find the proper place for the family and the ruler in society – and no place for the individual or civil society.

 



* Let me illustrate: my brother-in-law knows that he is subordinate to his four sisters because they are older than him; the siblings - male and female alike - categorically know that they are subordinate to their mother; the sons-in-law are similarly subordinate to their mother-in-law; and every brother-in-law is subordinate to both the sister-in-law and  brother-in-law directly above him!  And, of course, when my father-in-law was alive, we were all subordinate to him.  So much for Siedentop's distorted nightmare of uniform female subordination! (However, the word 'stroino' in Bengali reveals that many men are, in fact,  subordinate to their wives!)


© Iftekhar Sayeed

Iftekhar Sayeed is an English and economics teacher and freelance journalist. He was born and lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has contributed to POSTCOLONIAL TEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh.