Extracts from Husain Haqqani’s Article

Islamist Parties and Democracy

JoD, July 2008, Volume 19, Number 3

More substantively, however, the potential or actual force of the Islamist legacy is bound up with the question of the status of shari‘a. As has often been observed, the shari‘a understood as divine law and thus as the will of God stands in tension with any alternative understanding of legislation as deriving from human will, as expressed for instance via the decisions of elected legislators. But as a practical matter, of course, even the divine law requires human intermediation for its implementation, and this intermediation has taken various forms over the course of Muslim history.

In practice, the issue for contemporary democracy and especially liberal democracy will turn on whether an Islamist party and the state that it might govern can admit the legitimacy of some political and legal authority in addition to (and somehow combined with) the authority of Islamic law. From the point of view of liberal democracy, such a party and state would have to accept (if only tacitly) the principles of a private sphere and of individual rights—principles by which liberal democracy stands or falls. Such a sphere might permit—but would not require—the private adherence to Islamic law.
In terms of electoral politics, the issue might be stated as follows:
How do or will Islamist parties define the minimum qualifications of electors and candidates for office? Is every adult citizen a potential candidate for office and electoral participation? Or are the franchise and office to be restricted either to Muslims in general or, even more menacingly, only to those Muslims who conform to Islamist standards—that is to say, those who are “true Muslims” rather than “Muslim unbelievers” or “backsliders” or “neopagans.” Mawdudi used the terms “Muslim by choice” and “Muslim by chance” to distinguish between the two categories. The latter is a category that has come to figure prominently in
contemporary Islamist discourse. Jihadist groups have used it to justify the murder of other Muslims, especially Muslim rulers and their allies. Islamist parties might use it to legitimize the idea of refusing to give up power after they have won office through elections. Hence the fear that Islamism will lead to dictatorships of the pious modeled on communism’s dictatorships of the proletariat.

As mentioned above, Muslim political history shows some variability in the implementation of Islamic law. Indeed, the determination and implementation of Islamic law were often matters handled in the “private sphere” by clerics lacking political power. At least after the time of Muhammad and his immediate successors, Islamic jurisprudence developed largely at some distance from the rulers of the polity. This wasresponsible for the well-known fact that Islamic law comes in at least four major “schools” or variants. The adherence to Islamic law coexisted with the separate and de facto superior authority of Muslim political rulers and their various dynasties. Thus Muslim experience does not lack for a variety of political arrangements within which separate layers or spheres of law can be present at the same time. Indeed, such a variety exists today in the practices of various Muslim countries.

It is difficult to say, however, what bearing this might have on Islamists political practice, since the original Islamist impulse was to regard this variability, whether noted in the past or the present, as a sign that all was not well in the Muslim world. It is of course possible that Islamist parties might come to rethink this matter—initially perhaps as a matter of necessity in the face of countervailing political forces, and then more positively through the elaboration of a new political theory.But the latter has certainly not occurred yet, and the former has so far produced results that, as the case of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood shows, must be called ambiguous at best.