Islam’s Challenge to Sham Democracy (Eid al-Fitr lecture)

Eid al-Fitr Message:

Once again we are celebrating one of the great festivals in Islam. Eid al-Fitr is indeed a festival of recurring happiness for all Muslims who endured physical and material sacrifices during the auspicious month of Ramadan. This day we contemplate our physical, intellectual and spiritual advances made during a period of intense and committed fasting. We also remember the physically and cognitively disadvantaged, the poor and needy, the sick and deceased, the orphan, and all those Muslims and non-Muslims who experience moments of unjustifiable vulnerability. We pray that Almighty Allah continue to have mercy and compassion on us.

In this Eid al-Fitr message I raise concerns about the daunting social, economic, cultural and political challenges which our Ummah (community) has to contend with. I cannot imagine that Muslims in celebrating their happiness would remain unperturbed about the catastrophic ramifications which Western democratic discourse has enacted. This message attempts to accentuate some of our predicaments we have to address if we were to become noble vanguards against the dominance of Western modernity which has gained much ascendancy in the name of democracy. To begin, I am not suggesting that deep democratic discourse with its emphasis on invoking the collective will of the people through shared, rational and intersubjective deliberation is in itself a harmful discourse. I am also contesting any claim that deep democracy with its constitutive actions of cultivating tolerance, respect, reconciliation and a sense of humanity are in any way violating human rights and denying to humans their basic civic liberties. My main contention is that democracy as it is practised in Western political arenas, in particular dominant democracies’ attitudes towards Muslims and Muslim-oriented countries, spawns a concern that something is inherently wrong with the premises of Western liberal democracy.

The question arises: What seems to be wrong with global democratic agendas and how can Islam contribute towards reshaping Western modernity’s democratic agenda. Firstly, the biggest political sphere of democratic discourse has been associated with the activities of the United Nations (UN). Unfortunately, as Muslims we have witnessed the negotiations, bargaining, threats and veto on the part of the dominant powers which have characterised the world body over the past decade. Resolutions have mostly been implemented which saw the cultural, economic, political and social decline and incessant suffering of nations such as Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya. Seldom have Muslim majority countries really contested UN decisions since their reluctance to challenge the United States (US), Britain and Russia has led to undesirable consequences in Muslim majority countries – Afghanistan and Iraq continue to be humiliated, and Palestine and Chechnya remain oppressed. To say that Islam can do something to change the undesirable situations in Muslim majority countries seems to have become an unachievable pipedream. Yet, we claim to have the perfect and complete din and that Allah Almighty is always on our side. Reality suggests that Muslims are not doing enough to alleviate their humiliation and suffering. And unless, Muslim majority countries begin to show some resilience against Western hegemony and concretise their collaborative efforts (which by now has been alarmingly absent), their voices on a political, cultural and economic level would remain muted!

Secondly, as Muslims from Africa, more specifically Southern Africa, we have been most adversely affected by colonialism, racism and imperialism which have been further propounded by famine, hunger, poverty, violence and hostility on our continent. Democratic forces in the name of development and human upliftment accuse us from betraying our own people – only witness the civil wars on the African continent, political corruption, human rights violations and domestic violence. Unless we begin to seriously enact our virtues of tolerance, respect, caring, human dignity, rationality and love for the other, as Muslims we have little chance of changing our own contexts (particularly our families) and on a broader scale our African continent. Therefore, I contend that Muslims begin to use their greeting on this glorious Eid to foster lasting co-operative and dignified relations which would invariably impact on our society and continent. This is where Islam can offer possibilities to counteract and reduce stereotypes and biases about Islam’s apparent opposition towards democracy. Islam is definitely opposed to a notion of democracy which creates conditions whereby people are exploited, manipulated, controlled, marginalised and repressed such as we find on the African continent. Nations have been exhorted to democratise, yet the masses remain poor, underprivileged and unemployed. This is so, since democratic change has brought about stability for a neo-liberal market economy to succeed with its emphasis on individualistic competition, profit and an apparent disregard for people. This is the type of democratic change Islam finds abhorrent and detrimental to human flourishing, that is to say, human happiness.

Thirdly, democracy as propounded by Western modernity and which undoubtedly has permeated our society advocates a notion of liberality whereby freedom to live together without being contractually bonded in marriage, physical expression in an adulterous fashion, the right to abortion on demand, homosexual relations and irreligiousity have been associated with the rights of individuals and communities. This kind of democratic decadence has become the main reason as to why our social services have become hospitals for proponents of such morally corrupt practices. Islam reifies the right of individuals and communities, sanctifies loyal marital relations, and condemns wicked and seductive exposure of the human frame – all actions necessary to cultivate a common good based on an ethics of trust, sincerity, honesty and mutual understanding.

Finally, education (as all serious-minded philosophers would continuously remind us of) needs to be reconstructed beyond the parameters of what has become sham democracy. Western liberal democracy advocates critique and challenging, yet many institutions propound and implement a notion of education which enslaves and reduces the mind of the intellectual to slavish acceptance of what abusive authority envisages. Our education system is being geared towards an economic labour market underscored by competition and profit. The ‘outcomes’ we are teaching our students have the potential to make them intellectual junkies since they are taught to be instrumentally rational and vicious. Islam undermines an education system which does not inculcate in people a sense of reasoning and compassion. But, since our education systems are dominated and funded by corporate elites and controlled by bureaucrats and apathetic technocrats who understand very little about education for humanity, dare I say democracy, our institutions would inevitably fail in their efforts to produce good persons – persons who can become good citizens.

Let the lessons we have learnt through our fasting and Eid al-Fitr inspire us to enact meaningful Islamic discourse which has the potential to counteract and reconstruct sham democratic discourse! Allah Almighty says in the Glorious Qur`an: “And among those We created is a community which guides by truth and thereby establishes justice” (Quran, al-`Araf, 7:181)

Eid Mubarak

Kullu ‘am Wa antum bihayr!