Pluralism and Democracy in Islam

Hamed Kazemzadeh

Published in Internal Journal of ACPCS, Winter No.05. pp. 62-77

The aim of this chapter is to address whether political Islam, in some of its wellknown versions, is compatible, as far as its socio-political ends are concerned, with the requirements of just, democratic institutions. The emphasis here is on the term “just”, as certain understandings of democratic institutions have no conceptual connection between justice and democracy. In theory, a state may be democratic but not just, where “just” is understood in its broad sense. I argue that democracy without justice, though logically conceivable, is democracy only in form but not in substance. At best, it is procedural democracy. Therein lies the rationale for my desire to explore not merely whether the aims of political Islam are reconcilable with the requirements of democratic institutions, but, more importantly, whether they are reconcilable with just, democratic institutions. However, I shall limit myself to the political sense of “just”, for within the representative movements of political Islam there is nothing in the nature of their common central aims that prevents them from being reconcilable with economic or social justice. Nevertheless, as will become evident in this chapter, the nature of these common aims precludes their being reconcilable with political justice as it relates to democratic praxis.

I begin with some preliminary remarks about the meaning and criteria of just, democratic institutions. It would help to focus the discussion at this point on what lies at the heart of these requirements, namely pluralism. Theories of pluralism abound. But I shall limit myself to a brief discussion of classical pluralism, radical pluralism and liberal pluralism. Classical pluralists, like Robert Dahl, Seymour Martin Lipset, and so on, focus on conflict among society’s interest groups.1 They share this point of view with radical pluralists, such as Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, Claude Lefort and William Connolly.2

However, they may be distinguished by the fact that the classical pluralists regard conflict as a problem for democracy and are mainly concerned with how to maintain stability in conflict-ridden societies. On the other hand, radical pluralists do not regard conflict as a problem for democracy, but consider it to be a virtue of democracy which acts as a bulwark against autocracy. If classic pluralist theory lends itself to a Hobbesian interpretation, radical pluralist theory, by contrast, explicitly draws upon key concepts of post-structuralist philosophers such as Lyotard, Foucault and Derrida. Regardless of their differences, they provide us with a common insight that is hard to ignore, namely that, no matter how homogeneous present-day societies claim to be, they are still plural societies, each internally divided along gender lines, class lines, ethnic lines, and so on. In short, “interest” pluralism is a significant feature of modern societies. In one way or another, liberal theories of pluralism attempt to justify placing limits on political authority, that aim to guarantee the protection of basic freedoms, such as the freedoms of conscience, thought, belief, expression, of pursuing one’s life plans and combining with others for any non-malicious purpose. These theories argue that a clear line demarcating the public domain from the private one needs to be drawn. However, differences arise among liberal pluralists on where this line should be drawn, which further raises questions such as what to include or exclude from the set of basic liberties, and whether liberty should be understood as a solely negative value.3

However, two beliefs lie behind all such theories: the belief in the intimate connection between democracy and liberalism, and the belief in “value” pluralism. In my judgement, both are defensible. Let us consider value pluralism first. It is reasonable to claim in this case, without adopting a sceptical stance, as many liberals mistakenly do, that there are several comprehensive doctrines of a religious-metaphysical nature, or even a secular nature, that represent multiple perspectives on the good. Many are incommensurate and, therefore, one cannot rationally argue the superiority of one doctrine or perspective over the others. But even when incommensurability is not the issue, agreement with regard to the validity of these comprehensive doctrines is difficult, if not impossible, to reach. One important consequence of this fact is that no such doctrine should be integrated into the public domain. It should not be institutionalised, for that inevitably leads to the imposition of the values of one segment of society on all other segments.

Value pluralism is based on the insight that values do not lend themselves to a metaphysically ordered hierarchy.4 This entails the fact that a plurality of reasonable conceptions of the good may be held as reasonable beliefs. Therefore, individual judgement and choice in the domain of values is of paramount importance, and the individual who judges and chooses is akin to the autonomous individual depicted in Kant’s moral theory. This position requires an equality of moral status of all persons as autonomous beings. The state should not promote a particular conception of the good, but should maintain neutrality vis-à-vis the different conceptions, if it is not to descend into paternalistic interfering with a citizen’s pursuit, as a rational autonomous person, of what he or she considers to be good.5 Respect for autonomy is not only incompatible with paternalism, but with the notion of perfectionism as well. An anti-perfectionist stance on the part of the state involves rejecting the imposition of a conception of the good on the citizenry that infringes upon their autonomy.


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