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Democracy in its classical definition means the rule of the majority. However, a majority that gains power through free elections does not have the right to govern in any way it wishes. Let us not forget that many of the world's dictators were actually elected to power thanks to the majority vote of the people, such as Hitler. Democracy has a framework that must be observed. But what is the framework of democracy? The framework of democracy is human rights laws.
In other words, the majority who has gained power can only perform within the framework of the laws of human rights and cannot violate those laws. No majority in power can use religion as a pretext to oppress half of the population of society, in other words women. One such example is the oppression that women in Iran are currently suffering in the name of Islam. No majority in power should have the right to prevent freedom of speech in the name of ideology, as demonstrated in Cuba and China. No majority in power should have the right to limit civil liberties, as in the case of the United States of America, where they listen to their citizens' telephone conversations, monitor their emails or inspect their postal packages.
In light of the above, governments do not gain their legitimacy merely through votes of the people and ballot boxes. They gain their legitimacy through both votes of the people and respect for human rights. Pretexts for violation of human rights such as cultural relativism, religion and ideology, are not acceptable.
The current contention that in some countries, such as Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia, Islamic political parties have managed to gain power through elections is an important one. Such governments justify violation of human rights in their respective countries by resorting to Islam. For example, the Islamic Republic of Iran claims to derive its power and legitimacy from religion and not from the ballot box, hence it enforces punishments including the cutting off of a thief's hand and death by stoning. In other words, to justify their political systems, non-democratic Islamic states maintain that Islam and democracy are not compatible; that democracy is a Western concept that cannot be implemented in Islamic states because, even if supported by the majority in a society, they cannot adopt any decisions that are in contravention of Islamic rules. For instance, Parliament cannot approve sale of alcoholic beverages because it is forbidden by Islam.
Such groups interpret Islam in a manner that serves to justify their political objectives. They flatly dismiss other Muslims' interpretations as null and void. In their view, any criticism of the government's performance is tantamount to criticism of Islam. And they silence their opponents with the weapon of apostasy. They see themselves as representatives of God on Earth and interpreters of Islam, and maintain that the people have no choice but to obey. Such individuals seek to justify their views by using terms such as "Islamic democracy," which they define as absolute democracy.
Conversely, progressive Muslims are of the opinion that, firstly, Islam, like any other religion, has different interpretations; that one must not abide by the interpretation given by an Islamic government but instead avail oneself of the more up-to-date interpretations. Secondly, despite the fact that the Shari'a law is respected and considered binding by Muslims, the management of society must be based on the exigencies of time and place. For instance, if parliament in an Islamic country has legalized the sale of alcoholic beverages, the issue pertains to the management of the country, hence permitted. It is not relevant to the Shari'a law and it is down to the Muslim individual to determine for himself/herself that buying and selling alcoholic beverages is against Islamic instructions, hence his/her conscience would rule on the matter. To put it more precisely, separation of state from religion in effect safeguards the sanctity of religion. So it becomes a personal and moral issue. As a consequence, such governments' means of exploiting religion would be impeded. Thus, progressive Muslims hold the opinion that Islam cannot be used as pretext of permission for ignoring democracy. Moreover, [they maintain that] democracy is a universal concept; it has no relation to East or West. Nor do they regard it as an imported commodity, but believe that it can be implemented in any society or culture. Democracy means respect for the free will of the people. And as testified by Islamic history, this is not an issue Islam is against. For example, after the conquest of Mecca the holy prophet embarked on the establishment of an Islamic government. To take over the helm he called on the people to swear their allegiance to him – swearing allegiance is tantamount to voting. According to historical accounts, some individuals refused to swear allegiance to the prophet, yet they were allowed to live freely on Islamic territory. Hence, how can it be claimed in the 21st century that Islam is not compatible with democracy? Democracy cannot be disregarded in the name of Islam.
At this point, two issues should be highlighted:
Firstly: Democracy is more of a culture than a way of governing or political system. It is a historical process that must go through its evolution. No country can be a quasi democracy. It is in fact democratic people that make a society democratic.
Secondly: There are different degrees of democracy. Democracy is not an absolute concept. A state may be considered democratic relative to another state and non-democratic when compared to another. For instance, Iran is democratic in comparison with the United Arab Emirates, because members of parliament in the UAE are appointed and not elected by the people where as in Iran the people elect their representatives to parliament. On the other hand, in comparison to France, democracy in Iran is lagging behind. This is because the French face no restrictions in electing their MPs, while in Iran the people are not allowed to elect their chosen parliamentary candidates until the candidates have first been vetted and approved by the Guardian Council.
And finally, democracy is like a flower that requires constant attention. Any democratic government could attempt to extend its powers, hence diminish its democratic status, unless it is constantly monitored by the people of that country. It is a proven experience and a warning to democratic societies.
Shirin Ebadi is attending the Nobel Women's Initiative conference Moving Beyond Militarism and War: Women-Driven Solutions for a Nonviolent World May 28-31, Belfast, Ireland. Jenny Allsopp and Heather McRobie are reporting from Belfast. Read 50.50's full coverage of the conference
Read more articles on 50.50 from earlier Nobel Women's Initiative conferences