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Incompatibility Thesis Examined: Islam and Democracy

Vinod K. Jairath

Edited by Zoya Hasan
Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 266, Rs. 550.00


This book is about empirically testing the ‘incompatibility thesis’ on democracy and Islam or Muslim societies, through the study of non-Arab, Muslim-majority, Asian countries of Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Malaysia. In the Introduction, Zoya Hasan has presented the problem and the issues in a compact manner, with a brief background to the subsequent six country studies which are written by different scholars.   The book challenges essentialist, ahistorical, monolithic constructions and stereotyping of Islam and Muslim societies by stepping away from textual sources and ‘cultural’ paradigm and, instead, adopting a ‘structural’ approach while empirically examining specific historical, imperial, economic, political and ethnic features in non-Arab Muslim societies. Recent research on ‘lived Islam’ in India in particular and South Asia in general has focused, through micro-level studies, on syncretic or composite culture and fuzzy or liminal identities with emphasis on diversity through embeddedness in local culture and history. This volume edited by Zoya Hasan adds one more dimension of diversity by raising the perspective to macro-level, with focus on broad social structure, colonial experience, inequalities and marginalization of a large section of the population, ethnicity related occupational distinctions, rise of political parties, nature of political elites etc. Two of the main architects of the thesis that Islam and democracy are incompatible are Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama. But even before their work during the early 1990s, Edward Said had written about this ‘Orientalist perspective’ for which ‘Islam does not develop, and neither do Muslims; they merely are’, and, furthermore, ‘Islam seems to be about texts rather than people’ (p. 22). That is why ‘we need to be wary of discussing Muslim societies and polities in the abstract and as part of a unitary system called the world of Islam’ (p. 17).   It is argued here that the idea of authoritarian and democratically deficit political regimes in Muslim societies comes from the studies of the Arab world. However, statistically speaking, ‘85 per cent of the world’s Muslims are non-Arabs and over 70 per cent live in Asian states. The Muslims of South Asia … account for 40 per cent of the Muslim world’ (p. 17). Therefore it makes a great deal of sense to empirically examine the status of democracy in six non-Arab Asian countries, with diverse histories and social structures.   All the selected countries have Muslim majorities, varying from about 55% Muslims in Malaysia to 88% in Indonesia and share the experiences of the Third World. ‘The shift ...

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