Musings on Democracy

Writing of Mr. Jamshed Dasti, the infamous Pakistani former minister found to be in possession of a fake graduation degree, recently re-elected to the assembly in a popular vote, is one of those moments in my erratic writing career when I feel utterly tongue-tied, run out of vocabulary.

Jamshed Dasti may be just another ‘poor player strutting his hour upon the stage’, but he is certainly not an anomaly. He typifies a kind. He and the many others of his ilk who occupy the seats of power are mere symptoms of a deeply flawed, perverted, politically immature and democratically stunted order. Strictly speaking of technicalities, while the transparency of the elections that brought these to the fore cannot be doubted, the inadequacy of any ‘free and fair’ elections held in Pakistan or any other nascent post-colonial republic as an indicator of a ‘democratic’ set-up stands proven.

It is to be noted that Mr. Dasti had vigorous, almost audacious support from the ruling Peoples’ Party, unequivocally expressed by the Prime Minister himself. The inability of the system to cough up and spew out elements like Dasti, the bad taste of the average voter and the exposition of the abysmal state of our collective morality expressed through poor democratic choices is all there to see.

Ignorance and corruption that Dasti embodies defines the country’s political trends and leadership even as we still reel from a long military dictatorship and feverishly revel in the country’s first ever truly democratic and transparent elections and a much-awaited return to democratic governance. Understandably therefore, the current regime’s rhetoric is typically loaded with references and invocations to democracy in the midst of a torrent of crises emerging from neglect and myopia that cripple the common man. Critics of government policies are invariably dubbed ‘enemies of democracy’ by pathetically vengeful politicians clinging on to power that does not befit them.

Further away from home, it is again the democratic ruse that does the trick. Inept, corrupt, parasitic and weak regimes are propped up with support from powerful nations. Poor governance is invariably ignored while doling out millions of dollars of aid for ‘sustaining democracy’ — particularly if that ‘democracy’ happens to be docile to Western interventionist moves. Governments not winning favour with the West for resistance to interventionism, on the other hand, are condemned for undemocratic credentials.

Foreign aid to support fragile ‘democracies’ almost invariably goes no further than the pockets of the corrupt ruling elites and parasitic bureaucracies, hardly more than a minuscule fraction ever filtering down to the masses whose votes these ‘democracies’ claim to draw authority from. The donors in most cases, couldn’t care less, and make no secret of it. Similarly, a ‘lack of democracy’ is reason enough to declare a state failed, a rogue element unworthy of standing amidst the comity of the civilized. This very same ‘lack of democracy’ then becomes the grounds and justification for interference and intervention “for democracy’s sake”, meddling in domestic affairs and facilitation of destabilizing elements from both within and without, in order to secure regime change on more favourable lines.

Iraq and Afghanistan, being the two cases in point as sites for contemporary Wars for Democracy, are hardly the success stories of the Democratic Project the warmongers would have us believe. What we do have, however, are pro-U.S ruling elites on life support by NATO troops, floundering in the midst of an unruly, chaotic morass and increasingly proliferating resistance. The failure of the democratic project in countries ‘not democratic enough’ is rudely flung in the faces of the architects of war, making the global rhetoric on democracy appear facile and ludicrous. Yet we insist on chorusing the refrain, refusing to grow up and grow wise.

Given the West’s sanctification of democracy as the Greatest Good, and its self-righteously global imposition of Democracy with missionary zeal, it is rather surprising to know that a large number of political thinkers from the Western tradition have not viewed democracy favourably as a system. Plato believed that democracy of the vote was a self-destructive system because, as Will Durant interprets him:

The people are not properly equipped by education to select the best people and the wisest courses to take. To get a doctrine accepted or rejected it is only necessary to have it praised or ridiculed in a popular play. The crowd so loves rhetoric and flattery, that at last the wiliest, calling himself the ‘protector of the people’, rises to power. In democracy we presume that everyone who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state. The people blindly elect the lesser of two evils presented to them as candidates by the nominating cliques. To devise a method of barring incompetence and knavery from public office and selecting and preparing the best to rule for the common good_ that is the problem of political philosophy.” In our own tradition, we know offhand the verse by Iqbal that says something to the effect of, “Democracy is a system of government in which men are merely counted, not weighed.

There is also the more extreme sentiment on the other hand, of Democracy being denounced as outright kufr (disbelief) and a rebellion against God. Of late, with the rise of reactive militancy in the Muslim world, such sentiments have been exacerbated. Notwithstanding conceptual disagreement over what I think is a flawed premise, I do understand the reactionary nature of this sentiment vis a vis the United States and its allies’ brutal, relentless and uncalled-for exploitation and intervention in the affairs of the Third World in general and the Muslim World in particular — all in the name of Democracy.

Besides, the West has, quite untruthfully, presented democracy to be an exclusively ‘Western’ value which automatically makes the West more ‘progressive’ and ‘enlightened’ than the ‘Rest’, ignoring the undercurrents of liberal-democratic thought clearly identifiable in traditions and doctrines not entirely ‘Western’. So when Maulana Sufi Muhammad boldly stated that the democratic system was ‘Disbelief’, creating a furore in the length and breadth of the country, I was not really taken aback, though I would not really side with the Maulana.

That is because when I take an insightful look through the pages of Muslim sacred texts and early history, (precisely the first Islamic state that all Muslims look up to as the ideal to be emulated), I find values and principles that are curiously akin to ‘Western’ democratic norms and principles. I find it impossible to see the system of Islam as it were when first established, as an antithesis to democratic values. How could it be so when the values most fundamental to Islamic politics — social justice, equality of rights and opportunities, empowering the public voice, creating a participatory culture, to name a few — are common also to democratic theory? The prioritization of public welfare, human rights and justice that democracy emphasizes are more strikingly obvious in the narrative of Muslim history in its first few decades than in any other tradition.

It may be misleading to call the first Islamic State at Madinah a ‘democracy’, as the term in its modern context, originating in Western post-Enlightenment thought, cannot be patched on to an altogether different context, system and ethos. However, it is certainly fair and safe to say that the Islamic state includes in it aspects essential to democracy.

According to Khalid El Fadl, the concepts of rule of law and limits on authority in Islam ‘embrace the core elements of the modern democratic practice.’ He enumerates the following social and political values central to a Muslim polity laid out in the Quran: * Justice through social co operation and mutual assistance (Chapter 44 verse 13; Chapter 11 verse 119), * non-autocratic consultative method of governance; * institutionalizing mercy and compassion in social interaction (Ch. 6 v. 12, 54; 21:117, 27:77, 29:57).

He further states:  “Muslims must therefore endorse forms of government that promote these values… Several considerations suggest that democracy protects individual basic rights… and by assigning equal rights of speech, association, suffrage to all_ offers the greatest potential for promoting justice.”

This said, it is important to understand that despite embodying democratic values in essence, the Islamic system does not make an electoral exercise on a ‘one man one vote’ basis mandatory. Surprising as it may be, this periodic balloting exercise isn’t really the ‘point’ of democracy anyways — the ‘point’ being to empower the vox populi, to give socio-economic and legal equality and make the rulers accountable to the law and to the people. In the course of Islamic history, oftentimes voting was used to choose leaders or decide particular matters where recourse could be taken to garnering public consent. ‘Ruling by consensus’ is an unequivocal Quranic directive which defines Islamic governance. Rulers could not take office until the people’s representatives expressed loyalty to them ‘as long as they ruled by the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Prophet (PBUH).’

However, there are some important distinctions from contemporary Western parliamentary democracy that need to be recognized:

a) the vote in most cases was not general but by a select group. This does not rule out general, open voting as ‘un Islamic’, but rather emphasizes the fact that the eligibility to vote rests upon the person’s ability (freedom to choose and understanding to make that choice on the right criteria). What counts is not the size of the voting franchise but that the vote ought to truly represent popular choice rather than be a democratic facade over a flawed, corrupt and stratified society. The people eligible to vote in the history of Islam truly enjoyed public confidence, were well-recognised, trustworthy and pre-eminent. Their associated tribes and communities reposed trust in them, and they acted with regard to the popular will invested in them. Therefore, though technically the exercise was short of a general vote as we know it today, it truly represented the people’s will. When the masses rise to the level of this high standard of eligibility through the achievement of a just, egalitarian society, general voting may certainly be the best measure of the public will. Before the level is reached, the holding of general elections may be more of a semblance of democracy to show the world than a real step towards democratic culture.

b) candidates eligible to stand for voting have to be chosen/selected either through nomination by the leader of the community or by the people of respect and eminence in knowledge, on the basis of their character, knowledge, ability, service to Islam and repute among the people. Putting oneself forth or voluntarily standing for election or any sort of canvassing is not permissible in Islam. This is in order to do away with elements who may seek public office as a convenience and privilege, a means for self-projection, popularity, etc. Islam understands the assumption of public office as not just a public trust but a sacred trust, a duty toward God, a responsibility, a position of intense scrutiny and accountability both towards people and towards God. It is a position of vicegerency to God and His Prophet (S), and considering what it entails, the earliest Muslims never coveted it. Rather, they shrank from the enormity of the trust. The Prophet (S) is reported to have said, ‘We do not accept for office one who covets it.’

c) Central to the Islamic understanding is the premise that ultimate sovereignty belongs to God, not the people. Apparently, here is a radical shift from democracy. While it is true that democracy accords such sovereignty to the people and so parts its ways with the Islamic understanding, yet the true nature of this Islamic principle of ‘sovereignty belongs to God’ is that absolute supremacy for the Law of Allah translates into dignity for His slaves through protection of rights, welfare, equality, justice which are the ultimate worldly aim of the Divine law. Hence, it is obvious that even in this case of a clear difference with democracy, there exists in essence the shared vision and mission of provision of rights, bestowing of dignities through equality and justice. The difference, however, is that while Western democracy invariably follows the popular will to maximize the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number,’ in Islam the aforementioned values are a result of the establishment, through human effort and agency, of Divine Shariah Law, and are the means to attain His Pleasure in the life hereafter.

Back home, the quagmire of corruption, nepotism and injustice gnaws into our body-politic, this being to some extent a result of our superficial and narrow understanding of democracy as ‘the holding of elections’. The current regime, we know, makes a huge deal out of its democratic win which incidentally ended an era of dictatorship. The rhetoric of the most corrupt politicians is punctuated with references to democracy. The truth that we fail to understand is that democracy is a value more than a political procedure, and that the holding of free and fair elections is the culmination and natural expression of the achievement of a thoroughly democratic culture. It goes from down and then up, and not vice versa. Elections cannot be implanted from the top onto a corrupt, exploitative and deeply unjust system and democratize it magically. For a democracy to work, it has to start at the grassroots. However, letting the rotten system remain while we electioneer every few years will only bring forth, in a predictable sequence, those who can win the vote by throwing their weight about, demagoguery, influence, clout, intimidation or ingenious electioneering theatrics. Voting works to deliver an authentic democracy in a society where stomachs are full, fundamental rights respected, opportunities equally available on merit, access to justice for all, supremacy of law, accountability and the right to dissent.

In my country votes are still cast largely on the basis of filial and tribal ties, baradari system, bullying, or canvassing tactics. This immaturity is reflected in the win of the fake degree holder, Jamshed Dasti, to public office, and the unabashed support for him shown by the highest democratically elected office holders of the ruling clique, including the Prime Minister, himself. It is a mockery of the rule of law by the so-called representatives of the people. Our political immaturity is reflected in our thinking that it is democratic enough to hold intermittent elections. Electoral antics can wait till the task of nation building is achieved by empowering the truly worthy sons of the soil who are marginalized and unacknowledged for their failure to play along the devious ways of narrow electoral democracy.

But I can dare to hope and look forward to a gradual political maturation, the grounds for it being amply present in the phenomenal reinstatement of the judiciary not so long ago, by a massive civil society effort. The fiercely independent judiciary’s proactive role in erecting a system of checks and balances will hopefully go a long way to materialize a fairer socio-political order on the basis of stringent, indiscriminate accountability. A regime that resists this heartening change, defies and obtrudes it, in no way qualifies as a democracy. Realizing this means we take a step further towards that much-needed political maturation.

Maryam Sakeenah is a student of International Relations based in Pakistan. She is also a high school teacher and freelance writer with a degree in English Literature. She is interested in human rights advocacy and voluntary social work and can be reached at: Read other articles by Maryam.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. John Andrews said on May 18th, 2010 at 11:02pm #


    You say that: “Central to the Islamic understanding is the premise that ultimate sovereignty belongs to God, not the people.”

    This is of course a view shared by most mainstream religion. There is, however, one small problem: no one can actually prove that god (or gods) actually exist.

    That leaves us with the people, who really do exist.

  2. Rehmat said on May 19th, 2010 at 3:32am #

    John Andrews – sorry to burst your intellectual bubble – over three billion people who believe that a Supper Power (Allah, God, G-d, Ram, Herzl, etc.) do exist – don’t care what the “self-denials” believe.

    Islam doesn’t need Enlightenment

  3. John Andrews said on May 19th, 2010 at 9:58pm #


    You’ll need to try a bit harder – the only people who don’t need enlightenment are The Enlightened Ones – and there aren’t that many of us.

  4. ranaeijaz said on May 19th, 2010 at 11:24pm #

    Maryam what i guess people believe that democracy is an end-product but it is a mean t o an end. Therefore, there is a basic flaw in unde3rstanding this concept, untill or unless we do not ponder upon the reality of the concept, it is always ambiguous. I am unable to understand why you took this Dasti issue by heart. The whole ruling TOLlA (group), includes PML (n) is so insincere towards Pakistan that you hardly could imagin. Better to look upon other matters rathes this DASTI BADSHAH.