Saudi elections: an outbreak of democracy in the Islamic world?
by Bernardo Cervellera
Interview with Francesco Zannini, professor of Contemporary Islam at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI). The Middle East has not yet reconciled the democratic worldview centred on the individual and that of Islam which is inspired by tradition. There is however hope in Iraq and elsewhere for change.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Everyone is celebrating Saudi Arabia's first municipal elections. Despite restrictions (women and foreign residents excluded, half seats appointed by the central government which retains veto power over elected officials), everyone is talking about the "first steps towards democracy".

These elections are not unique. Recently, elections have taken place in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and in Afghanistan. But how much are they signs of real progress in the Islamic world? Are elections in Saudi Arabia really such a big thing?

AsiaNews turned to Prof Francesco Zannini for some answers.  An expert on Islam, Prof Zannini, 56, teaches contemporary Islam and Islamic theology.

He is fluent in Arabic and is the author of Ahmed, il mio vicino di casa (My neighbour Ahmed), available at the PISAI.

Prof. Zannini, how significant are these municipal elections in Saudi Arabia?

What's interesting about these elections is that they are taking place in a country that does not have a constitution. There is no solid basis for the rule of the people.

The question of democracy in Islamic countries revolves around this issue. It is not about elections per se—they are of course part of the democratic process—but about the concept of democracy.

The Ottomans were the first to introduce democracy in the Islamic world when they set up a constitutional monarchy based on Islam.

Everyone, Muslim and non Muslim, became equal but in the areas of family law and inheritance Islamic principles were preserved. This lasted well into the 20th century.

During the struggle for independence in many Muslim countries, even where it was led by secular Liberals or Communists, truly secular states did not emerge.

We ended up with hybrid constitutions that fell short of modern, secular constitutionalism. Sharia law was never totally abandoned.

What kind of constitutions are they then?

They usually juxtapose elements that are Islamic to others that are secular. The people decides who is own representatives, but religious jurists trained according to school of Islamic jurisprudence that prevails in their country decide what far the latter can go.

Hence, we have constitutions that claim that the "people is sovereign", but in practice, laws must be approved by the ulemas (Islamic legal scholars), who have greater authority than the people.

This happens in every Islamic country, except perhaps for Iraq under Saddam Hussein. His regime was secular in nature.

Even Tunisia, which is considered by many the most open Islamic country, is not a secular state.

The problem is that when the basic element of democracy is missing—self-government of the people—many more follow. People end up choosing who will enforce the laws (the executive branch), but not who will make them (legislative branch) since the law is already a given.

In Saudi Arabia, they go even further. There, the law is considered divine; therefore, the Sharia has not evolved.

Generally speaking, this means that elected officials do not have any real power of their own.

What problems does democracy face in the Islamic world?

First of all, without the full separation of state and religion, it will be difficult to build a true democracy.

This does not mean that a society cannot maintain its religious traditions. In India for instance, Muslims who chose stay when Pakistan was carved out of the old British Raj opted for a secular state whilst preserving their own Islamic heritage as far as their personal status was concerned. In this case we speak of heritage, not legal rules and regulations. If there is no separation between state and religion, what does the people elect?

The second problem is Wahhabi influence. Wahhabism is based on the notion that power comes from God and Man's only power is to execute God's will.

Finally, the greatest problem is how to transplant democracy into a context that is different from that of the West. This is quite clear in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where ethnic groups, tribes and clans come between the state and the individual.

Each group is to some extent self-governing and in Afghanistan groups have their own Sharia.

In this context, elections are determined by tribal relations with people voting according to the instructions of their chief.

But in this situation, building democratic institutions, however limited, is a sign that things are changing, isn't? Do the elections not mean that Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia is threatened? In Iraq people voted under the threat of snipers; isn't that a sign that fundamentalism is losing ground?

No doubts about it as far as Iraq is concerned. But Iraq's had a secular tradition even under Saddam Hussein. There, people might have lived under a dictatorship but they could hope for a day when they would be free of the dictator and able to build a liberal democracy.

What is really new is what is happening in Saudi Arabia. But here, we'll have to wait and see how the population reacts to the elections.

Some years ago I took part in an Italian-Saudi conference. Back then, people were already talking about writing a constitution.

Iraq is unquestionably the symbol of popular will at work, but is not something new. Elections in Saudi Arabia are really something new. For years now, under the veneer of conformity things have been changing.

Once tourism was banned to protect Islamic mores. Now there is some sort of Tourism Ministry. This is a sign that the Saudi Kingdom is starting to open up.

And of course, we should not forget the role of international pressures in this process.

Anyway, the Islamic world has not yet reconciled the democratic worldview centred on the individual and that of Islam which is inspired by tradition.

Aren't there social groups who demand democracy? Or is the demand a function of Western influence?

On the ground, one sees differences. At the village level, there is a kind of democracy with local councils operating, but it does apply to nation-wide institutions. In the village, if chiefs tell people to vote, they vote as part of a collective decision.

This is not true for all sectors of society. In some, people gravitate towards trade unions, which, for a long time, had to fight against the idea that they were somehow foreign and Western. In reality, trade unions understand democratic values, how people can govern their society.

There are also young people, those who are Western-educated, the middle class.

Traditionalists and fundamentalists are instead against democracy. And even when they do talk about it, the do so in Islamic terms, with the goal of Islamising it.  So the notion of parliament for example merges with that of Shura, that of the Islamic assembly.

Are the war in Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq widening the scope for democracy? Isn't Western pressure, including military pressure, acting as a catalyst for democratic values?

I don't think it is either a catalyst or an inhibitor. Of course, among fundamentalists it is provoking rejection and anti-Western feelings. In the end, those who believed in democracy before still believe in it now; those who didn't believe in it before don't believe in it now.

In Afghanistan, tribalism is still very much alive; in Iraq there is greater hope.

Many missionaries are saying that since 9/11 democracy is a hot topic in the Islamic world . . .

I agree. These days, almost every Arab newspaper writes about democracy opening its pages to debates about it. Rivers of ink are flowing over Iraq's democratic future, over the changes occurring in the Islamic world . . .

This said, until they come up with some discovery, some synthesis between Islam and democracy, or move to secularism, they will be just tinkering with their traditional worldview.

The only country that has a secular constitution is Indonesia. Although predominantly Muslim, Indonesians have found in Pancasila (the five philosophical pillars on which the Indonesian state is built) a way to maintain the secular nature of the state whilst preserving islamic traditions.

An attempt was made in Bangladesh but was betrayed by General Ershad.  Even in Malaysia there has been an attempt to a secular space alongside Islamic laws. But in the Arab world the debate is still fraught with ambiguities.