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Are Islam and Democracy Incompatible? Some Reflections from Ottoman History

As the American occupation of Iraq has entered its fourth frustrating year, some conservative commentators have joined the Bush Administration’s detractors on the left and given in to despair about ever incubating democracy in a majority-Muslim country. In this view “our failure to establish liberty and justice for all in Iraq—namely, freedom of conscience and freedom before the law—is dueto the nature of Islamic culture, not to the efficacy of American efforts”1 [emphasis added]. A related assertion of even longer pedigree is that Israel is the only state in the region with a history of democratic practices.2 But are these two pessimistic views true?

No. The second is easy to refute. Perhaps because of the commonly-held, but erroneous, view that the Arab world is synonymous with the Middle East and/or the Islamic world, commentators quite often forget that Turkey, a majority-Muslim nation of almost 70 million people, is a democracy. And perhaps because of the almost total focus on recent history as context, to the exclusion of events from even as recent (at least to historians) as the 19th century, those few analysts who do examine Turkey almost never delve into the latter days of its predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire. Very few, then, know that the Ottoman Empire in its later years set up a number of democratic institutions, including a Constitution and a Parliament, “an event as momentous in Ottoman history as was the Declaration of Independence in that of America.”3 And the Ottoman Constitution and Parliament arguably demonstrate that Islam and democracy are not incompatible and that an Islamic state—even one with officially-sanctioned Islamic law—can coexist with democracy.

The Ottoman Sultan, contrary to contemporary and modern conventional wisdom, while an absolute monarch in theory was not one in practice; he and his Grand Vizier had always shared power with the advisory council or virtual cabinet known as the Divan-ı Hümayun (although the Sultan did have veto power over its decisions and edicts).4 There were a number of other advisory and decision-making bodies that met from time to time in Ottoman history,5 the most important of which was probably the Meclis-i Meşveret. This body, for example, evolved from occasionally convening to being responsible for ratifying the reforms of Mahmud II in the early 19 th century.6 But none of these was yet a parliament, much less a constitutional one.

As the 19th century progressed the Ottoman Empire enacted a series of more serious political reforms aimed at redressing the growing imbalance of power between it and European states, after finally realizing that the military modernizations of previous years were necessary but not sufficient to save the Empire. The first of these reforms was the Hatt-ı Hümayun of Gülhane, in 1839, “a semi-constitutional charter that promised security of person and property to all Ottoman subjects.”7 This kicked off the famous Tanzimat (technically, Tanzimat Fermanı) era in which “legislative power in the Ottoman empire was delegated to a semi-constitutional advisory committee….[and] the first steps were taken towards the separation of the legislative, executive and judiciary powers, and the transition towards a modern parliamentary system.”8 In the mid-19 th century the main councils were the Meclis-i Hass-ı Umumi and Meclis-i Vala. These consisted not of elected members, but rather of Muslim officials such as the Grand Vezir, the Şayh ül-Islam (chief Muslim religious authority of the Empire), top military brass, etc.,9 as well as non-Muslim Ottoman dignitaries such as patriarchs of various Christian bodies and the Empire’s chief rabbi.10 These were not simply echo chambers for the sultans, either: “lively debate could ensue, particularly when the issue at stake meant the choice between peace on unfavourable terms and war with almost certain prospect of defeat.”11

In 1856 the Islahat Fermanı, “aimed at…increasing the role of non-Muslim subjects in the state administration”12 was made law. Admittedly, pressure from European powers had probably as much to do with this as did the growing idea that Ottoman nationalism should trump religious (especially Muslim) identification. Nonetheless, in 1868 Sultan Abdülaziz formally promulgated, for the first time in Ottoman history going back over four centuries, a concept of the separation of powers.13 Eventually all of these trends—Ottoman desperation, European demands, Young Ottoman nationalism, elite demands for limited sultanate and some degree of democracy—coalesced into the constitutional movement of the 1870s.

In 1875-76 the push for an Ottoman constitution was led by Midhat Paşa, the reform-minded former Grand Vizier. In meetings discussing the matter, “objections…raised by several ulema14 about the grant of equality to non-Muslims were quickly silenced by Midhat, who…drew freely on the Koran [sic] to prove that his proposals were entirely in accord with the holy law.”15 Just what Qur’anic surahs Midhat appealed to are not known, but they almost certainly would have included the usual proof text for Islamic democracy, al-Shûrâ [42]:38: “Better and more enduring is God’s reward to those who…conduct their affairs by mutual consent.”16 When some Islamic officials persisted in opposition, support from others—including, notably, Şeyfuddin Effendi of Rumelia—won the day. A constitutional convention was formed and began drafting a document, including creation of a two-chambered Parliament (Meclis-i Umum) consisting of a 120-man Chamber of Deputies (Meclis-i Mub`usan) and a 30-man Senate (Meclis-i Ayan). As the convention progressed, the major objections raised were not to the parliament or equality under law for all Ottomans, but rather to freedom of the press.18 But these were overcome and the Parliament convened on March 19, 1877. Its members had not been elected but rather chosen, between December 1976 and the convening of Parliament, by members of councils in the various administrative districts of the Ottoman Empire.19 The plan was to have popular elections for the next round of Parliament, but since this was convened by the Sultan in December, 1877, there was not time and Deputies were again chosen by a relative handful of electors in each district. Interestingly enough, Christians were better represented in the Chamber than Muslims (1:107,000 males/district for the former, as opposed to 1:133,000 for Muslims). And Baghdad was the most under-represented district, with two Arab Christians and one Jew “elected,” amounting to only one deputy for every 500,000 males.20 Overall, however, ethnic Turks were actually outnumbered in the Chamber by Arabs, Kurds and other minorities,21 demonstrating that the Ottoman democrats were serious about the rights of non-Muslims in the Empire.

Sultan Abdülhamid II was not as serious, however—neither about the “rights” of anyone in his empire, nor about a constitution and parliament at all. He tolerated the first session in spring 1877, even when its members moved from their primary purpose of supervising the government to actually trying to pass legislation. However, the only lasting legislation to emerge was the Electoral Law which made the Ottoman sancak the primary electoral district and mandated one deputy/50,000 males, as well as the requirement that voters would be at least 25 years old, not foreign nationals and of good character. This law was still on the books and resurrected for the 1908 reconvening of Parliament.22 For after the second session of Parliament, in February 1878, Abdülhamid II suspended the body for three decades, mainly because members’ temerity in actually criticizing him and his militarily incompetent government fed the Sultan’s fear of deposition. (The appointed, unelected Senate technically continued in existence and when it, too, was resurrected in 1908 three members were still actually still living.23) But constitutionalism lived on in the Young Ottoman movement and in 1908 their opposition to the Sultan resulted in his deposition and the restoration of the 1876 Constitution.24

Eventually, the idea of Islamic democracy in the Ottoman Empire was superseded by the creation of a Western-style system totally separating mosque and state in the Turkish Republic. But the Ottoman “experiment might have succeeded had one vital factor been present: sympathy for constitutional government”25 by the Sultan. And it was not any Islamic rationale that Abdülhamid used to suppress Parliament; rather, he simply acted on his own paranoia and predilection for absolute power. Had a more reform-minded sultan been ruling in Istanbul, things might have been much different. Such a leader could have joined forces with the Muslims in the Chamber of Deputies, including ulema, who treated the Christian and even Jewish MPs as fellow Ottomans and equals.26 Note, especially, that this happened even while Islam was retained as the official religion of the Empire. The Ottomans caught no end of hell from Europeans for this, despite the hypocrisy on the part of, in particular, the British—who managed to run a democratic monarchy with Anglican Christianity as the official religion!

What lessons does the ephemeral Ottoman run of democracy hold for us today? First, it gives the lie to the idea that democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan are doomed simply because both nations have incorporated aspects of shari`ah into their constitutions and governments. Even before the 19 th century reforms, the shari`ah-supporting Ottoman state was anything but intolerant and fundamentalist (in fact, the Ottomans had had to suppress true Islamic fundamentalist, such as the Wahhabis in Arabia). A constitutional Ottoman monarchy would have been even less prone to Muslim fanaticism, and modern Iraq and Afghanistan are arguably in a similar position. Second, democracy does not need to be “exported” to the Muslim Middle East, because Ottoman history proves that some degree of rulers consulting with the ruled, and indeed of constitutional democracy, is compatible with Islam. Indeed, this is all the more true in Iraq, which was a province of the Empire and elected members to the Ottoman parliament. We simply need to help Muslims in the Middle East—especially those who lived under Ottoman rule—of that fact. And finally, Usama bin Ladin, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the car-bombing terrorists in Baghdad, as well as the Taliban, are wrong to oppose democracy—for it is compatible with Islam—just not their version of the faith.

1 Diana West, Jewish World Review, June 12, 2006, www.jewishworldreview.com/0606/west061206. For similar views see Amir Taheri, “Islam is Incompatible with Democracy,” Iran Press Service, http://www.iran-press-service.com/ips/articles-2004/may/amir_taheri_21504.shtml and Robert Spencer, “On a Collision Course: Democracy and Islam,” Human Events Online, http://www.humaneventsonline.com/article.php?id=2494.

2 See, for example, Lorne Craner, “Will U.S. Democratization Policy Really Work? Democracy in the Middle East,” Middle East Quarterly. Summer 2006, www.meforum.org/article/942

3 Robert Devereux, The First Ottoman Constitutional Period. A Study of the Midhat Constitution and Parliament (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963)

4 See Mehmet V. Şeyitdanlioğlu, “From the Divan-ı Hümayun (Imperial Council) to the Meclis-i Mebusan (House of Deputies). Legislation in the Ottoman Empire,” in The Great Ottoman-Turkish Civilization 3. Philosophy, Science and Institutions ( Ankara: Yeni Tukiye, 2000), pp.498-505.

5 For details on these, see Şeyitdanlioğlu, pp. 500ff.

6Ibid., p. 500-01

7 Şerif Mardin, “Young Ottomans,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World

8 Şeyitdanioğlu, p. 501

9 See Carter V. Findley, “Madjlis al-Shura,” Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition

10 Şeyitdanioğlu, p. 502

11 Findley

12 Şeyitdanioğlu, p.503

13 Şeyitdanioğlu, p. 502

14 Muslim religious officials

15 Devereux, p. 38

16 The operative Arabic term Å y ½ ƒ (shûrâ) holds a meaning of “counsel, consultation, consent.”

17 Devereux, p. 39.

18Ibid., pp. 51ff.

19Ibid., pp. 124ff.

20Ibid., appendices.

21Ibid., pp. 144-45

22Ibid., pp. 201-02.

23Ibid., p. 233.

24 For a brief outline see Feroz Ahmad, “Young Turks,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World

25 Devereux, p. 253

26Ibid., p. 225