The Political Ontology of Liberal Islam: A Critique of Contemporary Islamic Democracy Theories

By Halil Yenigun
Submitted to Session P3921 (Islamic Thought in the 21st Century, 2014 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Islamic World;
Islamic Thought;
LCD Projector without Audio;
“Islamic democracy” did not seem an oxymoronic theoretical construct to many for the better part of the last decade in contrast to the dominant views that prevailed several decades back. However, the previous optimism about the happy marriage of Islam and democracy does not hold any longer in the aftermath of Islamists’ failures in democratic experiments in the Arab Middle East as well as the seriously tarnished record of Turkish democracy especially since last year. In this paper, which is grounded in the thriving research area of comparative political theory, I will analyze and revisit the normative arguments for an Islamic democracy among the diasporic scholarly communities of Western Muslims (e.g. Sachedina, 2001; Abou el-Fadl, 2004; Khan, 2006; Hashemi, 2009; an-Na’im, 2010). Most of these efforts, commonly gathered under the label of Liberal Islam, formulate their arguments within the philosophical framework of liberalism in their determination to align Islamic ethico-political goals with democratic principles. Along these lines, they borrow a particular vision of liberal democracy as a given without an adequate engagement with several contending versions within the field of democratic theory. This paper seeks to accomplish two major goals. First, by a productive appropriation of the political ontological analyses of the post-foundationalist political thought as recently made by Stephen White (2001) and Oliver Marchart (2007), it sets out to identify the dominant ontological prefigurations of Liberal Islam’s democratic theories. Thus I attempt to show how political ideas are prefigured by certain commitments at the ontological and ethical levels. Consequently, I move on to a normative discussion of whether the theories of Islamic democracy I analyze can effectively reconcile their specific Islamic onto-ethical perspectives with liberalism’s “metaphysical” or “political” versions.
Most of the foregoing writings on Islamic democracy has to be revisited in the aftermath of many failures of the so-called “Arab Spring” as well as the uncertainties about the prospects of Turkish democracy under the AKP rule. As the second goal of my paper, I will look at several instances of the Islamic youth opposition against the religiously-oriented authoritarianism in Turkey and Egypt to suggest a more serious theoretical conversation with liberation theologies and their visions of justice and self-government. Eventually, I will probe whether such engagements offer a richer potential to articulate the ethico-political goals of Islam vis-à-vis the prevailing instances of political Islam that have blatantly manifested themselves as a quest for pure power.