Relevance of religion Religion has become so relevant to our modern world, especially in the Middle East since the advent of the Islamic awakening in the 1970s following the Arab defeat of 1967.1 Farag Foda, the Egyptian scholar who was murdered by extremists because of his critical views, believed that the defeat of 1967 was not regarded as a defeat for Egypt or the Egyptian leadership, but a condemnation of the way that Egypt had adopted Western culture and civilization. Foda believed this idea gained support because of the fact that Israel is a religious entity. He observed that violent Islamic extremism appeared in all Arab countries in the wake of the 1967 Arab defeat.2 Islamic fundamentalism triumphed in February 1979 when the Iranian Islamic revolution succeeded in toppling the Shah. Islam has been a potent force almost everywhere in the world. In Iraq, Islamist parties, be they Sunni or Shia, were voted into parliament in 2005, and they have been leading the government ever since. This chapter explores the thoughts of John Rawls, based on his book Political Liberalism,3 as applied to the idea of incorporating religious believers into political debate and participation. Since it’s difficult in a democracy to exclude an important section of society from the political debate, especially in Islamic societies where this section may constitute the majority, it’s important to look at ways to incorporate them without compromising either the principles of democracy or the freedom of belief. Since the issue of religion and politics is not exclusive to Muslim societies, which are new to democracy, it’s important to find out how democratic societies have dealt with it, and Rawls’ ideas provide insight into the issue. The thoughts of a prominent Muslim scholar, Sheikh Ali Abdur-Razik, regarding the role of Islam in politics, based on his landmark study, Islam and the Fundamentals of Governance, are also examined.4 Many Islamic scholars, Sunni and Shia, just like Razik, believe that the government should be civil since it’s a worldly affair and not concerned with the afterlife. The traditional Shia school (the quietest school) approves of this view.5 A quietist cleric doesn’t demand to participate in government nor presumes to exercise control over the state. He can remain aloof from all political matters, but he is not totally apolitical. ‘During times of moral decadence, political corruption, serious injustice, or
foreign occupation, he can become more active in politics by offering advice, guidance, and even the promotion of sacred law in public life’.6 Razik, an Islamic scholar at Al-Azhar Mosque and University, first published his ideas in 1925, but they came to prominence after the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world in the 1970s and 80s. It has become more relevant now with popular uprisings going on in some countries of the Middle East, widely referred to as the ‘Arab Spring’.7 I contend that democracy cannot succeed unless it finds a way to reconcile religion with politics. Rawls’ thoughts dealt with Christian societies while Razik’s thoughts dealt with Muslim societies. A major pillar of democracy is that the government guarantees civil liberties and personal freedoms using the power at its disposal. On the other hand, the politically religious seek to limit civil liberties and personal freedoms. This paradox needs to be resolved for societies to live in peace and harmony and for democracy to succeed. This study explores possible solutions based on Rawls’ and Razik’s thoughts in their different contexts. Shia scholars such as Hani Fahs, Muhammed Mahdi Shamsuddeen and Muhammed Hussein Fadhlalla have similar thoughts. The Shia quietist school, which I have referred to in different places of this study, provides the ultimate solution to this paradox by making it a religious duty not to interfere in politics except at times of crisis. This is similar to the position of Ali Abdu-Razik. But Islamist political parties follow the interventionist school politically, even though they may follow the quietist school on religious issues. This may sound contradictory to some, but it’s expedient politically for political Islam since they want to show ordinary people, who follow the quietist school, that their position accords with the teachings of this school. It’s likely that the next generation of religious leaders may not belong to the quietist school for many reasons that are beyond the scope of this study.