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Tunisi, Good Government, and Overcoming Non-Authenticity of Democracy

Fri, August 31, 12:00 to 1:30pm, Sheraton, Commonwealth


Among the barriers to contemporary Muslim scholars’ and thinkers’ theological reconciliation with democracy has been democracy’s “Westernness,” i.e., its perception as “foreign” and “non-authentic” with respect to Islam’s worldview and its fundamental sources. As often associated with Sayyid Qutb’s (d.1966) paradigmatic influence on the Islamic political thinking since the mid-twentieth century, this perception has held a grip for decades upon Islamists’ coming to terms with democracy. Furthermore, due to the Islamists’ authoritative voice in the wider segments of the Muslim-majority societies on Islamicity of contemporary concepts, this understanding has arguably held back the indigenization of democracy and democratic values at the theoretical and theological level, with significant ramifications for the contentious political landscape. As a result, even among the more pro-democratic reformist Islamists, shura (collective deliberative decision-making) was offered as an Islamic alternative in their theoretical politics of equivalences à la Eric Voegelin, reminiscent of the early stages of Comparative Political Theory’s endeavors. Only more recently, thinkers such as Tunisian politician Rached Ghannouchi’s (b. 1941) theoretical attempts at offering Islamic foundations to democracy have lent it some credibility, possibly thanks his own Islamist credentials, although they do not suffice to argue that wider religious masses have internalized democracy as an Islamic idea.
In this paper, I seek to bring the nineteenth century thinker and Tunisian-Ottoman statesman Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi (1820-1890) back into this debate on Islamic authenticity of democracy. An engagement with his work helps to rejuvenate the early forms of the contemporary discussions on Islamic authenticity of democratic values as well as the use of shura as the Qur’anic concept to draw on for democratic debates. Tunisi is renowned for being possibly the first person to deploy shura as a resourceful concept for modern Muslim debates on parliaments, along with his pioneering political record to have the first parliament and constitution proclaimed in Ottoman Tunisia in 1861 even before Istanbul. However, lesser known about this work is the centrality of his formulation of “good government” in his seminal Akwam al-Mesalik (1868). Embedded in a quite overarching Millean framework, Tunisi identifies liberty, an important element of good government, as the root cause of progress and civilization that elevated the European nations. Hence, the solution to the predicament of decline among the Muslim nations would be political, contingent on establishing good government based on liberty.
In my paper, by resuscitating Tunisi’s debate of shura, but more fundamentally through his formulation of good government, I will probe whether indigenization of democratic values could be more robustly achieved through such immanent engagements with the contentious theoretical field of Muslim political thought. In other words, if authenticity claims are granted to a certain extent without subscribing to the essentialist Islamist claims concerning “Islamic civilization” or “Islamic worldview,” can a more fruitful discussion on democratic values without any labels per se be accomplished? Could Tunisi’s formulation of “good government” provide the groundwork to overcome the authenticity objections, and animate as well as sustain democratic values from within Islam? Overall, can such immanent engagements provide another way of doing comparative political theory without the double pitfalls of Islamic essentialism and universalism?