Sabri Ciftci, Islam, Justice, and Democracy (Temple University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Sabri Ciftci (SC): I started working on Islam, Justice, and Democracy in 2013, the year marking the return of authoritarianism and conflict to most of the Middle East after two years of protests and regime transitions. Much has been said about the Arab Spring, but not much has been offered about the culture of these extraordinary protests including its religious foundations. As a student of Islam and democracy, I am truly fascinated by the Islamic discourses of rebellion and liberation. I wrote this book to explain how Islamic justice discourses have shaped political preferences and actions of devout men and women since the beginning of Islamic history. I wanted to understand how Islam shapes Muslims’ conceptions of justice and how these affect their perceptions of democracy and authoritarianism. I wrote this book to provide new insights about justice and democracy from the perspective of devout Muslim men and women.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SC: There are numerous studies explaining the lack of democracy in the Muslim world with institutional, economic, or macro historical factors. Some of these studies use a civilizational approach to present Islam as hostile to democracy; others try to introduce native theories looking for Islamic roots of pluralism. This book focuses on Muslim agency to study “Muslims and democracy” rather than “Islam and democracy.” The volume employs a novel perspective by focusing on one of the principal values of the Islamic faith, namely justice (al-‘adl) to explain the religious roots of Muslim political preferences—so far a neglected topic in the study of Muslim politics. In the book, I explore the historical trajectories of Islamic justice conceptions and show how discourses about these conceptions have been consequential for political action or inaction from past to present. This main argument is supported from different angles. Chapters 3 and 4 provide a first systematic treatment of Islamist justice theory from the classical period to the modern age. Chapter 4 presents a novel interpretation of two most influential Islamist philosophers in the twentieth century, Sayyid Qutb and ‘Ali Shariati, by reconstructing their political philosophies around the Islamic notions of agency (khalifa) and benevolence (ihsan). This approach introduces new theoretical possibilities about the religious roots of political preferences. Chapter 5 provides discourse analysis of Islamist journals to demonstrate how Islamists reconstructed discourses of order to support the status quo against the perceived “communist threat” during the Cold War. Chapter 6, on the other hand, traces the continuing legacies of Islamist justice conceptions and their influence on political preferences through in-depth interviews with the members of new Islamist movements in Turkey. As such, Chapters 5 and 6 provide the first empirical account of the associations between justice conceptions and democracy in the Islamist mindset. Finally, in Chapters 7 and 8, the volume also introduces a quantitative assessment about the impact of justice values such as egalitarianism and perceptions of political injustices on democratic attitudes and protest behavior. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

SC: Most of my previous work has focused on Muslim religiosity and democratic orientations and has employed a quantitative approach. For example, in “Modernization, Islam, or Social Capital,” I found no correlation between religiosity and support for democracy whereas in “Secular-Islamist Cleavage,” I found statistically meaningful associations between Islamic values and support for sharia and democracy. In “Islam, Social Justice, and Democracy,” I started to explore the potential of Islamic social justice values on democratic orientations. This volume departs from my earlier work in several ways. First, rather than merely focusing on piety and democracy, the book explores religious values and their potential in engendering both democratic and authoritarian legitimacy claims. Second, I use a mixed-methods approach by combining statistical analysis of survey data with in-depth interviews and archival and textual analysis of Islamist writings. Finally, the book moves beyond contemporary political preferences and brings historical evidence from the early history of Islam, the medieval period, nineteenth-century constitutionalist movements, and the Arab Spring to trace the historical trajectories of justice, the evolution of discourses of order and freedom, and foundations of political regimes in the Muslim world. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SC: First and foremost, I hope this book will be of interest to academics and students of Islam, politics, and Middle East studies. For this group, I would like the book to be an example of social scientific work embedded in Islamic principles and rich histories of the Muslim world. Second, given the large amount of misinformation about Islam and various political ideologies, I hope the book will be a source for the pundits and broader public providing objective and evidence-based knowledge about Islam and politics. It should be a corrective to civilizational arguments depicting Islam and its political implications in negative and orientalist ways. The book invites scholars, pundits, and policymakers who usually focus on the structural determinants of Muslim political preferences to think about Muslim agency, justice, and politics.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SC: I would like to mention two projects I am working on now that are somewhat related to my book. The first project, a book proposal, explores the religious foundations of state-building in the Middle East. Specifically, I provide a novel perspective about state-building by exploring the interaction of heterodox dervishes with central administration in medieval Anatolia and during the classical period of the Ottoman Empire. This study is based on the idea that Islamic discourses of order and freedom clashed in Islamic history to shape Muslim politics. It aims to show that religious values influenced politics beyond such conceptions as legal frameworks, Sunni theology, subservient ulema, and political quietism. Rather, I argue that rebellions of unruly dervishes and the appeal of syncretic religious beliefs played a role in state-building in the Muslim world.

A second project explores contemporary manifestations of religious values as they relate to political preferences. This project looks at how natural events, disease, and religious landscapes shape Muslim religiosity, which in turn influences individualism as a determinant of democratic orientations. A recent article of mine providing a global empirical assessment about the impact of pathogen prevalence and dominance of Islam on religiosity and the collectivism-individualism framework is forthcoming in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

J: Can your book help us understand contemporary Muslim politics? 

SC: Yes. My book proposes that the first civil war (fitna or discord) in early Islamic history led to divergent discourses of order (political quietism) and freedom (political justice). Today, there are several regimes employing religious discourses of order to justify authoritarian rule. For example, when the Arab Spring protests broke out in 2011, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates used the services of religious scholars and the discourses of order to prevent dissent. Using religious references against dangers of disorder and conflict as threats to the welfare of Islamic society is not a recent strategy. Discourses of order were also used to counter the so-called “threat of communism” in the 1960s and 1970s across the Muslim world. At this time, Islamists framed communism as a dangerous ideology threatening the order and morals of Muslim society. Similar discourses of order were used by the Turkish president Erdoğan during a formidable challenge to his rule (Gezi protests in 2013). He framed these protests as unruly demonstrations carried by “looters” threatening the order of society, harming religion, and creating discord (i.e fitna). Nonetheless, a group of Islamists who opposed Erdogan were also among the protestors. My book explains these contradictory stances with the divergent trajectories of religious discourses and the accompanying political preferences.


Excerpt from the book (from the Conclusion, pp. 151-155)

The resilience of ordinary people taking to the streets in the Arab Spring and their strong desire for democracy is extraordinary for a region known for robust authoritarianism. These protests also reflected a longing for justice, Islamic faith’s primary value. Many observers discredited the role of religion in the Arab Spring. Like its predecessors, the protests in various squares and corners of the Arab world were not religious revolutions, but religion did play a significant role in these uprisings. This is because Islam has always been a formidable social force shaping values, attitudes, and behavior over centuries. Justice was the most significant value in the dis- courses of the Arab Spring protesters. Ironically, the counterdiscourse against the Arab Spring also used religious conceptions of justice to undermine the protests. How can Islamic justice simultaneously be a source for democratic and authoritarian discourses?

Two years after the Arab uprisings, participation of some Islamist groups in the Gezi Park protests against an Islamist party with the word “justice” in its name, in Turkey, was quite puzzling. These groups’ discourses of freedom heavily relied on Islamic conceptions of justice. However, AKP also used the Islamic justice conception to undermine the legitimacy of Gezi protests. From Cairo to Istanbul, both people’s quest for democracy and the repression of these demands were justified by the Islamic conceptions of justice. This book is about “Islam and democracy,” a significant puzzle that kept many intellectuals, scholars, and pundits busy for many years. It argues that justice discourses are the substance of this puzzle, stimulating rival legitimacy claims about governance. This volume tried to understand these discourses and their relation to democracy by examining the implications of conceptions of justice in Muslim agency’s attitudes and behavior.

The legacies of Islamic justice engender rival legitimacy claims about governance. While Islamic justice values and the related preferences and orientations may provide a cultural foundation for democratic thinking, the same forces may also justify authoritarianism. In fact, Islamic conceptions of justice are also used to legitimize the authoritarian rule, which has been the prevailing governance model for much of Islamic history. This outcome resulted from many factors, including the alliance of political and religious elites and the monopoly of legal tradition as a truth-claim controlling the social, religious, and political spheres against the philosophical and mystic alternatives. While acknowledging that there might be a path to authoritarian rule passing through Islamic discourses of obedience and order, this volume did not deal with this complicated history, leaving it to future studies as a fruitful research endeavor. However, the book made a case for the role Islamic conceptions of justice can play in stimulating mass democratic tendencies in Muslim democratization.

This conclusion about Islam’s potential to engender democratization relies on two interrelated trends within the Islamic tradition. First, starting from the doctrine that man is God’s vicegerent, one Islamic worldview gave way to critical thinking, flexible interpretations of religion, and a political stance against injustice—all implied by a specific understanding of Islamic justice. Second, throughout Islamic history, this worldview became the basis of numerous uprisings, rebellions, and revolutions—most prominently in the modern age and with respect to democracy.

Previous chapters deployed evidence from Islamist texts, public opinion surveys, and ethnographic research to demonstrate that Islamic conceptions of justice shape prodemocratic attitudes and value orientations among ordinary men and women in the Muslim world. Based on this evidence, a critical implication of this study is that devout Muslims support and want democracy because of their preferences and orientations originating from Islamic conceptions of justice. Two caveats should be mentioned. First, the Muslim agency’s support for democracy is contingent on the perception of democracy as a regime with a comparative advantage in implementing social and political justice by most religious citizens in a given polity. Such perception is related to the central role of justice in Islam and democracy’s capacity in generating public deliberation according to rational-civic reason, allowing the realization and enactment of Islamic justice. Second, despite favorable opinion and numerous waves of mass mobilization to bring democracy to the Muslim lands, domestic and international forces prevented the realization of this goal. The centripetal force of masses toward democratization has been countered by the centrifugal force of domestic dictators and their international collaborators, resulting in authoritarian, corrupt, and inefficient governments in Muslim-majority societies. This volume did not explore these centrifugal forces in detail, which, among other strategies, use security and order-oriented discourses of justice to maintain authoritarian political systems in the Muslim world. Exploring the linkages between Islam, justice discourses, and these centrifugal forces will be a fertile research subject for future studies.

This book’s explanatory framework relied on a stylistic distinction between social and political justice. Islamic conceptions of justice originate from two critical junctures that gave way to lasting legacies in Muslim politics. Significant political events accompanied by conceptual, theological, and ideological debates marked these moments. The first critical juncture came about after Muhammad’s passing. Succession to the Prophet and the leadership question divided the first Muslim community, seen as a perfect society despite simmering disagreement in the background. Such disagreement resulted in the first civil war between ʿAli and Muʿāwiya’s supporters and other groups who did not affiliate with them. These parties claimed to uphold justice and came up with justifications about their entitlement to rule the Muslim community. Their inspiration was the same, Koran and Muhammad. Nevertheless, they reached contrasting opinions about what justice is and how it should be implemented in a community of supposedly pure believers. It was all political in the beginning, and the debates concentrated on such issues as the right to rule, legitimacy, and a wise ruler’s morals. Political rhetoric spilled over into the doctrinal/legal sphere, and the latter eventually came to shape the former over time as the initial divisions repeated with different actors creating new traumas over time.

This first communal division and the resulting differences in doctrine, law, and Islamic interpretations are the foundations of various political theories building on conceptions of justice. Two legacies followed this first critical juncture. Some believed in free will, individual choice, and man’s responsibility as God’s vicegerent to represent a principled opposition and mobilization against tyranny for establishing political justice. A second position started from the necessity of bringing order and security to the community long-marred with fitna and conflict. Thus, it was unethical and against God’s justice to rebel against a ruler, even if unjust. These two positions left a lasting imprint on Muslim political experience to shape values, preferences, and attitudes over centuries. The first position culminated in democratic and the latter authoritarian orientations. At the turn of the twentieth century, the first constitutionalist movements built on these legacies to develop democratic solutions to the state decline and prevent foreign intervention. Discourses of Islamic justice were instrumental in reaching masses and mobilizing them for this cause. Coating modern political ideas with Islamic justice has been the primary strategy in independence movements, labor mobilization, and popular uprisings since the nineteenth century. Arab Spring is the latest example of this approach as observed in the contentious acts demanding justice and freedom in MENA. On the flip side, traditional political forces similarly built on the authoritarian implications of the political justice trajectory. Their justifications for a type of enlightened despotism relied on discourses of predetermination, order and security, rulers’ wisdom, and forbearance. Despite favorable public opinion and widespread mass action for a democratic system, various domestic and ex- ternal forces prevented democracy from taking root in Muslim-majority societies. The main conclusion of this book, nonetheless, remains—religious Muslims long for democracy and periodically take action to bring it home.

A second critical juncture came about when the Muslim world faced disintegration and suffered under the Mongol invasion. While political jus- tice discourses still mattered regarding rulers’ qualities and executive constraints imposed by Islamic law’s imperatives, it was the imminent danger to society that concerned the scholars most. In the face of weakening political authority, the primary issue became the protection of society: The state should protect life, property, religion, and progeny to ensure order and security. Welfare and public interest were the primary concerns of the scholars at that time. To prevent the abuse of power and implement social justice, scholars aimed to keep the rulers in check according to the end goals of sharia. In reality, however, this political arrangement gave more power to the rulers and resulted in the co-optation of scholars. A new social justice paradigm legitimized the authoritarian rule to the extent that an abstract notion of public interest took precedence over individual well-being and human dignity. Justice discourses of order, security, and public interest strengthened the hand of “benevolent dictators.” To the extent that a ruler provided security, order, and public goods or protected the religion, the benefits of obedience to him would outweigh the cost of rebellion for freedom and justice. In a sense, a particular lineage of social justice trumps the freedom-oriented lineage of political justice to legitimize authoritarianism.

This excerpt is taken from Islam, Justice, and Democracy with courtesy of Temple University Press.

Front cover image credit © Hassan Massoudy with courtesy of Temple University Press.