Islam, the Koran, and Women’s Rights from the Perspective of Muslim Women

For those of you who are writing on the influence of Islam on the prospects for democratization in predominantly Muslim countries, here is an interesting video, which asks Muslim women about their views on the compatibility of Islam with women’s rights and democracy. This is a nice complement to the Fish article that we read two weeks ago. Here is an illuminating quote from one of the women interviewed in the film:

“First of all I didn’t understand why my brother didn’t have to do housework and I have to do housework…as a little girl it did not make sense to me. Just because he’s a boy he doesn’t have to do housework?!? So for me the questioning was from the family, but the family never used religion to justify why [boys didn’t have to do housework], so I always knew it was culture and tradition.”

“We wanted to break the monopoly, that only the lama, only the religious authorities, have the right to talk about Islam and define what is Islam and what is not Islam.”

Zainah Anwar
Co-founder, Sisters in Islam
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Here is the very interesting video, which is about 26 minutes long. Throughout this film many of the concepts that we have learned this semester are brought into play.

Joseph Chan on Confucianism and Democracy

In IS210 today, we viewed a short clip from this interesting lecture by Professor Joseph Chan given at Cornell University. Professor Chan of the University of Hong Kong talks about the shared moral basis of contemporary Chinese society. With Leninism/Marxism/Maoism being discredited amongst most Chinese, the search begins for a new moral basis/foundation for society.

As Professor Dick Miller says in his introductory remarks:

In China, as in the United States, people feel a great need for an adequate, shared, ethical basis for public life. There, as here, people don’t think that freedom to get as rich as you can is an adequate basis.

So, what is that basis, if the official ruling ideology of the political regime no longer seems legitimate. Liberal democracy? Confucianism. There are adherents in China of both of these as the proper ethical foundation. What does Professor Chan have to say about the compatibility of Confucian ideals with democracy? Watch and find out. It’s a very informative lecture.

Political Regimes

Those of you in my IS210 class may find the Polity IV data to be of use when writing your paper. Click on the image below to take you to the website, where (if you scroll down to the bottom) you can see the regime scores (between -10 and +10) for each country over many years. See the example at the bottom of this post.

Political Regime Types–Polity IV Dataset

Here’s an exampe of the history of movements in regime for El Salvador from 1946 until 2010. How many changes in regime does El Salvador seem to have experienced in the post-WWII period? What happened in the early 1980s?

 

Polity IV Score in El Salvador

Regime Change, Freedom, Democracy, and Islam

In our IS210 class, we’ve been assessing nondemocratic regimes. I had my students read an article by M. Steven Fish, published in World Politics in 2002, titled “Islam and Authoritarianism.” In it, the author notes the striking empirical finding that a majority of Arab Muslim countries had nondemocratic regimes, even after controlling for potentially confounding factors such as oil wealth, level of political violence, poverty, etc. Fish asks what it is about Islam that is linked to authoritarianism. Or, to put it another way, he searches for the causal mechanism lining Islam and regime type. He tentatively finds it in the status of women in contemporary Muslim societies.

 

Nothing could be less heartening to democratic idealists than the notion that a particular religion is inimical to democracy. Religious traditions are usually constants within societies; they are variables only
across societies. Societies usually are “stuck” with their religious traditions and the social and psychological orientations they encode and reproduce. Yet religious practices and the salience of particular beliefs can change. Even if Muslim countries are more male dominated in some respects than non-Muslim countries, there is no logical reason why such a state of affairs must be immutable. Rigid segregation according to sex and male domination does not have a firm scriptural basis. The Koran provides no justification whatsoever for practices such as female genital mutilation and it condemns all infanticide as a heinous sin, even if it is motivated by a fear of want (17:31; 81:1–14). Much of the Koran’s instruction on marriage, divorce, and other aspects of relations between the sexes (for example, 2:222–41; 4:3; 4:128; 33:1–5; 58:1–4) is more liberal than the sharia (religious law) as practiced in some modern-day Muslim societies. It is therefore as dubious to try to locate the sources of social practice and order in scripture in Islamic settings as it is to try to locate them there in Christian and Jewish settings, because as with all holy injunction based on sacred text, interpretive traditions are powerful and ultimately determine practice. The status of women in Muslim societies is thus both paradoxical and mutable.

At the present time, however, the evidence shows that Muslim countries are markedly more authoritarian than non-Muslim societies, even when one controls for other potentially influential factors; and the station of women, more than other factors that predominate in Western thinking about religious systems and politics, links Islam and the democratic deficit.

What do the recent upheavals in the Muslim-majority states of north Africa and the Middle East portend not only for democracy but for the status of women in these societies. CBC Radio’s “the Current” program set out to try to answer that question in a show dedicated to “women and political upheaval.” Here’s a description of the women interviewed on that evening’s show:

We started this segment with a clip from Mona Seif. She was heavily involved in the protests that brought down former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. And in the days leading up to his resignation, she told us she really believed the revolt would lead to a significant improvement in the lives of Egyptian women.

But since then, there have been reports that the situation for Egyptian women has regressed to the way it used to be. So we checked in again with Mona Seif. She’s still in Tahrir Square. But she’s feeling a little less optimistic.

Women have often played leading roles in pushing for change in the Arab and Muslim worlds. But when the dust settles, the gains they think they have made are often elusive. For their thoughts on why that is and whether things may be different this time … we were joined by three women who have spent decades trying to improve the position of women in their societies.

Before the Iranian revolution, Mahnaz Afkhami was Iran’s Minister for Women’s Affairs. She’s now the Founder and President of the Women’s Learning Partnership. She was in Washington, D.C.

Asma Khader is a former Jordanian minister of culture. She’s now the Secretary General of the Jordanian National Commission for Women. She was in Amman, Jordan.

And Leila Ahmed is an Egyptian-born professor at Harvard University’s Divinity School. Her research focuses on women in Islam. And her book, The Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence From the Middle East to America will be published next month. She was in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

India–an “exceptional” Country with Democratic Deficit

In comparative politics, there are two countries that are truly exceptional–the USA and India.  By “exceptional”, I mean just that; they are both exceptions to general rules that have solid support, empirically and theoretically.  For example, when looking cross-nationally there is a strong negative relationship between religiosity and economic development.  That is, the richer a country, the less religious (ceteris paribus) are its residents.  Except for the United States.  The USA is exceptional in many regards; i.e., it doesn’t behave like all other advanced industrial democracies.

India is also exceptional, but in different ways from the US.  For example, there is strong support for hypotheses about democracy and social (ethnic/religious) heteroeneity, which suggest that there is no way that India should still be (after more than 60 years) a fairly well functioning democracy.  Many observers keep waiting for the other shoe to drop as India’s democracy has lurched from crisis-to-crisis, and has to contend with endemic levels of corruption, particularly in its judiciary (as we see in this excerpted report–written by the Asian Human Rights Commission and which I found at the Human Security Gateway, a great source for information about security issues in world politics).  Somehow, though, India’s democracy hangs on.

By recommending the impeachment of a High Court judge, the Chief Justice of India has revived a dead debate concerning the Indian judiciary. On August 2, 2008 in a letter addressed to the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice recommended the impeachment of judge Soumitra Sen of Calcutta High Court. Judge Sen is accused of having been involved in financial misappropriation before he was appointed as a judge. It is reported that in 1984 while judge Sen was practising as a lawyer he was appointed as the receiver in a dispute concerning the Steel Authority of India. It is alleged that in the capacity of the receiver he misappropriated a sum of INR 2,500,000 [USD 59523], which judge Sen reportedly paid back on orders from the court. Later, he was appointed a judge at the Calcutta High Court in 2003. A judge accused of corruption facing impeachment, a process by which a sitting judge could be removed from service in India, is nothing special. A corrupt public servant is not worthy of continuing in service and is least desirable to serve as a judge in a court of law, a public office that demands scrupulous impartiality and untainted personality. Anyone accused of a crime must be prosecuted and the crime investigated into. The fact that the accused is a judge must not provide the person with any immunity. Judge Sen being the first person recommended for impeachment by a Chief Justice of India does not mean that the judiciary is immune from corruption and other vicious practices. There are similar allegations against some judges in India. But not a single judicial officer was impeached so far. The only exception was the case of judge V. Ramaswami who faced impeachment in 1991, an attempt that failed due to the absence of a political consensus. It is expected that history will not be repeated. If it is repeated it would be a shame upon the Indian judiciary and its accountability. The accountability of judges, particularly in the context of increasing allegations of malpractices resorted to by judges is a grave concern in India. As of now there is no open process for the selection, promotion and if required the dismissal of High Court or Supreme Court judges in the country. The entire process is retained within the whims of the Supreme Court. All attempts so far to enforce accountability on the judiciary were vetoed by the judiciary itself. There is also the absence of a political consensus over this issue.

What are the Fundamental Tenets of Confucianism…Culture as Destiny?

Over the past few weeks, we have addressed the debate regarding the relative explanatory power of cultural versus institutional and rational choice approaches to the analysis of political phenomena.  In the book excerpt, “A Brief History of Human Liberty,” Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria analyzes the cultural argument regarding economic growth and democracy. He quotes the former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew:

“…if you want to see how culture works, compare the performance of German workers and Zambian workers anywhere in the world.  You will quickly come to the conclusion that there is something very different in the two cultures that explains the results.”

Zakaria has some sympathy for this argument, but then argues that it is strange that Lee Kuan Yew is such a strong proponent of cultural arguments* given that while Singapore is culturally very similar to its neighbor, Malaysia, Singapore has been much more effective in its economic policies than has its neighbor.  In fact, I would add that a strong argument against cultural explanations of democracy and economic development are the differences between East Germany and West Germany (in the post-WWII-era until unification) and the present difference between North and South Korea.

The 38th parallel may be just a line on a map, and the division of the nation of Korea into two separate states may be a historically contingent act, but it demonstrates the tremendously powerful impact of institutions on a society.  South Korea was able to develop good political and economic institutions, while North Korea has not.  The cultural foundation of each state was similar (although I’m not an expert on Korea, so maybe there was a cultural difference between the “north” and the “south” that can account for the vast differences in the two states today–although I’m highly skeptical) before the division and we know, in a methodological sense, that a constant can not explain an outcome that varies.

Getting back to Zakaria and Lee Yuan Kew, Zakaria writes that

“the key to Singapore’s success…is Lee Kuan Yew, not Confucius.  The point is not that culture is unimportant; on the contrary it matters greatly…But culture can change…A hundred years ago, when East Asia seemed immutably poor, many scholars–most famously Max Weber [we’ve read his Protestant Ethic argument]–argued that Confucian-based cultures discouraged all the attributes necessary for success in capitalism…A decade ago, when East Asia was booming, scholars had turned this explanation on its head, arguing that Confucianism actually emphasized the traits essential for economic dynamism. Today the wheel has turned again and many see in ‘Asian values’ all the ingredients of crony capitalism.”‘

What are these Confucian and ‘Asian values’ about which there has been so much discussion.  Well, needless to say Asia is a vast land mass, with exceedingly high levels of diversity–culturally, linguistically, religiously, racially, etc.  So the concept of ‘Asian values’ may be so amorphous as to http://onpoint.wbur.org/2006/08/15/china-and-confucian-democracy http://onpoint.wbur.org/2006/08/http://onpoint.wbur.org/2006/08/15/china-and-confucian-democracy/china-and-confucian-democracy.  Confucianism, however, is a distinct and compact body of ideas that has a comprehensive philosophical foundation.  What are Confucian values, then and do they help or hinder China’s precarious journey towards democracy and economic development?  Well, here’s an answer from political philosopher Daniel Bell, who insists that ultimately, Confucianism is about three core values.  What are these?  Listen to the first ten minutes of the audio podcast from this episode of “On Point.”  Here’s a link to the URL on which you can find an archived version of the show.

**Here, it should be noted that a reason Lee Kuan Yew is strongly predisposed to arguing on the basis of culture is his contempt for the licentiousness of Western values and his desire to prevent demands for those kinds of freedoms (as long as political liberty) to take root in the strongly authoritarian state of Singapore.  Just read his statements during the infamous Michael Fay incident.

It wasn’t long before Singapore patriarch Lee Kuan Yew weighed in. He reckoned the whole affair revealed America’s moral decay. “The U.S. government, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. media took the opportunity to ridicule us, saying the sentence was too severe,” he said in a television interview. “[The U.S.] does not restrain or punish individuals, forgiving them for whatever they have done. That’s why the whole country is in chaos: drugs, violence, unemployment and homelessness. The American society is the richest and most prosperous in the world but it is hardly safe and peaceful.”

Here’s another story on the incident.

John Cleese on Proportional Representation

There are generally two types of electoral system in use around the world–first-past-the-post (single-member district) and proporational representation (multi-member district).

As John Cleese explains in this public service announcement, the choice of which electoral system to implement in a democracy can have a dramatic impact on party politics and on the political system in general.  The idea behind proportional representation is that the composition of the legislative body is directly representative of the political opinions in the electorate.  So if, for example, 3% of the electorate votes for the Polish Beer-Lovers’ Party (PPPP–Polska Partia Przyjaciół Piwa), as happened in the Polish parliamentary elections of 1991, then that party will have 3% of the representatives in the legislative body (which it did).

In first-past-the-post systems, such as the USA, Canada, and the UK, the electorate is divided up into single-member-districts, from which a single representative is elected to represent that seat in the parliament.  The winner does not have to win a majority of the vote, only a plurality.  Thus, if there are 4 contenders for a particular seat, and three of them each garners 20% of the vote, the fourth candidate, with 40% of the vote, wins the seat, representing that district in parliament.  The rest of the votes (the 60% going to non-winning parties) is “wasted” as it is not used to determine representation in parliament.  These are the basics, but upon these foundations one can build a myriad of different types of systems, such as the “double-vote” system in Germany.