Published on November 1st, 20125
Islam and Democracy
By Tor. G. Jakobsen, NTNU
Islam is at present the second largest religion in the world. It has more than one billion followers, mostly in the Arab world, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa and its numbers are increasing also in Europe and other parts of the World. Recent events such as the Arab spring have given rise to a hope that democracy can spread to the Islamic world. However, there are several reasons to be skeptical.
Unlike the Bible’s position in Christianity, the Quran is reckoned to be of direct divine origin. Believers in Islam have to obey not only God, but also Muhammad, his messenger. The law of Sharia intervenes in both religious and secular life, including penal punishments and judicial matters, as well as the acts of worship and family life. Muslims are expected to accept the Quran as the word of God, and the Sharia as the regulator of society and daily life.
One could argue that with a base of this kind, there is little room for the rights of citizens and freedom of expression, which are key features in the Western pluralistic model of democracy. Both civil liberties and political rights tend to be neglected in the vast majority of Muslim countries today.
However, there are differences within the Islamic world. More secular countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Turkey are better at fulfilling democratic rights than states that practice Sharia, like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Even though there can be different interpretations of Sharia, there is a tendency that the implementation, or even just the acceptance, of Islamic law could mean less emphasis on civil liberties. Sharia can be viewed as an obstacle for democracy in the Muslim world.
The late Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington argued that there is a culture barrier which prevents the spread of democracy. He is partly supported by Michigan professor Ronald Inglehart who emphasizes what he names the post-modern shift, which has its origin in the economic miracles that occurred first in Western Europe and North America, and later in East Asia and Southeast Asia. According to Inglehart, the post-modern shift takes focus away from both religion and the state, and over to the individual.
The argument concerning democracy is that certain basic values must be in place for a society to successfully become democratic. In other words, a society, which has not experienced the post-modern shift, will experience difficulties implementing democracy. Even though Western and Islamic societies agree on several indicators of political values, they do differ when it comes to the question of tolerance.
However, there are voices within the discipline of social science that are more optimistic with regard to the future of democracy within Islam. The Binghampton professor Ali Mazrui states that mores and values have changed rapidly in the West in the last several decades as revolutions in technology and society progressed. He assumes that Islamic countries will follow the rest of the world, as they now are experiencing many of the same changes.
Clash with religion
One could argue that the teachings of the Quran and the laws of Sharia stand in opposition to what most Westerners consider to be democratic ideals. Many Islamic political groups claim that the nature of the state is of secondary importance to the implementation of Sharia. These laws are not compatible with many of the principles of democracy: examples are the limitations on free speech, women’s rights, and minority rights. In contemporary practice of Sharia these conditions are not respected. So even though the Quran does not prescribe any particular system of government, the importance of Sharia is still an obstacle for introducing Western democracy in the Islamic world.
Samuel Huntington pointed out that the Muslim world has not gone through the same historical events as the West, which led to the development of liberal democracy. Ronald Inglehart emphasizes the post-modern shift: that the Muslim world has more basic values and beliefs than the West, and that religious authority therefore plays a greater role.
Yet, the problem is maybe not what the Quran or the Sharia says. By all means, Christianity has similarities. The problem is rather that all Muslims do, at base, accept the sanctity of the Quran as the word of God, and the Sharia as the regulator of society and daily life.
Another form of democracy?
One possible road to democracy would be to westernize/modernize. It has happened in the past, one example being Turkey. However, most governments in the Muslim world are relatively authoritarian while also committed to programs of modernization. Thus, the authoritarian political establishments have become identified with secularist approaches to politics and modernization. In many Muslim states we are then faced with an opposition to authoritarian regimes expressed through a reaffirmation of the Islamic identity and heritage. One then has a different type of democratic movement, one lacking many of the ideals of the Western liberal model.
Several Muslim states can be denoted as having at least to some extent political freedom, such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Senegal, and Turkey. These countries are not considered best in class when it comes to civil liberties and political freedom. However, there are other factors than religion that influence this picture. Poverty, history, colonialism, and religion should all be taken into account.
Turkey chose the way of modernization. The Turkish nationalism under Kemal Atatürk was also a reaction against Islamic culture and a demand for westernization of society. The new republic dismantled the Turkish Kalifat in 1924, and in 1928 they introduced religious freedom. Turkey thus took a step from the Islamic toward the European culture.
Local adjustment instead of Westernization?
As already mentioned, one road to democracy would be to westernize/modernize. Yet, most governments in the Muslim world are relatively authoritarian. One question that could be raised is: Can there be a non-western path to democracy in the Muslim world? Another one is: Are there other ways of achieving democracy than to import the Western version of it?
Due to the strong sense of democracy being a Western concept, the debate in Muslim states can easily shift from whether or not one wants democracy, to whether or not one wishes to adopt a “foreign model”. Most societies have some local traditions that have democratic elements in them. Western democracy not only has its roots in Classical Greek democracy and Roman law, but also in the old Germanic traditions of gatherings at the thing.
The Quran does not prescribe any particular system of government. However, there are elements within Islam that could work in favor of democracy. In the Quran one can find the Shura in which men are asked to settle their differences in patience by mutual consultation. There is also a second democratic principle, the ijma (concencus), meaning that important policies should have the support of a significant segment of society.
However, these two local traditions do not amount to the centuries of history and traditions that lies in the foundation of Western democracy. One important factor that likely would be neglected in an Islamic-based majority founded on local customs and traditions would be the protection of the rights of minorities. One could argue that if people want to give away their Lockian “natural rights”, then why should they not? Yet, you would then still have the problem of the minorities who does not agree with the policies of the majority.
Unlike the West, Islam lacks a historical tradition of democracy. During the Islamic empires and the Ottoman Empire, which covered much of the Muslim world, a tendency developed to support authoritarian rule. Scholars like Ali Muzrai might find room for an Islamic version of democracy, with consensus and majority rule. But with base in the liberal democratic tradition of the West, one would see several flaws with this type of democracy.
Another road toward democracy would be to westernize society, as Turkey to some degree has already done. Yet, this is hardly conceivable in the foreseeable future, due to the reaffirmation of the Islamic identity, and the ongoing conflicts and sentiments in the Muslim world.
Two roads to democracy
Compared to Western standards most Muslim countries of the World tend to have a poor record of democracy. But one should take into account that most of these states are developing countries and have a history of colonialism and violent conflicts. There are Christian countries in many parts of the world who are no better off than the Muslim ones.
Still, one should not downplay the role of religion. There are different perceptions of the meaning of democracy. Some aspects of Western democracy could be transferred to an Islamic country, like the principles of majority rule and equality. But other aspects, like liberty, women’s rights, freedom of speech, and the protection of minorities could prove more difficult to include in an Islamic version of democracy. The Quran can be interpreted to support a variety of positions, and the Sharia is troublesome, particularly in the areas of rights for women and non-Muslims.
However, countries with Sharia, like Sudan and Iran, had abusive governments before Islamic-oriented regimes rose to power. Secular based regimes like that of Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq have been among the worst violators of human rights. The point here being that even though religion is an important factor when it comes to the success of democracy in the Islamic world, other variables must be taken into account.
We have looked at two routes for achieving a democratic Muslim world. One path is to make Islam compatible with democracy. This implies a modernization or westernization of society, as Kemal Atatürk’s Turkey is an example of. Even though Turkey, Indonesia, and Bangladesh are not prime examples of liberal democracies, one could still argue that this is a step in the right direction. But again, achieving democracy could prove difficult. Westernization might not be a very popular thing to introduce due to the ongoing conflicts in the contemporary Muslim world.
The second route is to make democracy compatible with Islam. As already mentioned one has the Islamic traditions of consultation and ijma. These are local fundaments from which one could build an Islamic version of democracy. Other components such as equality and participation are also inherent in Islam, as all Muslims are partners in the community of believers and are equal before God. Unfortunately Islam seems to be lacking other elements of what most Westerners conceive as being important elements of democracy.
Huntington, Samuel P. (1996). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Inglehart, Ronald (1997). Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mazrui, Ali A. (1997). “Islamic and Western Values” Foreign Affairs, 76(5): 118–132.