Islam and Democracy: Are They Compatible?



With anti-regime demonstrations raging in Egypt, and the possibility of a new government led by or involving the Muslim Brotherhood, many are asking whether Islam is compatible with democracy? The answer is yes, it potentially is, but it will take much hard work to make this happen.

Present realities are far from encouraging, for tyranny disproportionately afflicts Muslim-majority countries. Swarthmore College' s Frederic L. Pryor concluded in a 2007 analysis in the Middle East Quarterly that, with some exceptions, "Islam is associated with fewer political rights." Saliba Sarsar looked at democratization in 17 Arabic-speaking countries and, writing in the same journal, found that between 1999 and 2005, "not only is progress lacking in most countries, but across the Middle East, reform has backslid."

How easy to jump from this dismal pattern and conclude that Islam itself must be the cause of the problem. In fact, the current predicament of dictatorship, corruption and cruelty results from specific historical developments, rather than the Koran and other sacred scriptures.

A half-millennium ago, democracy reigned nowhere. That it emerged in Western Europe resulted from many factors, including the area's Greco-Roman heritage, rendering-unto-Caesar-and-God tensions specific to Christianity, geography, climate, and key breakthroughs in technology and political philosophy. There was nothing fated about Great Britain and then the United States leading the way to democracy.

Put differently: Of course, Islam is undemocratic in spirit, but so was every other premodern religion.

Just as Christianity became part of the democratic process, so can Islam. This transformation will surely be wrenching and require time. The evolution of the Catholic Church from a reactionary force in the medieval period into a democratic one today — an evolution not entirely over — has been taking place for 700 years. When an institution based in Rome took so long, why should a religion from Mecca — replete with its uniquely problematic scriptures — move faster or with less contention?

For Islam to encourage political participation implies a giant shift in approach, especially toward the Shari'a, its law code. Elaborated about a millennium ago in quasi-tribal circumstances and operating within a vastly different ethos from today's, the code contains a range of features unacceptable to modern sensibilities, including the anti-democratic ideas of the will of God prevailing over that of the people; military jihad as a legitimate means to expand Muslim rule; and the superiority of Muslims over non-Muslims, and males over females.

In short, the Shari'a as classically understood cannot be reconciled with modern life in general, democracy in particular. For Muslims to achieve political participation means either rejecting the law's public aspects in total — as Atatürk did in Turkey — or reinterpreting them. The Sudanese thinker Mahmud Muhammad Taha offered one example of the latter when he reread the Islamic scriptures and wholesale eliminated noxious laws.

Islam keeps changing; it's wrong to insist that it must be what it has been. As Hassan Hanafi of Cairo University put it, the Koran "is a supermarket, where one takes what one wants and leaves what one doesn't want."

But Atatürk and Taha aside, Muslims have barely begun the long, arduous path to making Islam modern.

In addition to the inherent difficulties of overhauling a seventh-century order to fit the ethos of a Western-dominated 21st century, the Islamist movement that today dominates Muslim intellectual life pulls in precisely the opposite direction from democracy. Instead, it fights to revive the whole of the Shari'a and to apply it with exceptional severity, regardless of what the majority wants.

Some Islamists denounce democracy as heretical and a betrayal of Islamic values, but the more clever of them, noting their own widespread popularity, have adopted democracy as a mechanism to seize power.

Their success in a country like Turkey does not transform Islamists into democrats, but demonstrates their willingness to adopt tactics that will bring them power.

With enough effort and time, Muslims can be as democratic as Westerners. But for now, they remain the least democratic of peoples, and the Islamist movement presents a huge obstacle to political participation. In Egypt as elsewhere, theoretical optimism is tempered by a pessimism based on present and future realities. 

Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum, as well as the Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He lived in Egypt for three years.


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