Islam and Democracy

Figure 1.--Democracy is a political system which developed in the Christian West as more secular ruke developed. Since World War II, democracy has proven workable in majority Buddhist and Hindu countries. It is still an open question, however, if democracy can florish in Muslim countries. Some of the view cMuslim countries which have held democratic elections are those countries occupoed bt America or Israel (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine). Here we see Afghan boys carrying election materials in 2010. There are three Muslim countries that are functioning democracies (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey), but the long term future for democracy and especially protection of minority rights is yet to be seen.

A German reader writes, "Really I don't think Iraq will become democratic. The underlying reason is Islamism. It is so much amonolithic religion like orthodox jews or even Baptists that I feel we are living something like Crusaders against Saladin. A Holy war. For Michael Lind, Bush convictions are close to Islamist "weltanchaung". That is why it is obsolete to think that religious expression is no longer an aspect of democracy. The fact is that Western civilization has evolved within the context of powerful religious devotion and struggle since the Middle Ages and more evidently at the Renaissance. A kind of 'thesis' and 'antithesis'." We are not sure that we entirely agree with this, but our reader raises an important question--is Islam compatable with democracy. The answer to this question has profounfd consequences for the 21st century. The fact that the only two Arab countries to conduct democratic elections in 2004 are occupied countries (Iraq and Palestine) does speak volumes.

Islamic Doctrine

The modern Western concept of freedom is alien to Islam. The idea of individual freedom distinct from the individuals's total submission to Islam is impossible. Muslim's believe that an individual's fate "is written" and that a true Muslim submits himself to that fate. “Freedom” is Islam is an individual's realization of the necessity of submission. “Freedom” in the Western sense is not possible, and an individuals yearning for it is actually sinful. Prrotestans may see some similariy here with Calvin's principle of predestination, a tennant of the Presbeterian Church. Not unlike Islam, Calvin attempted to create a theocratic state. The Protestant Revolution is generally seen as a vital factor in the growth of democracy. Not all Protestants iof course accepted Calvin's teachings on predestination. In fact so many Prorestant churches developed in addition to the split between Rome and Orthodoxy that no one church coulkd dominate. The gradual development of acceptance of religious diversity and the development of tolleration was a critical element in the development of a democractic civil society in the West. This has not occurred in the Islamic world. The failure to recognize the concept of freedom has led to continuing conflicts not only between Islam and other religions, but among the various sects of Islam. In most Islamic countries, the dominant sect of Islam supresses alternative sects. In some countries there are actual phyical attacks. One of the most embarassuing but rarely mentioined aspect of Islam is that it is in Europe and America and not in Islamic countries that individual Muslims are free to practice their religion as they see fit without state ingerence or fear of attack.

Islam and Poltical Organization

A Pakistani reader writes, "Islam is the only religion to have come with a set of guidelines for the socio-economic and political setup. Whereas other religions like Christianity focuses entirely on individual level of worship, Islam has its own economic and political guidelines. As such, Democracy, or for that matter any other political theory, is as Islamic as it can be only if the theory adheres to certain guidelines. In demoracy, people are sovereign, while in Islam, Sovereignity belongs to God alone. If the parliament or any decision-making body of the country promises not to transgress the limits set by Shariah (Islamic Law) and set up UnIslamic laws like legalizing gay marriages etc, then Democracy becomes Islamic! Therefore there are endless possibilities in the fold of Islam as long as the--basic Shariah guidelines--are not transgressed. You can understand this concept better by the knowing that Islam forbids wine (toxicants) which is a Shariah guideline. As long as you do not make wine, you can make any type of drink you can imagine. Islam is not at all oppressive or dogmatic. It values human creativity and individuality. When Islam asks you to "obey Allah's Will" it means to say that you follow these Shariah guidelines as explicitly mentioned in the Holy Quran and Hadith (Prophetic sayins) and you will 'enter into Islam i.e. peace.'" I think our reader has provided us a fair statement of Islam political outlook, but it seems to me that his statement in many ways suggests that Islam is incompatable with political democracy. The only problem in saying that God is soverign is that it is men who interpret God's will on earth. And men whether or not they have relgious afinities are falable. Rulers who can govern by saying that God wills it are capable of creating a totalitarian society. Also important is democracy does not only involve the will of the majority. Here democracy would not be incompable in majority Muslim countries. Also important to democracy is the protection of minority rights. Islam itself clearly descriminates against certain classes of inividuals, such as homosxexuals or non-Muslims. There are surely problems with political democracy, but part of its genius is that political debate can not be supressed by stiffeling political debate by governing through "scientific" (Marxist) or religious (Islamic) doctrine.

Constitutional Democracy

To discuss this subject coherently we first have to come to an understanding as to what is meant by democracy in the West. Democracy is rule by the Demos or people, generally phrased as "majority rule". As Socrates and other Athenians found at an early stage of democratic rule and as others such as Cromwell in the English Civil War and Robespiere in the French Revolutuion have demostrated, the rule of the majority can be as oppresive if not more oppresive than the rule of a tyranical monarch. This is why the founders of the American Republic, influenced by Cicero, created a constitution with strong limits on democratic rule. In the early years of the Reoublic neither the President or Senate was elected directly by the people and only a small fraction of the people was franchised. The will of the majority was further constrained bt a bicameral legislature, an independent judiciary, and the Bill of Rights protecting individual rights from the arbitary will of the majority. Similar constitutional protections have emrerged in the democracies of Western Europe.

Islamic Regimes

Democratic rule is strongest in Western Europe and America. Even Germany the former center of the Third Right has a firmly established democracy. The same has occured in Asia where quite a number of countries have strong democracies, including India and Japan and several other countries have democratic regimes that look impressuive such as South Korea and Taiwan. Most Latin Ameruican coiuntries have democratic regimes and even in Africa there are several fledgling democracies. Only in the Arab Mid-East and North Africa is there a lack of a truly democratic regime. This seems somewaht surprising because in the Arab world there is a long hostory of civilization and culture. Civilization florished in the Islamic Middle-East during the European Dark Ages. The question has to be asked if Islam is compatable with democratic rule, especially dmocratic rule which has constitutioinal protection for individuals and minority groups.

Islamic Democracies

There are several countries outside of the Arab world that have Islamic majorities and at least developing democracies. These include Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Turkey. Earlier we might have included Iran on that list, but the Mullas seizure of the electoral process and thye supression of a free press have turned Iran back into a thinly veiled theocracy. Some of the Islamic democracies are more advanced than others. Turkey which stands on the threshold of European Union membership seems the most advanced politically, but even in Turkey there are gross violations of civil rights and the country's secular civil society is under assault froim Islamacists. These countries, however, vary substantially in commitment to constitutionalism and the rule of law. The protection of minority rights is an issue that many of these countries are having difficulty grapling with, especially the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The future constitutional development is unclear at this time. The military is currently in power in Pakistan and still very poewerful in Indonesia. Democracy in Iran has been effectifully denied by the Mullas, but there are still some reason for hope. The existebnce of these democracies seem to suggest that democracy can develop in a largely Islamic country. The future of democracy in these countries, however, is still unsure.

Arab Democracies

The same cannot be said for the Arab world. There are today no functioining democracies any where in the Arab world. This is true not only in poor countries like Yemen, but the rich countrues like Saudia Arabia and the Gulf states which have devoted considerable resources to education. The question has to be asked why. The most obvious answer id the strength of Fundamentalism in the Arab world. The Fundamentalists want a regime where the corsive power of the state can be used to propagete their view of the world and their religious traditions. While this is not necessarily incompatable with pure democracy or majority rule, it is the anthitesis of constitutional democratic government that has developed in the United States and Western Europe where the rights of minorities are protected. The fact that the only two Arab countries to conduct democratic elections in 2004 are occupied countries (Iraq and Palestine) does speak volumes.

Civil Rights

A hallmark of Western democracy is the protection of basic civil liberties. It is useful to assess the state of basic civil liberties in the Muslim world. Here we will look at indicators such as freedom of the press, religious liberty, minority rights (including women and ethnic minorities), far trials, and other basic civil rights. We will look at both Arab regimes with authoritarian goverments as well Islamic and secular regimes.

Muslim Minorities in the West

While Muslims are not able to vote in democratic elections in most Islamic-majority countries, they are able to vote in many Western countries. This of course means the established democracies in Wesetern Europe and the United States as well as Israel. Muslim Americans have participated responsibly in the political pricess, but are a very small (but growing) minority. Muslims are a much larger minority in many European countries. We do not know a great deal about Muslim participation in the democratic process in Europe. As far as we can tell, it has been largely responsible and accepting of the democratic process. What is not so clear is what will happen as Muslims become a larger part of the political process. The killing of the Dutch film maker by Islamic fundamentalists because he criticised the treatment of women in the Islamic world rocked the Netherlands (2004). No country is perfect, but few countries are more tolerant than the Netherlands. The question at this time is whether this religiously motivated muder is an aberation or a hint as to the future.

Free Will

Our Pakistani reader weites, "Majority of non-muslim scholars tend to believe that Islam negates the notion of humans having the power or the authority to exercise their own free will. This is incorrect. If Islam were to negate this believe then why would it stress on the concept of Hereafter so aggressively where people will be rewarded or punished for their actions accordingly? In Islam the concept of this life is to "test us as to who is better in deeds." This is to say that you have been bestowed with free will and have been shown the Straight Path (the religion of Islam leading to God). It is now your choice to either accept the Truth or Reject it and based on your decision and performance in this world you will either be rewarded with eternal paradise or punishment with eternal hell. The purpose of life according to ISlam is to only 'worship God'." The problem is that many people do not believe that this is the purpose of life. And can Muslims accept in democratic society in which large numbers of people do not accept this basic precept. How do Muslims react to people who do not accept the "Straight Path".


There is no question that dmocracy is incompable with Islamicist regimes. One author exolains, Islanicists reject "all man-made laws and [see] democracy as a lower form of athesism because it puts the will of the people over the will of the Devine." [Timmermam] Of course the will of the Devine meaning the view of the clerics controlling the instruments of compulsion in the Islamic state. The bet example here is the attmpt by the Iranian clerics in 2004 to bar elected officials that displease them from running for reelection. This was clear seen in Iran. Iran was developing one of the most vibrant democracies in the Middle East. The Islamicists in Iran found that they could not compete in an environment in which political ideas were freely discussed. Thus the clerics launched a campaign to close down opposition and moderate newspapers and other media (2003). The final step of this process was the Guardian Council's action to ban most reform candidates from even running for office, thus guaranteeing a majority in the paliament. The elections held Februay 20, 2004 resulted in an overwealming conservative majority in Parliament. The controlled media attempted to inflate the vote, but it is clear that large numbers of Iranian simply boycotted what they saw as an illegitimate political process. One journalist writes, "Consevative victory seen as wide but shallow". [Vick, p. A14.] Most analysts see the Iran as a result of the election moving from any legitimacy as a democratic republic to a clear Ilamacist theocracy.

Crucial Question

The crucial question in this discussion of Islam and democracy is to what extent Islamists dominate in the Islamic world. Clearly Muslims can participate as effective and tolerant citizens in countries like the United States and various European countries where they are a minority. The potential for democracy in countries where muslims are a democracy remains to be seen. This is in part the strength of Islamists in those countries is not fully understood. It seems to be growing which is not an encouraging sign for the future of democracy.


Timmerman, Kenneth R. Preachers of Hate: Islam and the War on America (Crown Forum, 2003), 370p.

Vick, Karl, "Low turnout tells tale of Iranian vote," The Washington Post February 23, 2004.


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Created: February 20, 2003
Last updated: 2:37 AM 11/16/2010