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Unwrapping “Islamic Democracy”

July 6, 2011

The idea of ‘Islamic Democracy’ has blossomed in the wake of recent so-called ‘pro-democracy’ actions in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Jordan, and Libya.  These countries are predominately Muslim in faith and culture.  In each case, what appeared as a move towards more openness and freedom (i.e., democracy) has begun to break down.  In the case of Egypt and Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood has begun to exert influence and control as the political landscape continues to solidify.  In Libya, it was quickly learned that the tribes fighting against Qadaffi have, of late, been busy supplying terrorist fighters to the opposition in Iraq (1).  In Afghanistan, where Coalition forces are still fighting and dying, the “free and democratic” government seems to be taking a more repressive Islamist air (2).

After a number of similar reports, a thinking individual starts to wonder if Muslim-dominated countries really can make a go of this ‘democracy’ thing.  Several questions emerge from this cloud of activity.  First, why do these Islamist groups use “democracy” to push their agenda for change?  Second, and the point of this article, is to examine whether democracy is possible within the framework of Islamist movements or Islam in general?  I will briefly touch on the first question and then, delve deeper into the latter.

The U.S., and various Western European governments, have a significant track record financing Middle Eastern countries who proffer claims to establish democratic governments.  In 2009 alone, the USAID program distributed $2.3 Billion in support of “democracy” and “freedom” in the Middle East.  New regimes, fundamentalist or not, acquire and stay in power by claiming divine guidance or by promising improved standards of living.

One way to achieve the latter is with money from the West.  One of the surest ways to get aid from the West is to claim to be pursuing the ideals of the West.  The United States, in particular, has been very generous in the pursuit of spreading democracy.  Tapping into Western funds allows fledgling governments the ability to buy supporters for a little while.

The second question, regarding the compatibility of Islam and Democracy, is a bit more involved, and has been the topic of many an article and book.  The argument has been made, with which I concur, that Islam and “democracy” are inherently incompatible.  Samuel Huntington, as quoted by Bernard Lewis, stated that one can call a country a democracy when it has two consecutive peaceful changes of government via free elections (3).  In addition, the point should be made that it is important to take into consideration the other requisites of free democratic action:  speech and debate, equality, and protest/assembly.  Indeed, how can we meet Huntington’s prerequisites without free debate and opinion, equality under the law, and oppositional voice on the part of the electorate?

Putting a finer point on things ends up creating some problems when we look at the so-called “democracies” in the Middle East.  Looking at many Middle Eastern governments, there are trappings of democracy, such as, popular elections, bicameral legislatures, multiple branches of government, etc.    However, peeling back the layers reveals a lack of true freedom.

Currently, there are a number of Arab Muslim countries which one might consider “democratic”, as an outside observer:  Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Pakistan, and Tunisia, all hold elections, have parliamentary houses of some sort, and most even have more than one branch of government.  However, according to Freedom House (, in their annual report Freedom of the World, with the exception of Pakistan (labeled “Partly Free”), all of the countries are classified as “Not Free”, and none are considered “electoral democracies”.

Pro-democracy movements in Arab Muslim countries run into some serious ideological hurdles, when one digs below the surface.  Checking the democratic scorecard of current Islamic states reveals some problems.  Let us simplify the definition of democracy to:  the principles of social equality and respect for the individual within a community.  Currently, it is illegal to be a Jew and live in Saudi Arabia.  It is also illegal to openly practice your Christian faith in Saudi Arabia.  Saudi women are not allowed to drive cars, or go out in public unescorted.  Also, a woman’s witness in court counts as half of a man’s.  One might say, “well, this is just one example.”  While that is true, Saudi Arabia is supposedly the United States’ closest ally in the region (apart from Israel) and is considered a benchmark for Islamic governance.

The ‘Islamic Democracy’ movement is either very confused, or is working towards an ulterior motive.  This reminds me of the politically confused who call themselves “fiscally conservative, but socially liberal.”  One cannot have it both ways: at some point the principles of your conservatism will put a halt to the actions of your social liberalism.  It is the same with the pro-democracy Muslim movement:  during their quest for the equality of rights and privileges of democracy, they will slam into the double-hulled ship of Islam, where the Qur’an, the hadith, and Shari’ah, denies equal rights to both non-Muslims and women.

Democracy cannot exist within, or alongside, a socio-religious construct which trumps key tenets of democracy.  One key tenet of democracy is the voice of the citizens, or popular sovereignty.  El Fadl, in his instructive essay, Can individual rights and popular sovereignty take root in faith? states that “a case for democracy from within Islam must accept the idea of [Allah’s] sovereignty:  it cannot substitute popular sovereignty for divine sovereignty.”(4)  If this is the case, then pursuit of Islamic Democracy is a wasted effort.

This is a large hurdle, since the democratic process hinges upon the right of the individual to choose, and for the right of a group of individuals to govern themselves.  El Fadl’s position (one that is held by many Muslim jurists), precludes freedom on the part of non-Muslims (specifically, freedom from the tenets of a religion in which they do not believe) as well as dissent (taking the opposing view from the Qur’an would be considered heresy).

There are fundamentalist Muslim scholars who proclaim that Islam supports freedom and human rights (and even democracy).  Yet, more and more, stories of honor killings, murdered ‘apostates’ who left the faith, and suppression of personal expression and liberty, dot our news media landscape.  Obviously, there is a disconnect somewhere.  The issue seems to be one of lexicon and motivation.

Does ‘freedom’ hold the same meaning in the Arab Muslim world versus what it means in the West?  Truly, Muslims will say that they support freedom; however, digging deeper reveals that ‘freedom’ means “freedom to pursue the truth and perfection of Islam.  Period.  Not a freedom to investigate or pursue other faiths (let alone no faith), because there IS no other faith but Islam.  The motivation, as alluded to earlier, appeaqrs to be one of access to Western handouts.

At this point, it is instructive to see what is being said about a merger of Islam and democracy.  In his paper on the subject, Dr. Ovamir Anjum quotes Dr. John Esposito, Georgetown University professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies, who asserts that “Islamic democracy is quite possible.”(5)  However, neither Mr. Anjum nor Dr. Esposito are able to define this new and unique political formulation.  El Fadl is unable to find support in Islam’s holy books for an ethic that respects dissent, other faiths, and liberty.(6)  Abdou Filali-Ansary calls for a “universal rule of law”, in the hope that a political, cultural, and economic framework could be defined which would be compatible with democratic ideals.(7)  Unfortunately, he is unable to flesh this idea out into anything meaningful.

Thus, we arrive at the impasse:  The Muslim reformer wants to claim legitimacy on the world stage of freedom, but cannot develop a viable plan built on a foundation of the Qur’an and other accepted Islamic texts.  Anjum is correct on one thing, however: if a viable solution is to be reached, it must come from within the Muslim world.(8)  However, for true democracy to flourish in Arab Muslim lands, the viable solution must involve the key decision as to whether Islam is a sociopolitical movement with the trappings of religion, or a religion where its adherents strive to improve their society through the personal living out of their faith.

1.  Fishman & Felter, “Al Qa’ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq”,

2.  Jim Sciutto, et al, “Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai Passes Controversial Law Limiting Women’s Rights”,

3.  Bernard Lewis, “A Historical Overview” in Islam & Democracy in the Middle East, p.208, Diamond, Plattner, Brumberg, ed., 2003

4.  Khaled Abou El Fadl, Can individual rights and popular sovereignty take root in faith?,

5.  Ovamir Anjum, The Challenges and Promises of Islamic Democracy: Combating Political Illegitimacy and Violence in the Muslim World, 2004

6.  Khaled Abou El Fadl, Can individual rights and popular sovereignty take root in faith?,

7.  Abdou Filali-Ansary, “Muslims and Democracy” in Islam & Democracy in the Middle East, p.193, Diamond, Plattner, Brumberg, ed., 2003

8.  Ovamir Anjum, The Challenges and Promises of Islamic Democracy: Combating Political Illegitimacy and Violence in the Muslim World, 2004

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jill permalink
    July 7, 2011 05:40

    Excellent research. It is time the taqiyya spouting professors were exposed for promoting the chimera called ‘Islamic democracy.’

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