Democracy and Islam

The question of Islam's compatibility with democracy has been the most frequently asked question since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The question has shaped the public debate over the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush Administration's stated goal of building a physical and multi-party governmental infrastructure was met with immediate skepticism within academic circles. There were differences in opinion as to whether Islamic societies could establish democracies because of the adherence of their inhabitants to Islam, or their commitment to other, less open systems of law.

It has simultaneously been argued that the debate over whether democracy can be adapted to many modern Islamic societies uses a narrow definition and precludes other formats that would both be more palatable to these societies and still fit the broader definitions associated with the concept of democracy. Western perceptions of democracy derive from a unique European historical context, in which the conceptual divine right of European kings to rule their subject peoples was challenged. This led to the development of the philosophical platform of "popular sovereignty," in which people, rather than religious authorities or their objects of worship, were vested with the right to govern themselves.

According to this view, it was the responsibility of rulers to make policy decisions that conformed to popular opinion. Hence, the Western concept of democracy depends on popular will without regard for normative religious practices of precepts. God or other spiritual beings are removed from the equation. Islam, like Judaism and several other faiths, relies on a system of law that expresses the will of God and thus demands that the popular will be adapted to the laws of the government.

Holy books and traditions, the sources of the original conceptual architects, are constitutional and irrevocable, constituting an infallible precedent that cannot be abrogated. Application of the law thus must be based on these sources or at least not counter them. Legitimacy relies on acceptance of these principles first and foremost, contradicting the modern Western understanding of democracy, which relies primarily on popular will. In fact, Muhammad is quoted in the Qur'an as stating that it is obligatory to challenge misappropriation of authority and meritorious to challenge tyrants.

Additionally, it is considered permissible to disagree about the interpretation of Islamic sources as long as one does not engage in open rebellion against otherwise righteous Islamic authorities. Based on these ideas, Islam is understood to equally respect the rule of law and the protection of fundamental rights. These concepts, though, have been challenged indirectly by a number of Islamic movements that define the right to rule as being the inheritance of certain individuals. This is mainly found in the Shiite movements, which see the descendants of Muhammad's disciple Ali as being the legitimate rulers of the Islamic faithful.

Professor Khurshid Ahmad, Chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad, Pakistan, sees the imposition of Western models and institutions on Islamic societies as directly responsible for manifestations of both political and militant Islam, which opposes the complete uprooting of Islam from systems of government and the imposition of foreign economic models over their societies. Cynicism toward Western democratic principles also took root because of the brutality and repressive policies imposed by Western colonial powers in Muslim countries.

More precise questions about Islam's commitment to fundamentals like religious freedom are also common. Islam defines a select set of religions that are permissible faiths, even if the devotee has not already been a practitioner of Islam. For some, that means Islam is incompatible with democracy since it does not allow the free choice of religious practice. Some countries have challenged these perceptions of Islam and democracy.

Turkey is often considered an ideal model for balancing Islam and democratic principles. After decades of efforts to suppress Islam in the Turkish republic that succeeded the Islamic Ottoman Empire, Islam is said to have filled the void that secular or Western values could not. Additionally, Islam compensated for spiritual and, according to Talip Kucukcan, metaphysical deficiencies in the ideology of the country. Urbanization, the opening to multiple political parties and the gradual legitimization of Islamic education or principles via legislation also serve as examples of how democratic frameworks can be used to implement Islamic values.

Other countries more known for violation of human rights, like Afghanistan and Iran, define themselves as "Islamic Republics," where the Qur'an is considered an element of the countries' constitutions. Hence, save for the concept of separation of religion and state, there are examples of the co-existence of Islam and democracy.

Democracy and Islam: Selected full-text books and articles

Islam and the Arab Awakening By Tariq Ramadan Oxford University Press, 2012
Democratization in the Middle East: Experiences, Struggles, Challenges By Amin Saikal; Albrecht Schnabel United Nations University Press, 2003
The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism By Abdulaziz Sachedina Oxford University Press, 2001
Islam, Gender, Culture, and democracy.(World Values Survey)(Editorial) By Inglehart, Ronald International Journal of Comparative Sociology, December 2002
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook By Charles Kurzman Oxford University Press, 1998
Librarian's tip: Part II: Democracy begins on p. 57
Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush By Abdolkarim Soroush; Mahmoud Sadri; Ahmad Sadri Oxford University Press, 2000
Democracy and Islam in the New Constitution of Afghanistan By Khaled M. Abou El Fadl; Said Arjomand; Nathan Brown; Jerrold Green; Donald Horowitz; Michael Rich; Barnett Rubin; Birol Yesilada; Cheryl Benard; Nina Hachigian Rand, 2003
Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia By Robert W. Hefner Princeton University Press, 2000
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