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The Third Rock Forum - Religion

Article Title
Islam and Democracy
Al Terego
Topic Section(s)
Submitted : 30-01-2014 16:48
Amended : 10-11-2014 12:51
Status : Approved:  
Likes : 3
Dislikes : 0

Have you ever wondered why there are so few democratic Muslim states?

The reason is simple.   Islamic states which take Islam as the main or only source of law find there is little room for democratic debate on policy issues.   For many Muslims, how human affairs should be conducted is set out very clearly in the Holy Quran (the revealed word of God) and realised in the Shariah, the code of law that is derived and ensues from the Holy Quran.

In other words, there is a very real problem in reconciling the Muslim faith and democracy, simply because the views and votes of the majority are irrelevant if the correct path has already been determined by the word of God.

Of course there are some states which have a Muslim majority (Azerbaijan and Turkey) where there is a democratic process but this is made possible only by the imposition of a secular constitution.  These are not therefore Islamic states.  They are secular states where, as it happens, the majority of the population adhere to Islam.

So, I’m suggesting  that, in Muslim theocratic states, the best form of government is one run by an elite who adhere to the truths of Islam.  Such a government would  ideally take the form of a benevolent dictatorship or oligarchy.  The idea that democracy is always the best form of government is unsustainable if the majority of the people believe that the Holy Quran and Shariah law are given and immutable.   (As an aside, we should note that the no doubt well-intentioned enthusiasm of the West for the introduction of democracy in all countries, irrespective of their religious and cultural traditions, is deeply misguided.)

So we’ve sorted out how Muslim states are best governed.  We can now turn to the main subject of this article: how to accommodate a Muslim minority population in a democratic society.

Perhaps the first thing to be acknowledged is that there is a problem.  Even this is tricky.  First, there are those who argue forcefully that, in a multicultural society, there is no problem.   Given good will and tolerance, all religions and ideologies can rub along together without too many difficulties.  Secondly, there is the English genius for compromise (sometimes disparaged as ‘muddle’) whereby, according to this strategy, if you can just avoid intervening for long enough, things will sort themselves out.

Unfortunately, in the meeting between democracy and Islam, there is a serious risk that neither of these arguments will apply. 

Why?  Because there is an inherent and fundamental contradiction between a view of life which says that the will of the majority of the people should prevail, as against the view of life which says the will of God is paramount.

I hear you say that this is not a problem.  All religions have had to come to terms with temporal power.   Christianity has proved outstandingly adept at the necessary compromises to achieve reconciliation.  “Render unto Caesar…” etc.  

Quite right.  But Islam is different.  Islam and Shariah law lay down the rules for the conduct of the ruler and the ruled within society in considerable detail.   It stipulates when you should pray and how often, when you should fast and for how long, how much you should give to charity and to whom.  It defines crimes, determines how they should be investigated, judged and punished.   It sets out the criteria for, if necessary, using force against others, for taking up arms and for waging war.   In other words, for many of the key issues which a democratic society debates and votes on, Islam has a prescriptive and unalterable answer of divine and unquestionable provenance.

Hold on, you say.  Most Muslims are perfectly happy to live within a non-Islamic society on condition that, as private citizens, they can practice religion.   This is generally true but it has to be an uneasy arrangement.  Let’s take some specific examples.  Muslims are enjoined to pray five times a day and to fast throughout the daylight hours for one month a year.  With a bit of give and take, employer and Muslim employee can find a way but, if we’re honest, the accommodation of such religious observances within a secular work schedule is at the very least a little awkward.

A more serious example is the practice amongst some sections of the Islamic community of female circumcision, more correctly termed, female genital mutilation (FGM).   Now it is true that FGM is not obligatory in Islam but many Muslin scholars assert it is at least recommended.   Under English law, it is illegal and considered child abuse.  How do we handle this conflict of beliefs?   We condemn the practice but, so far, have failed to prosecute in any of the estimated 100,000 cases of British girls who in recent years have been subjected to this, as we see it, barbaric, practice.

This leads us on to the more general issue of women’s position in society.  Generally speaking, the West sees women as equal to men in every way.   In Islam, women are still seen as wards of their menfolk.   This patriarchal attitude which leads many Muslim men to adopt a proprietorial view of their wives and daughters jars with Western democratic and egalitarian values.   The wearing of the hijab and, more particularly, the burka is seen by many in the West as symbolic of a repressive and oppressive attitude to women.  For some in the West, it is deeply offensive.   Yet the English tradition of “Live and let live” prevails.  

Forced marriages are also illegal under British law and yet every year, scores of British girls are transported to Muslim countries and compelled to enter into marriages with men whom they don’t know and whose attitudes to women are medieval.

Then, of course, there are the jihadists who believe that Islam is under attack and that it is their duty to fight a holy war against the forces of oppression.    This can lead to a situation in which British soldiers, performing their duty in accordance with the will of a democratically elected government, are killed by British citizens whose first allegiance is to Islam, not their own country.

These are examples of an underlying problem.  Unlike Christianity, Islam has not been through a reformation.  Because Muslims believe the Holy Quran is the actual word of God, conveyed by the Archangel Gabriel to Muhammad and announced to the world verbatim by the Prophet, there is only limited room for interpretation, and, so  it seems, no realistic opportunity for a thorough reformation.  The room for interpretation or reformation is further limited by the prescriptive nature of Islam which sets out in considerable detail  rules to govern all human affairs.  To this extent, Islam, and in particular the Islam of the fundamentalists,  is locked into a medieval mind set.

So, while a multicultural, pluralist, democratic society is flexible and tolerant, Islam is much less so.   Those who disagree with the tenets of Islam are not simply of a different opinion; they are wrong.  It is the aim of Islam to see the Ummah (the Muslim nation) enlarged to encompass everyone in the world.  

How will this conflict between absolutist theology and relativist ideology work out.   It is possible that Muslims in western countries will adapt, as indeed some have already.  If this happens more generally, the English tradition of masterly inaction will have triumphed once again.  On the other hand, it is possible and perhaps more likely, that the fundamental contradiction between a tolerant permissive mind set and a rigid absolutist belief system will eventually demand to be resolved.

Indeed perhaps that is what is happening already.  After all, the West is making a habit of invading Muslim countries and promoting the setting up of democratic institutions.  As we noted at the beginning, these adventures generally end in failure; democracy fails to take root for reasons already explored.   At the same time, Islam is doing its best to convert Westerners to the Islamic faith.  Perhaps not surprisingly there are those who believe the battle between Islam and the West has already been joined.

What’s to be done?   Well, Islam has much to offer.  It sets out the rules for a good life and, unlike Christianity, makes no demands that are beyond the reach of an average person.   It is an eminently sensible, practical religion which answers all the questions in simple, straightforward terms.

On the other hand, as an absolutist ideology, Islam contradicts many of the core values of Western society.   Its moral code is rigid and, in many respects, is out of keeping with the international understanding of human rights in the 21st century.

So there’s a real debate to be had.   Indeed it is a debate that is desperately needed because both sides need to understand that, unless Islam undergoes a substantial reformation, Western liberal democracy is no more capable of accommodating Islam than Islam is capable of accommodating liberal democracy. Both sides need to participate in the dialogue so that, even if a satisfactory accommodation cannot be reached, at least there will be a greater degree of understanding and less inclination to violence.   

Perhaps the greatest danger is the West’s inhibitions when considering these issues (for fear of giving offence) and the reluctance of more enlightened Muslim leaders to speak out loudly against those who distort Islam in pursuit of their own struggle for power.



Status: Approved
Reply Date : 01-02-2014 13:35
Author : georgebundle
Religious belief versus political systems

I enjoyed hugely Al Terego's paper. It is very informative and thought provoking. The thoughts it provoked in me are rather simple.

First, there is no such thing as a multicultural society except in the minds of western politicians  in their world of vitrual reality. A society's culture is made up of their history, traditions, values, laws and art. I do not know of a society which has a multitude of history, traditions, values, laws and art.

Secondly, Islam and democracy can meet in a situation where the majority of people in a society prefer to live under the rule of Islam.

Thirdly, History informs us that human conduct under democracies has produced slightly more good than bad in forming human destinies. The over riding impact of religions on human destinies, with very few exceptions, manifested itself in mass murder. This is true from the Crusades to Jihad, from the religious war in Ireland, from the seemingly timeless conflict between shia and sunny in the Middle East - to mention just a few examples .

I would like to know more about Islam as it seems to promise its followers and balanced, peaceful and contented simple life. What has gone wrong?