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Debate: Is Islam compatible with democracy?

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Are we experiencing a 'clash of civilizations' in which Islam and democracy are incapable of co-existing?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Alexis Hearnden. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

The acutely politicized debate concerning the compatibility of Islam and democracy has been subsumed into the wider debate about the relationship between the Western and Islamic worlds. Some commentators point to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorist groups who claim Islamic motivations (such as al-Qaeda and the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front [FIS]) as indicative of a ‘clash of civilizations’ (an idea associated with Samuel Huntington and the neo-orientalist movement) where the West and the Muslim world cannot peacefully coexist because of an irreconcilable clash of values. A number of recent high profile examples have brought to the attention of the West the apparent incompatibility of Islamic and liberal-democratic values, for example: the sentencing of a woman to death in Nigeria by stoning because she was convicted of adultery (a sentence that was overturned on appeal), the widespread practice of polygyny (where a man is entitled to marry more than one wife) and of course, the attacks of the 11th September by Islamic terrorists. The debate about the compatibility of Islam and democracy is not a ‘special’ kind of debate: it is a debate about the separation or conjunction of Church and State. If perfectly active democracies are based on the unity of Church and State, can the same be true for Islam? The groups and practices above cannot be enough to condemn Islam as anti-democratic when similar examples can be given in the West. For example, Christian extremists in America have committed terrorist acts by assassinating doctors who perform abortions. In spite of this, we accept that Christian Democrats (CDU) play a legitimate role in government in countries such as Germany. Religion can be a threat to the democratic process, or a part of it. The debate about Islam is a debate about the compatibility of religious sovereignty and popular sovereignty. If we accept that Christianity can be compatible with the democratic process, is Islam doctrinally or culturally so different to the point of clash with democratic values?

Is Islam fundamentally anti-democratic?


Islam is an anti-democratic religion because Islamic fundamentalism is incompatible with the pluralism that is necessary for a democratic state: Islamic fundamentalists view Shari’a law as perfect and divine. Consequently, laws are best made through theocratic interpretation rather than democratic debate. This lends to systems structured around institutions such as the Faqih and the role of the clergy. Shari’a does not require separate legislatively defined provisions. The notion of equal citizenship is also absent from Islamic fundamentalism because insurmountable inequalities between believers and non-believers are built into Islam.

God holds too much legal authority in Islam: Amir Taheri, "Islam and Democracy: The Impossible Union", The Sunday Times, 2004 - "Democracy means the rule of the demos, the common people, or what is now known as popular or national sovereignty. In Islam, however, power belongs only to God: al-hukm l'illah. The man who exercises that power on Earth is known as Khalifat al-Allah, the regent of God. Even then the Khalifah, or Caliph, cannot act as legislator. The law has already been spelt out and fixed forever by God. The only task that remains is its discovery, interpretation and application. That, of course, allows for a substantial space in which different styles of rule could develop. But the bottom line is that no Islamic government can be democratic in the sense of allowing the common people equal shares in legislation...The great Persian poet Rumi pleads thus: 'Oh, God, do not leave our affairs to us. For, if You do, woe is us.'"


Islam is inherently democratic: Qua’ranic notions such as shura (consultation) and ijma’ (consensus) are indicative of an Islamic version of democracy and the importance of democratic values in the religious teachings of the faith.

Some Islamic countries seem capable of reconciling the Islam and democracy.

  • Turkey firmly separates the religion of the population from the character of the state. Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country yet has a secular democratic government prescribed by the Constitution.
  • Iran: Concessions to democracy are being made in even the most pious nations: the Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocracy which is making significant manoeuvres in the direction of democratic rule (by holding regular elections).
  • Indonesia: (which has the world’s largest Muslim population) has been constitutionally guaranteed the right to elect the president and vice-president since 2002.

Trends? Are Islamic countries trending away from democracy?


The basic features of democratic rule are absent from the Muslim world. There is little evidence of repeated elections without restrictions or of the accountability of institutions to the electorate; nor are there guarantees of freedom of expression. Elections rarely take place and even when they do, for example in Iran, the theocratic authorities may have the ability to veto any party or individual on the grounds of incompatibility with doctrine.


Democratic reform is taking place throughout the Muslim world: regular elections have taken place in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia as well as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and to the National Assembly in Kuwait. Even Saudi Arabia is beginning to consider limited democratic reforms, and at a popular level, huge demonstrations in Iraq have called for immediate direct elections. Democratic elections are an indication of the compatibility of representation and doctrine and bode well for more extensive democratization.

Civil society: Is Islam and Islamic societies failing to encourage civil society and democratic debate?


Islamic states lack civil society where democratic debate and pressure can be fostered. This is partly because a conservative and religious curriculum dominates education and discourages a culture of questioning and debate.


Civil Society is made up of a mixture of professional and student associations and indigenously Islamic organisations. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 is of itself indicative of the power of civil society and the weakness of the state government. The clergy, the traditional bourgeoisie of the bazaars and the urban middle class were able to force change. In Kuwait, discussion groups called diwaniyyans are emerging creating a political space between the state and the individual. Even in Iraq, co-operatives listed nearly 200,000 members. These co-operatives were instrumental in organising access to food and basic medical care in the Iraq war in the early 1990s. In the Sudan, professional syndicates overthrew the government in 1964 and 1985. On a broad reading, civil society can include religious associations, which can represent a consultative and open exchange of views.

Fundamentalism: Is Islamic fundamentalism rising around the world?


Islamic fundamentalist groups are growing in popularity, in part as a reaction to the extension of westernisation via globalisation. The terrorist branches of such groups (such as al-Qaeda) and the much talked of jihad (holy war) are absolutely antithetical to democratic values. Islamic terrorism is different from that of terrorists who fight for nationalist causes: Islamic terrorism is motivated by religious zeal rather than a will for political change and as such cannot be seen as a product of a failing political system.


The Islamic world is not alone in having members who take up arms for their cause: the IRA in Ireland fought for Catholics and the reunion of the North and South and Zionist groups in Israel fight against Palestinian Muslims. Suicide bombings were for years associated with the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka rather than with Islamic groups. Violence is incompatible with democratic values, but it cannot be taken to be an indicator of the character of the faith as a whole.

Gender inequality: Are Islam and Islamic societies incapable of adopting gender-equality as a principle, and thus incapable of becoming truly democratic?


The Muslim world cannot be democratic until it reforms its position on women, yet a central Qur’anic metaphor describes women as complementary to men, but not equal. In this, polygyny is allowed, women are denied inheritance rights and by some interpretations of Shari’a, their testimony in Court is worth half that of men. Some governments (for example that in Saudi Arabia) insist upon the compulsory wearing of the full face veil (niqab) or the headscarf (hijab).


Islamic interpretations differ significantly over the role of women in Islamic society: Some claim that the Qur’anic versus allowing polygyny makes this contingent on the equal treatment of wives, which being impossible, results in the prohibition of the practice. Conversely, in some Muslim countries women are prohibited from wearing the hijab (e.g. Turkey because of the state’s commitment to secularism). The position of women in Islam is one of the most contentious areas of Islamic thought, and as such, open to interpretation.

Economics to democracy: Will the potential economic modernization of the Islamic world bring about democratic change?


Changes in other characteristics of the social structure have still been unable to loosen the grip of Islam on political consciousness. In Egypt economic liberalization actually brought with it a de-liberalization of the state and the resurgence of Islamic ideals.


Factors such as economic liberalization are more important in determining the development of a state than its religious persuasions. For example, Turkey (and to a lesser extent) Lebanon, have a growing degree of political liberalism whereas in Syria the impossibility of the evolution of a middle class has precluded the development of democracy. The slow evolution of democracy is not only a product of religious opposition. Factors such as the primacy of oil, elite and tribal politics and foreign intervention have all made the development of democracy difficult, in Islamic and non-Islamic countries alike.

Islamic democracy: Would Islamic democracy be a distortion of democracy to an unrecognizable extent?


To talk of an ‘Islamic democracy’ is to distort the concept of democracy to an unrecognisable extent. Irrespective of whether the religion itself can be conceptualised as democratic, this cannot compensate for the absence of political democracy.


Islamic democracy may not look like its Western cousin. Some commentators believe that Islam is in and of itself a democratic system where Islam is a divinely ordained, participatory, government. Legislative assemblies can exist and elections can take place so long as they are consistent with Islamic teaching and are not corrupt.

Language: Has the word and concepts of "democracy", equality, and other democratic notions found little or late reception in Islamic languages?


"Democracy" was not a word in any of the Muslim languages until the 1890s.[1] This may demonstrate a fundamental lack of cultural roots in Islamic societies for the notion of democracy. Such cultural roots are often considered essential for the emergence of true democracy in a country. Robert Putnam, for example, argues in Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy that the emergence of a strong Democratic culture depends on the existence of a kind of democratic culture that relies on such concepts as civic engagement of its members.

"Equality" is a word that does not have a good equivalent in Islamic languages: Amir Taheri, "Islam and Democracy: The Impossible Union", The Sunday Times, 5/23/04 - "Democracy is based on one fundamental principle: equality. The Greek word isos is used in more than 200 compound nouns, including isoteos (equality), isologia (equal or free speech) and isonomia (equal treatment). Again we find no equivalent in any of the Muslim languages. The words we have such as barabari in Persian and sawiyah in Arabic mean juxtaposition or separation...The idea of equality is unacceptable to Islam. For the non-believer cannot be the equal of the believer. Even among the believers only those who subscribe to the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, known as the "people of the book" (Ahl el-Kitab), are regarded as fully human. Here, too, there is a hierarchy, with Muslims at the top."




  • This House belives that there is a Clash of Civilizations
  • This House believes that Islam is at war with democracy
  • This House believes in secularism

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