Democracy and Islam: Oil and Water?

During the Cold War, political theorists argued about the possible compatibility of communism with democracy, especially in the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe under its domination.

Some of the suggested prerequisites included real representative governing structures, open competition for votes, a solid middle class buffering the extremes of wealth and poverty, openness to free trade and capitalistic initiatives.

Many Westerners, viewing the emergence of the “Arab Spring” last year – and perhaps feeling a surge of optimism that countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, controlled over past decades by dictators, could actually become viable democracies – may have had similar thoughts about the possible compatibility of democracy with Islam. 

Is it conceivable that a majority Islamic state could become democratic in our sense – with freedom of speech, religion, the press, and competition for votes, etc.?

The closest approximation so far has been Turkey. Kemal Ataturk took over and moved quickly to turn Turkey into something like a secular state allowing many of the freedoms enjoyed in Western European countries – including a new parliament (The Grand National Assembly), banning hijabs and other religious garments, recognizing the existence of minority religions, and allowing them some limited freedoms.

Turkey in recent years, however, has felt the impact of Islamic movements, and elected devout Muslims: Recep Tayyip Erdogan as prime minister and Abdullah Gul as president – both opposed to Ataturk’s secularism, but also seeking full-fledged membership in the European Union.

The recent changes under this Islamic leadership have been mostly in foreign policy – dampening relations with Israel, and encouraging the revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere. Gul has even suggested that Turkey could offer the best model for new governments formed after the “Arab Spring.”

Ex-Muslim and Egyptian-American Nonie Darwish, however, in The Devil We Don’t Know, looks upon the limited democratic rights allowed in contemporary Turkey as a temporary exception, originally forced on the country by a secularist dictator, in the ongoing political transformation of Islamic states.

And she places a damper on any hope of introducing even Turkish-style democracies into countries recently liberated from their dictators during the “Arab Spring.”

There are two key reasons for her pessimism:

First, short of a coup d’etat and dictatorship, there can be no Islamic constitution which does not give prominence of place to sharia, the collection of customs and laws compiled by Muslim scholars, and based on tenets of the Koran and biographical accounts of Mohammed in the hadiths. Various dictators like Hosni Mubarak, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, and Moammar Gaddafi paid lip service to sharia while trying to maintain various aspects of secular government. But they were doomed to be overthrown, either by voluntarily abdication or by force.

Turkish fence-sitting regarding membership in the EU has forced it to keep sharia on the back burner.  Erdogan, who was famous for declaring,  “I am a servant of sharia,” when he was mayor of Istanbul, nevertheless counseled Egyptian reformists interested in success to emphasize that they were creating a secularist state (advice strongly rejected by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt).

While sharia is on hold in Turkey, we shouldn’t be surprised if it comes out into the open in the newly created reformist governments of the Middle East. And “democracy,” in anything close to the Western sense of the word, is impossible, according to Darwish, in any state where sharia prevails:

Sharia leaves no room for democracy. . . .Not only do Islamic laws deny freedom of speech and religion as well as equal rights under the law for both men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, there are laws that punish sexual crimes with flogging, beheading, and stoning, and others that make the creation of a democracy virtually impossible.


But Darwish adds a second large worry: To hold that there can be lasting democratic rights for women under sharia is simply wishful thinking:

Women receive half of the inheritance of men; women have no freedom of movement or travel; polygamy and pleasure marriages are allowed for men; divorce can occur only at the behest of men; a woman’s testimony in court is given only half of the value of a man’s; child marriage is allowed for girls; community property is not permitted between husband and wife; the husband is given automatic custody of the children after age seven in the case of divorce; no alimony is given to women after a divorce; a woman who is raped is required to provide four male witnesses; wife beating is permissible under the law; a husband is forgiven for killing an adulterous wife; the honor killing of women and girls is permitted; and in some Muslim countries, the circumcision of women is allowed.

Darwish mentions the fact that females were conspicuously lacking in the 2011 demonstrations in Egypt. She mentions that 200-300 female college students showed up in Tahrir Square on March 9 to demonstrate for women’s rights after the revolution. The women were beaten, and twenty were arrested and given virginity tests as suspected prostitutes.

Despite Darwish’s observations about the status of women under sharia, there are also forces in play that can no longer be contained as they were in the past. Internet expansion is occurring rapidly, with iPods and other electronic communication devices now becoming common throughout the Middle East. At least the freedom of women in other parts of the world can now be more easily known, harder to hide, and conceivably might engender a women’s rights movement in Islamic countries.

In the late 1980s, few predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the Soviet Union. It was unthinkable at that time, and took the world by surprise. Could the awakening of the half billion women in Islamic countries, however improbable it may seem, also surprise us?

They could become the X-factor that ignites real democratic movements in spite of sharia.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.