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

Howard Kainz

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.

  • Jack,CT

    Mr Kainz,
    Thanks for an “eye opening” article!

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    If sharia law were to be instituted in the USA, would that likely affect operations at Planned Parenthood?

  • Sue

    In the late 1980s the few who predicted the fall of the wall were mainly those who accurately pegged it as a faked death of Communism. Google “The USA and the New World Order: A Debate” to see Carvalho’s cogent analysis of the geopolitical intersection of the Western financial elites, the Eurasian Communists, and Islam. His website, the Inter American Institute, is also well worth visiting for many other insightful commentaries on culture.

  • Matt

    The conclusion is beyond wishful thinking; it is naivety.

    The Bush administration had set up a substantial “ground-game” in the Middle East (besides wars) to transform western-aligned dictatorships (often secularists) into pro-Western democracies. That effort failed as Islam’s militant groups gained more influence in each country targeted. The Obama administration converted the purpose to foment revolutions- in partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood and other militant groups. The current administration’s efforts have greatly strengthened anti-western forces throughout the Middle East. Sharia is far stronger than 4 years ago and will move quickly to cement that position and spread to other nations in the next 4 years largely, thanks to Obama.

    In your unrealistically hopeful conclusion, you observe that no could have imagined the fall of the USSR and the Berlin War; that it was unthinkable and took the world by surprise. I knew those specific events and other now past “surprise” events were unfolding in 1984. I suggest everyone read the book “New Lies for Old” by defected KGB Lt. Col Anatoliy Golitsyn.

    No iPhone and internet connection will make women rise up against Sharia, but Western Civilization’s denial of reality amidst fanciful false hopes – on Sharia and other existential challenges – is the West’s X-factor. That continued denial will spark a world crisis that “no one could have seen coming”

  • Grump

    What you say about the extremism of sharia is true, Howard, but couldn’t an argument also be made that religious intolerance prevails in “the Jewish state” of Israel, which places theocracy over democracy? Christians and Muslims in Israel are highly marginalized despite token representation in the government.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Perhaps, the most significant sign of Muslim women taking control of their own destiny is the collapse of their fertility rate. In Iran, for the period 1980-1985, the total fertility rate was 6.54 per woman; for 1995-2000, it had fallen to 2.62 and for 2000-2005-2010, it was 1.77 (the replacement rate is 2.1) This is the fastest decline recorded in any country, ever.

    Many other Muslim countries are showing similar, if slower, rates of decline. In Turkey it is 2.13 and in Morocco it is 2.19, in Algeria 2.78 and in Egypt 2.94, half what it was even 20 years ago.

    In Europe, many Muslims, and especially Muslim women, are manifesting their confidence in the Republic and proclaiming their adherence to its values. In Turkey it is 2.13 and in Morocco it is 2.19, in Algeria 2.78 and in Egypt 2.94.

    The president of the Muslim women’s movement Ni Putes Ni Soumises [Neither Sluts nor Door-mats] Sihen Habchi, in a forceful attack on “multiculturalism” has demanded “No more justifications of our oppression in the name of the right to be different and of respect toward those who force us to bow our heads”

    Rachida Dati, herself a Muslim and former French Minister of Justice told the National Assembly that “The Republic is alone capable of uniting men and women of different origins, colours and religions around the principles of tolerance, liberty, solidarity and laïcité making the Republic truly one and indivisible” Likewise, Fadela Amara, another Muslim and former Secretary of State for Urban Policies has declared that “For this generation, the crucial issues are laïcité, gender equality and gender desegregation, based upon living together in harmony throughout the world, and not only in France”

  • Howard Kainz

    @Grump: Yes, as I argued in my book, Democracy and the “Kingdom of God,” the theocratic elements in a state can make for an uneasy relationship with democracy. But the extreme of Sharia raises serious questions about any compatibility with democracy.

  • G.K. Thursday

    Just a few facts and musings to add to the conversation:

    1) Islamic law, like Islam itself, is not monolithic. There are various sharias throughout the Islamic world. Officially, one can count five distinct schools, but on the local level, this amounts to many thousands of ways of implementing sharia. One can lump them all together only if ones’ desire is not to understand what’s going on, but simply to wave the bloody flag.
    2) The internal dissensions and fractures within Islam have kept it in a state of chaos for three hundred years. This was masked in the 18th & 19th centuries by the increasingly decrepit (and increasingly cruel) Ottoman Empire. Thanks be to God that Empire of Evil is gone. The British + French colonial arrangements of those times (e.g., the Syrian mandate in the 20s, etc.) also provided a semblance of order which was merely a cover for the chaos.
    3) In the post-colonial period, the chaotic state of Islam forced the tribal groups residing in these areas to rely on other ways of organizing than Islam: pan-Arabism, phony nationalisms, even Europhile groups. This was prior to some of these countries becoming fabulously wealthly due to the West’s demand for petroleum. They were poor or extremely poor and Islam was marginal at that point. It was in this era that the flowering of Egyptian culture happened, often under the guidance of Coptic Christians: the burgeoning film industry, Um Khulthum’s glittering performances, the emergence of Nagib Mahfouz and other writers. All this has now been lost.
    4) The sunni Muslim Brotherhood began as a response to the weakened state of Islam in the 1920s. That it has been persecuted and repressed until our time is significant. We are seeing a late flowering of Islamic power, first in Khomeinist Iran (Shiite), and now a counter-force in Egypt (Sunni).
    5) But this hasn’t stopped the chaos in Islam and is unlikely to do it. Because the divisions from tribal group to tribal group — from Shiites (and within the various Shiite groups) to Druze to Alawites to Sunni (and even within the various Sunni groups), the dozens of flavors of local Sufi groups, plus many others — are centuries old and carved deep into family and tribal structure. Islam is a chaos of different sects and “sharias”; it is no longer one . Thanks be to God.
    6) The rise of Al qaeda and salafist movements through the funding of the Wahhabist Saudi Kingdom or its mega-rich citizens adds yet another element. Terrorism has always been part and parcel of Islamic jihad. What will be the influence of these at present minority Sunni groups? Will they be able to infiltrate the older tribal Islamic groups? Or will there be a push back, a NIMBY response?
    7) There are some indications as Paterson-Seymour has pointed out, that women in Islam are resisting the attempt to impose a salafist style sharia. But not directly, since they would then simply be beaten or imprisoned. By simply choosing not to have children, they debilitate the society as a whole, rendering it a hollow shell. David Goldman has observed as much in his recent books and blog posts.
    8) Whither Islam? As long as an important segment of the Islamic world has access to wealth, the chaos of Islam will need to be reckoned with. But if Near East and Indonesian petroleum becomes less important to the West, I expect it will return for the most part to the status quo ante of the period after World War I. Of course there will one big difference: Pakistan and Iran will have nuclear weapons. What will they do with them? One of the keys to the situation is India with its immense pagan Hindu population.

    Anyway enough for now!

  • beriggs

    This article reminds us of the reality of the Muslim world. It is highly ironic that many in our country want to “tolerate” and welcome this “diversity,” when it is so clearly opposite of how most of us used to want to live. (Last week’s election makes that questionable). How the feminist ideology can ignore the dissonance between sharia law and the unfettered lives of modern western women is a huge question.

  • Grump

    @Howard. I’ll have to read your book but what could be more extreme than the Talmud and the Old Testament? Just one example: “The Jews are human beings, but the nations of the world are not human beings but beasts…” -Saba Mecia 114, 6

  • Howard Kainz

    @Grump: Yes, there are acts of violence in the Old Testament that we would not want to give to young children as reading matter; but as regards political development, the Jews for a couple centuries during the era of Judges did form what John Bright called “a loose confederation of clans united to one another about the worship of the common God,” and which Martin Buber called a “theopolity” rather than a theocracy. Anyway, this is past history. The state of Israel has the basic democratic structures I mentioned, and I’m sure most Israelis would not agree with the citation you provide from Saba Mecia. The question I’m posing is whether parliaments, competition for votes, free speech, female rights, etc. are possible in newly emerging Islamic states, in view of the dictates of sharia.

  • Grump

    @Howard. Yes, that is a good question. My only point is that extremism can be found in any religious sect including Judaism and Christianity. The Talmud and OT are replete with passages that are downright sinister. Even the New Testament has its scary moments. For example, in Matthew 11:21-24 Jesus curses [the inhabitants of] three cities who were not sufficiently impressed with his great works.