Islam and Democracy: Still Oil and Water

In a column last year, I discussed ex-Muslim “apostates” like Nonie Darwish who claim that democracy in the Western sense is impossible in Muslim-dominated countries, because Islamic “sharia” laws must always take precedence over other laws. Coups d’etat and dictatorships can bring temporary respite, as happened especially in Turkey, but there is always a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction among observant Muslims with relatively “secular” rulers like Kemal Ataturk, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, and Moammar Gaddafi in Libya.

There is a distant analogy for this Islamic “primacy of sharia” in Christianity, beginning with the Peter’s response to the authorities who demanded that he stop preaching about Christ: “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) This pattern is found throughout Christian history – Christians refusing to worship pagan gods; Christians executed for refusing to say the formula, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet”; Christian pacifists refusing to go to war; and, at present, various Christian entities resisting the Obama administration’s HHS mandates on contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacients.

Similarly, “following sharia,” for observant Muslims, connotes “obeying God rather than men.” But the meaning is very different. It ignores norms that have developed in Western Christian civilization regarding slavery, the rights of women and children, and the freedom of religion. Sharia, when Muslims are in power, requires the subordination of Jews and Christians and other unbelievers; the right of sexual slavery and child brides for men; minimal legal status for all unbelievers and women (even Muslim women); the illegality of Christian churches and overt Christian symbols such as crosses; and outlawing and possible execution for apostasy from Islam, or even for criticism of Islam or Mohammed.

The sharia laws even command the actions Jesus foretold: “They will put you out of the synagogues: yea, the hour is coming, that whosoever kills you, will think that he does a service to God.” (Jn 16:2) Such killings in the name of Allah are justified against Christians who refuse conversion or criticize Islam, and are often accompanied by cries of “Allahu Akbar.” Sheikh Abu Ishaq al-Huwaini, a Salafi preacher in Egypt, has had no qualms about recommending, “if anyone prevents our dawa [invitation to conversion] or stands in our way, then we must kill or take them as hostage and confiscate their wealth, women and children.”

In Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians, Raymond Ibrahim documents the massive persecution of Christians, now exacerbated as a result of the “Arab Spring,” which the media have portrayed naively as the harbinger of the imminent advent of democracy in the Middle East.

Ibrahim has been engaged for years in translating from Arabic-language media sources, and transmitting them to the media in the United States and elsewhere. Often his stories do not appear in the mainstream media, unless they are too spectacular to ignore – as, for example, the October 2010 Baghdad church massacre, which saw some fifty-eight Christians killed. However, in 2012 he was successful, using Arabic reports, in exposing the fact that al-Qaeda-connected Islamists were threatening to attack U.S. embassies unless America released the “Blind Sheikh” and other prisoners, three days before the attacks on the American embassy in Benghazi.

A 2012 Reuters news report estimates that 100 million Christians are being persecuted around the world. Ibrahim documents from mostly Arabic language sources the incidents of persecution of Christians in over thirty  countries: 

Wherever and whenever Muslims are in power or getting more power, churches are outlawed, burned, and bombed, while Bibles and crucifixes are confiscated and destroyed. Freedom of speech – to speak positively of Christianity or critically of Islam – is denied, often on pain of death.

According to Ibrahim, the situation in Egypt has been particularly acute. Mohammed Morsi during the presidential elections, offered a clear preview of his agenda as president: “The Koran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our path and death in the name of Allah is our goal.” Abductions and massacres of Christian Copts at Mospero, Luxor, and elsewhere, sometimes caught on video and depicted on YouTube, have been followed up in recent weeks by the torching of at least forty-four churches and ransacking of twenty Christian institutions throughout Egypt.

The Syrian rebellion has been no kinder.  In the city of Homs, which previously had a Christian population of 80,000, the sole remaining Christian was murdered in October 2012. Ibrahim cites a December 2012 interview with Muslim rebel fighters, which shocked journalist Tim Marshall, the interviewer:

Marshall asked the four jihadis about the future of Syria’s Christian minorities, and Ahmed, Basah, and Hamid Hassan all agreed – Christians could only live there if they either converted, or paid the “Jizyah” – special tax levied on non-Muslims in previous centuries in the Middle East. If not, said Bahar, they could be killed. When asked why, the answer was, to them, quite simple – because the Prophet Muhammad said so. I was then invited to become a Muslim.

Such episodes of reality are almost completely ignored in the West.  When the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz ibn Abdullah Al al-Sheikh, the grand mufti of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, declared that it is “necessary to destroy all the churches in the Arabian Peninsula,” the Western media did not see this as worth reporting. The White House’s response to the massacre in Maspero was a call for “restraint on all sides.”

The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom recommended to Secretary Clinton that the State Department list Egypt as “a country of particular concern” because of murders of Christians and forced conversions of kidnapped Christian girls, but she refused. And the newest choice to sit on the U.N.’s Human Rights Council is President Omar al-Bashir, famous for killing millions as he tried to enforce sharia law in Sudan.

The West may not want to see, but this whole story goes on and is far from the end.

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.