Islam and Democracy – Much Hard Work Needed


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For Islam to encourage political participation implies a giant shift in approach, especially toward the Sharia, its law code. Elaborated about a millennium ago in quasi-tribal circumstances and operating within a vastly different ethos from today’s, the code contains a range of features deeply unacceptable to a modern sensibility, including the anti-democratic ideas of the will of God prevailing over that of the people, military jihad as a legitimate means to expand rule by Muslims, the superiority of Muslims over non-Muslims, and of males over females.

In short, the Sharia as classically understood cannot be reconciled with modern life in general, democracy in particular. For Muslims to achieve political participation means either rejecting the law’s public aspects in total – as Atatürk did in Turkey – or reinterpreting them. The Sudanese thinker Mahmud Muhammad Taha offered one example of the latter when he reread the Islamic scriptures and wholesale eliminated noxious Islamic laws.

Islam keeps changing, so it is an error to insist that the religion must be what it has been. As Hassan Hanafi of Cairo University puts it, the Koran “is a supermarket, where one takes what one wants and leaves what one doesn’t want.”

Atatürk and Taha aside, Muslims have barely begun the long, arduous path to making Islam modern. In addition to the inherent difficulties of overhauling a seventh-century order to fit the ethos of a Western-dominated twenty-first century, the Islamist movement which today dominates Muslim intellectual life pulls in precisely the opposite direction from democracy. Instead, it fights to revive the whole of the Sharia and to apply it with exceptional severity, regardless of what the majority wants.

Some Islamists denounce democracy as heretical and a betrayal of Islamic values but the more clever of them, noting their own widespread popularity, have adopted democracy as a mechanism to seize power. Their success in a country like Turkey does not transform Islamists into democrats (i.e., show a willingness to relinquish power) but demonstrates their willingness to adopt whatever tactics will bring them power.

Yes, with enough effort and time, Muslims can be as democratic as Westerners. But at this time, they are the least democratic of peoples and the Islamist movement presents a huge obstacle to political participation. In Egypt as elsewhere, my theoretical optimism, in other words, is tempered by a pessimism based on present and future realities.

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  • BUTSeriously

    Its not about democrasy but lawlessness clung to by the Islamic regimes. They do this to protect their thrones – and they are supported by the west, primarilly Europe who installed these ficticious regimes 120 years ago, then went home boasting democrsy. Europe and the Regimes have been perpetrating Heil Hitler salutes at the UN the past 60 years:

    The Balfour was corrupted, a 3-state is presented as a 2-state and the name Palestineans transfered to those busting for another Holocaust.

    Pakistan is also a result of Britsh corruption to please the Regimes she installed. There is none to judge Europe – this is the problem humanity faces.

  • http://www.fxexchangerate.com/ fxgeorges

    Wow and I thought it was because American women don't wear Burkas.

    But maybe they just hate Clinton's version of 'Democracy'. Seems like when Bush, the elder, left office he handed on an Islam coalition. Obviously Democracy was not hated then. Maybe what Clinton did in his eight years might have something to do with the way Islam feels.

    • Amused

      you're confused , but what's worse is your foolish allegation , which only accentuates your true, utter , ignorance of the situation regarding islam .

  • Amused

    No surprise here , EXCEPT that PIPES IS BUYING INTO " it's not the religion ….but something else " .
    And Pipes of all people bending over for PC ….even an apologist for muslim behavior !! Iraq was :"democratic " for a few moments before it's people reverted to what they TRULY are ….islamists, religionists with a superiority complex built into their ..lol…."sacred scripts " ? Really !!! And throw in a comparison to early christianity ? Sorry , but mr.pipes is just another sell out for political ideology , in denial of the truth . And the " ECHO CHAMBER " chimes in , not even knowing why ….pathetic , man , PATHETIC !

    • StephenD

      Amused, I hate to say it but it seems you're right. Daniel Pipes sees this WRONG. BTW, since when is the Catholic Church a democracy? Never was, never will be. They happen to be able (like the balance of Christianity) to function in a democracy because it isn't an all consuming system that seeks to control every aspect of your existence…including your faith.

  • USMCSniper

    Islam the religion of "submission" and a free society based on individual rights are not compatible. Secularizing Islam will allow only some minor semblance of a civilized society,

  • QSuzy

    PipeDreams……there is not one nation of 78 majority muslim nations that is democratic. Islam & democracy are certainly incompatible because the basic principle of democracy is that all citizens are treated with equality. In Islam, only male muslims are treated somewhat equally, leaving out non-muslim males, women and children which male muslims exploit frequently.

    What 'democratic majority-muslim nation' is PipeDreams talking about? And for him to conclude the Vatican is democratic……not individual Catholics, is quite a stretch.