Debunking the Myth That Democracy Is “Incompatible” With Islam

Egyptian women wait in line to vote in presidential election, May 2012. (Photo credit:

In the last decades of the twentieth century, Islam and “its compatibility with democracy” or lack thereof was relentlessly discussed in scholarly fora and the popular media. The religious resurgence evident in many parts of the traditional Islamic world in the wake of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 tended to confirm for many in the West that Islam and democracy were destined to part ways forever.

The predominant conception of democracy in the West has been (and remains) that it is ineluctably predicated on secularism; the inability to secularize is a “failing” that is routinely ascribed to a reified Islam to explain a fundamental incompatibility between democracy and Islam. The social anthropologist Ernest Gellner, for example, regarded Islam as peculiarly resistant to secularization since in his view the religion provides a rigid and unchanging blueprint for life incapable of adaptation to modern, secular society, and therefore inherently resistant to democratization.

The French Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida similarly depicted Islam as “the other of democracy,” for, according to him, democracy is a European notion that belongs to the Graeco-Christian tradition alone. After September 11, these views have gained more currency in influential circles as prophetic auguries of the inevitable clash between a democratic modern West and an incorrigibly “medieval” and illiberal Islamic world.

Contemporary Issues in Islam

Contemporary Issues in Islam
Asma Afsaruddin
Edinburgh University Press
September 1, 2015

This entrenched view has been challenged by nuanced and theoretically more sophisticated analyses, as evident in the works of Alfred Stepan, and more recently of Nader Hashemi, and Ahmet Kuru, for example. These works rightly point out that secularism in the sense of a strict divide between state and religion is not a necessary pre-condition for democracy. Secularism co-exists with authoritarian regimes in many parts of the world, as in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, while there are Western democracies that have established official religions, as in England (Anglicanism), Denmark (Lutheranism), and elsewhere. Political trends are better explained by socio-political and economic variables in culturally specific contexts rather than through ahistorical pronouncements on religious or cultural essences. As Hashemi incisively observes, “Religious traditions are not born with an inherent democratic or secular conception of politics” and that such “ideas must be socially constructed.”

Polls and surveys conducted in several Muslim-majority countries have in fact repeatedly affirmed that Muslim populations desire representative and accountable governments—the most basic understanding of democracy—and regard democratic procedures, such as elections, as the appropriate mechanism for establishing such governments.

An extensive multiyear Gallup research study conducted between 2001 and 2007 in more than 35 nations that have predominantly Muslim or substantial Muslim populations (claiming to have surveyed a sample representing over 90% of the world’s total Muslim inhabitants) categorically established that democracy is the preferred system of government among them. Disenchantment with US policy in the Middle East and the campaign to “promote” democracy under Western military occupation in Iraq, for example, did not dampen the desire of these populations to elect their own representative governments through fair and transparent elections.

At the same time, substantial Muslim majorities, male and female, want the Sharia to be at least a source of legislation in their countries, seeing no disjunction between religious beliefs and democratic principles. In a number of Muslim-majority countries, the preference was even stronger. In Jordan, for example, 54% of men and 55% of women want Sharia to be the only source of legislation. Interestingly, from a comparative perspective, a 2006 Gallup poll indicated that 46% of Americans say that they want the Bible to be a source of legislation.

These findings corroborate earlier studies conducted by Robert Inglehart and Pippa Norris which allowed them to conclude that Muslim populations in general tended to be more supportive of democracy than non-Muslim populations world-wide, providing important ballast against the “clash of civilizations” hypothesis. An important study published by Amaney Jamal and Mark Tessler in 2008 similarly confirmed that in several key Arab countries where they conducted their survey, there was strong evidence of wide-spread popular support for democracy.

Such facts and figures make political reality very complex indeed and hardly a homogenous global phenomenon. The evacuation of religion from the public sphere as a sine qua non for a functioning democracy is a modern myth propagated by certain cultural warriors in the West, often in a polemical vein to set up a contrast to what appears to them the religion-infused societies of the Islamic world.

This premise is then seized upon by religious reactionaries in a number of Muslim-majority countries in order to undermine democracy as a godless concept, the importation of which would destroy the very fabric of Muslim-majority societies. It would appear that neither position is in tune with the actual aspirations and lived realities of ordinary people throughout the world.

Making the Case for Democracy in Islamic Terms

Democracy stripped down to its bare-bones definition—a system of government that reflects the popular will and holds itself accountable to the people—is therefore not an alien concept within the variegated Islamic milieu.

The term—rather than its meaning—itself may be regarded with some skepticism, given its association with what is widely regarded as part of an amoral Western cultural and political onslaught on the non-Western world. More recently, the foolhardy attempt to forcibly impose “democracy” through the barrel of a gun in Iraq and elsewhere under Western military occupation has unfortunately tainted this term in a negative vein. In conscious opposition to hardline Islamists who have relentlessly propagated the idea that “democracy”—mired in the cultural and political baggage of the West that has historically accompanied it—is conceptually flawed and antithetical to Islamic values, some Muslim scholars have made the opposite case, drawing their arguments from deep within Islamic intellectual thought and history.

In an important work, Khaled Abou El Fadl identifies several features of traditional Islamic political thought and ethics based upon the Qur’an that are conducive to the development of modern participatory forms of government: human dignity, human vice-regency on earth, accountability that is ultimately linked to a fundamental commitment to justice and mercy, an emphasis on consultative decision-making and the rule of law.

Above all, the principle of shura or consultation, endorsed in the Qur’an as the basis for collective decision-making and administration of public affairs (Qur’an 3:158-59; 42:38), is generally understood—by a broad spectrum of scholars ranging from hardline Islamists to liberal Muslims—to provide the conceptual grounding for consultative governance and collective decision-making. While hardline Islamists will typically reject any overlap between shura and democratic forms of governance, liberal Muslims will usually point to their points of convergence.

However, this critical concept may be interpreted, history records the continuing endurance of the validity of this principle among Muslims, at least as an ideal to aspire to, even as dynastic rule was instituted very early (a mere thirty years after the death of the Prophet) and became the status quo.

These broad Qur’anic principles which in themselves are not overtly political have been deployed in the public sphere, particularly in the modern period, as having notable political and administrative implications. Whether such principles can provide the impetus for the formation of democratic forms of government today remain a highly-debated subject. Most rigorous scholars of Islamic and/or comparative political thought today, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, do not perceive any serious theological or ideational impediments to democratic governments taking hold in Muslim-majority societies. They have instead wondered why despite an overwhelmingly popular desire for representative governments in such societies and a fundamental proclivity within their religious and political traditions to support such governments, there has remained what is often dubbed as “a democracy deficit” within them, especially in the Arab world.

The more painstakingly-researched responses to such a question have focused on structural and cultural factors—for example, the rentier economies in some of the wealthiest Arab nations which allow for oil revenues that are generated to accrue primarily to small elites, in addition to tribal and social organizations that promote a culture of authoritarianism. Outside of the Arab world, there are long-term functional democracies in Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia. More recently installed democratic governments in Pakistan and Palestine further challenge old stereotypes about the links between Islamicate cultures and representative governments.

Such facts on the ground clearly establish that when discussing solutions to the democracy deficit in parts of the Muslim world, “Islam”—invoked as a reified essence in such debates—is clearly not part of the problem.

[This article is excerpted with permission from Asma Afsaruddin’s Contemporary Issues in Islam. – The Eds.]