Avoiding Exceptionalism: Islam & Democracy


As with any religion, Islam has manifested itself in many ways in its varied contexts throughout its many histories. Different Islamic empires showed varying shades of representative government in one period, while adhering to entirely undemocratic rule in another. Even today, while many Muslim-majority countries live under authoritarian rule, others (Indonesia and Mali) have successfully adopted free electoral democracies. 

Turning to the vast literature of Islamic law, one could easily cherry-pick passages that support such democratic notions as “government by the people,” just as effortlessly as one could selectively distill Quranic passages that propagate ethnic chauvinism

Thus, through this kind of historical analysis or doctrinal review, whether or not Islam is incompatible with democracy is, at best, inconclusive. The only significant insight to be concluded from this type of analysis is that Islam is not a monolithic identity, just like many other religions. A literal reading of the Quran or a historical survey of its Empire pose the same challenges and contradictions as those found in Christian religious texts or histories, for example. Furthermore, in Christian-majority states (as are most liberal democracies), Christianity is rarely scrutinized with regard to, or seen as incompatible with, liberal democracy; in fact, it is protected under the liberal right to freedom of expression.

If Islam is not a monolithic identity, then understanding commonalities among its diverse constituencies can inform a better recognition of any relationship between Islam and democracy. In 2008, the Gallup Poll on the Muslim World released Who Speaks for Islam, a survey of over 35 Muslim-majority countries, representing more than 90% of the global Muslim community. In this survey, the most in-depth of its kind, Muslims around the world identified the West’s technology and democracy as what they admire most about the West, specifically citing political freedom, fair judicial systems, and freedom of speech. Furthermore, only minorities in each country claim religious leaders should be directly in charge of drafting their country’s constitution or new laws, determining foreign policy, or regulating women’s dress or what is televised or published in newspapers. Ironically, nearly half of the American population believes religious leaders should play a direct role in drafting legislation – figures that are almost identical to the data of Iran.

With the rise of Islamic parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Hezbollah in Lebanon, many are concerned about the possibility of Islamic parties imposing sharia Islamic Law after securing a democratic majority. The imposition of sharia law could potentially limit or eliminate minority rights and civil rights in favor of Islamic law. While this issue represents an obvious challenge to equal rights provisions of liberal democracies, survey research suggests that the majority of Muslim countries want sharia law as only “a source – one of many sources – of legislation. Only a minority of countries want sharia law as either the sole source or not used at all. These numbers mirror American public opinion data that show that a majority of Americans believe the Bible should be “a” source of legislation, while nearly 10% believe it should be the only source.

Ultimately, the attitudes of the majority of Muslims in Muslim-majority states show an overwhelming desire for democracy. Citing critiques of Islamic doctrine or the dynamic history of its Empire as evidence of Islam’s incompatibility with democracy singles out Islam from other religions with similar doctrines and histories that exist and flourish within liberal democracies. 

Furthermore, since the data suggests that only a minority of Muslims want sharia law as the sole source of legislation, the democratic implementation of sharia Law does not guarantee a correlation between Islam as a whole and its incompatibility with democracy, but instead leaves room for speculation on political jockeying, institutional power, and other factors.

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