Modern Islam's Democracy Problem


Islam as it is understood and practiced by the vast majority of modern Muslims has little or no place for liberal democracy. The rights and freedoms that Westerners have come to believe are inherent and fundamental — freedom of thought, the press, and religious practice, among others — mean next to nothing in most parts of the Muslim world.

Especially where sharia law (read: hard line Islamic fundamentalism) is imposed, the modern progress of humanity in its understanding and application of self-government seems to have gone unnoticed. In these countries there is no division between church and state. From this, it follows that “secular” concerns are given minimal thought; economic, social, and geopolitical interests simply cease to exist, to say nothing of protection of individual rights or freedoms. They are replaced instead by strict adherence to Islamic fundamental law as transcribed by the Prophet Mohammed over 1400 years ago.

The idea or belief that citizens have an inherent right to participate in their own systems of government has evidently gained enough traction within the Muslim world to cause havoc and bring change. The advent of the Arab Spring presents the world with new questions: How much popular government can Muslim societies really stand? Can they muster the necessary social and political energy to create freer systems where there has only ever been tribal warfare, dictatorship, and Islamic fundamentalism?

The answers are: not much, and almost certainly not, respectively. This is not to say the Arab Spring has been meaningless; on the contrary, its positive effects will continue to resonate for decades to come. Nevertheless, Islam is too deeply rooted in the consciences and lives of the population to allow for any sort of true, lasting liberalization. We will likely see movement towards less repressive governments, but the constant presence of moderate and extreme fundamental Islamic groups will slow the process, and in countries where Islam is rooted deeply enough even these minor steps forward will not occur.

Islam and democracy are not entirely incompatible. One need only look back to the Caliphates of Baghdad and Córdoba (mid 700’s to 1300’s) to find examples of incredibly progressive periods of Islamic rule. As Europe muddled its way through a period of intellectual “darkness," the Islamic world prospered. In universities in Iraq and southern Spain, the sciences, art, mathematics, and philosophy flourished. Sadly, modern Sunni Islam, which accounts for approximately three quarters of the world’s Muslim population, has long since forgotten this history. Worse, it has arrived at a place where it is doctrinally set against reason and interpretation. To question God’s wishes as laid out in the Quran is blasphemy and to seek modern interpretations of the Quran or the Hadith (sayings and actions of the Prophet) is only slightly less inconceivable.

Thus, Muslims today are mentally restricted, and by extension the governments of Muslim countries are restricted, restrictive, and more concerned with proper adherence to Islamic practice and its forms than with the needs of their citizens or their collective will.

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