Following a series of uprisings against repressive regimes in several Middle Eastern nations, most notably, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, talking heads began assuring us that Muslims hunger for democracy. Is that claim true? It all depends on one’s definition of democracy, to which vital issue we must now turn.
Democracy Western-style means much more than head counting. It also requires a broad range of protections and privileges to which all people are entitled, simply on account of their humanity, i.e. human rights. The latter term is familiar to almost everyone, but what exactly does it involve? Two things. First, each person is entitled to a broad range of individual liberties, including freedom of expression, religion, and assembly. Second, those rights belong to everyone without any differentiation on the basis of race, gender, or creed. Reflecting that point, Article 26 of The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) proclaims “all persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect the law shall prohibit any discrimination . . . on any grounds, such as race, color, sex, language or religion . . . “
Currently, many Western democracies are broadening the principle of non-discrimination to cover additional groups. For example, the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Freedoms (2000) also forbids discrimination on the basis of “disability, age, or sexual orientation.” Today when Westerners talk or write about democracy, the great majority of them have in mind the vision outlined above: a political order that fosters individual freedom and provides its blessings to all citizens without distinction.
Is this the type of democracy that Muslims have in mind? Before replying to that very significant query, we must first spend some time examining Islamic law (Arabic, sharia) because the overwhelming mass of Muslims believe in its God-given nature and will require any form of government to respect its teachings. That is important, for our purposes, because sharia’s basic assumptions are difficult to harmonize with contemporary human rights discourse. Let us focus on two profound differences.
First, sharia places much greater weight upon safeguarding the entire Muslim community’s spiritual wellbeing than upon the right of solitary individuals to express dissenting and faith-destroying opinions. Consequently, censorship of the press and gags on free speech are praiseworthy methods of protecting believers from the cancerous growth of religious doubt. As an example, in 1995, during the heresy trial of Nasr Abu Zayd, a college professor calling for a less literal interpretation of the Qur ‘ an, Egypt’s highest court insisted that “no individual has the right to proclaim that which contradicts the public policy or morals, [ to ] use his opinion to harm the society’s health, to revile the sacred things, or to disdain Islam.”
Likewise, sharia’s need to safeguard the community’s spiritual health from individual dissent also necessitates powerful limitations on religious liberty, perhaps the West’s most hallowed human right. Drawing upon the Prophet Mohammed’s injunction to “kill him who changes his [Islamic] religion,” most Islamic scholars insist that the man who rejects Islam for another faith be executed. Hence, a recent Muslim scholar of human rights, Abdulla al-Marzouqi, warns that “A Muslim who renounces Islam,” must “be sentenced to death” because “the act of renunciation is construed as an aggressive attempt against the system of well being of the society.”
Second, Islamic law is vehemently opposed to another component of human rights theory, non-discrimination. Let me demonstrate this reality by focusing on the status of religious minorities in the Muslim world. Today, Jews, Christians, and others living in Muslim-majority lands suffer a vast number of civic disabilities. They are routinely denied the right to hold office, build new places of worship, marry Muslim women, testify in Islam courts, or to conduct missionary activities. Why such blatant discrimination? Quite simply, for over a millennium sharia has mandated that those who worship God in the manner pleasing to Him—Muslims—warrant far greater rights and privileges than those—non-Muslims—who insult Him through false varieties of worship. Iranian clergyman, Ayatollah Taskhiri outlined this point well during a 1994 conference in Teheran. While conceding that all human beings are potentially equal before God, he insisted that “a devout Muslim, one who fulfills his duty faithfully . . . Ultimately can claim a higher degree of actual dignity” than the non-observant Muslim, “who fails to accept the religious standard, let alone he who refuses to accept the divine vocation altogether,” the unbeliever. Certainly,
If one subscribes to this position, the true sin is not discrimination, but granting equality to those whom God has assigned a lesser status in the social order. As Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir exclaimed to human rights activists in 1995: “How do you expect us to introduce equality when inequality is the will of God?”
We are now sufficiently informed to answer the query that launched this analysis, “What kind of democracy do Muslims want?” Since Muslims are overwhelmingly committed to the truth of sharia, it should be obvious that they cannot embrace Western-style democracy because its human rights aspect—particularly freedom of expression and equality for everyone—fly in the face of sharia’s sacred teachings. As a consequence, I conclude that the Muslims screaming for democracy want free elections, which will permit them to oust unpopular and insufficiently religious regimes, like that of Hosni Mubarak, and then establish a truly Islamic order with the masses’ approval. The resulting form of government can best be called a freely-elected theocracy. And needless to say, in Western eyes that is no democracy at all!