What Kind of Democracy Do Muslims Want?

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!

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Can Egypt Become a Democracy? Not Without Equality for Coptic Christians

Since the dramatic collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, numerous pundits have promised us that after free elections Egypt will become a full-fledged democracy. Although not impossible, that scenario is highly unlikely. Democracy calls for more than one free election; it requires a vast range of ideas and institutions currently alien to Egypt (and other Muslim nations), including religious freedom. In the discussion that follows, I will focus on this vital issue, demonstrating just how much Egypt’s treatment of its Coptic Christian minority—estimated at 10% of the population—departs from the standard acceptable in any truly democratic and open society.

Before proceeding to that point, however, we must first ask a basic question: What does religious freedom entail? It comes down to two guarantees, related and inseparable. First, as Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief,” along with the right, “either alone or in community with others and in public or private to manifest his religion or belief.” This series of protections is usually styled “liberty of conscience.” Second, no one should suffer civil disabilities or discrimination simply for practicing the faith of his or her choice. This requirement is made clear in numerous international documents and treaties, including the Oslo Declaration on Freedom of Religion or Belief” (1998), which insists that “every human being has a responsibility to condemn discrimination and intolerance based on religion or belief.”

Today, however, Egypt violates these religious rights in many ways. Let me provide two specific examples. First, the government makes it extremely difficult, if not dangerous to abandon Islam and convert to Coptic Christianity. Indeed, ex-Muslims are frequently arrested under Article 98F of the Egyptian penal code, which forbids “insulting a heavenly religion,” then tortured by Egypt’s dreaded State Security Investigation (SSI). Hence, in January 2005 the SSI seized an apostate named Gazii Muhammad Mahmoud. At first he underwent questioning without the use of excessive force, but after making clear that he would never return to Islam under any circumstances, the interrogators became more aggressive and started using torture. Mahmoud “had to take off his clothes and was hosed with ice-cold water; he was denied food, his toe nails were pulled out.” Indeed, “to this day he cannot wear any shoes.” Faced with their victims’ unshakable commitment to Christianity, security forced dispatched Mahmoud to a psychiatric hospital. Here he suffered repeated beating and underwent forced treatment with powerful medications designed to restore his sanity, since, according to the doctors “only a mad man could renounce Islam. In passing, we should be aware that 85% of Egyptian Muslims believe apostasy from Islam ought to be punished with death, an attitude utterly at odds with democratic norms.

Second, Copts suffer powerful restrictions on their ability to worship in public. Under Egyptian law Christians must gain the approval of their individual province’s governor before carrying out even the smallest repairs on a pre-existing church (right down to repairing a broken window), or the president’s approval before constructing a new church. In the latter situation, presidential approval is only forthcoming if the petitioners can satisfy ten stringent preconditions (e.g. no church may be built within 100 meters of a mosque). The whole process, even if successful, takes years to negotiate. And on numerous occasions, when Copts do finally manage to erect a new place of worship, local governments, operating in unison with security forces, refuse to provide electrical service or to turn on the water, rendering the would-be church stillborn. Even more damaging to church building than bureaucratic delay and official harassment, however, is the possibility of violence aimed at those who dare to undertake the task. For instance, on January 19, 2006, in the village of el-Vaaysaat, near the southern city of Luxor, a Muslim mob attacked a church-in-construction and set it ablaze. Police arrived at the scene, but refused to intervene. Two Christians died in the blaze, one of them a thirteen-year-old boy who suffered heart failure while trying to escape. Needless to say, Muslims can build and repair mosques at will, further evidence of their superiority over the Copts.

Obviously, Egyptian Christians do not enjoy religious freedom. And when we also factor in their total exclusion from government, numerous kidnappings of young Coptic women, a spate of uninvestigated terrorist attacks upon their churches, not to mention systematic discrimination in employment, their plights appears even more terrible. If Egypt is to call itself a democracy, then truly revolutionary changes need to place. Quite simply, the Muslim majority must reject those aspects of sharia law that mandate the superiority of Islam over other religions and, instead, agree to a new, secular legal code that places all faiths on an equal footing and outlaws religious discrimination. I find such a sweeping transformation difficult to imagine and think it much more likely that a freely-elected Egyptian government will make life even harder for the Copts, at the majority’s behest. In short, the “new” Egypt is much more likely to become a theocracy than a democracy.

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Islam, the West, and Sexuality

While walking the streets of almost any European or American city, one may encounter, simultaneously, a young woman clad in almost nothing and a Muslim woman veiled from head to toe. This profound difference in attire points to a much larger issue: Muslims and Westerners hold very different perspectives on women and sexuality, as I shall now demonstrate.

Islamic law (sharia) places tremendous emphasis on virginity and insists that extramarital sex (zina) constitutes a heinous crime. In this spirit, the Qur’ an warns “Do not come near zina, indeed it is an abomination and an evil way” (17:32). Standing behind Muslim Puritanism rests a powerful spiritual consideration: succumbing to one’s lusts guarantees an eternity in hellfire. Discussing the individual who dares fornicate or practice adultery, the Qur’ an promises that “The torment will be doubled to him on the Day of Resurrection and he will abide therein [hell] in disgrace” (25:68-69). To prevent this calamity, Muslim societies—past and present—have placed two powerful restrictions on all transactions between the sexes. First, public places, including schools, restaurants, offices, and hospitals, must be gender segregated to keep men and women from being alone together, the prerequisite for all illicit sex.  Second, when venturing outside their homes, women must never wear clothing that could draw a man’s attention. Instead, they must wear formless garments that place a curtain (hijab) between their bodies and men’s hungry eyes. In this quest to be invisible, Muslim women have, indeed, come up with a vast array of passion-killing styles: niqab, jilbab, abaya, tudong, and, most famously, the burqa. Gender segregation and female veiling may seem repressive to unbelievers, but from an Islamic perspective, these are beneficial practices that stop sinful conduct and, thereby, save precious souls from eternal damnation.

On the other hand, even a casual glance at daily life in contemporary Western societies will reveal an attitude toward sexuality and women that mocks and ridicules Muslim norms. Since the mid-1980’s, the West has been in the grips of a cultural shift that I call, “The Second Sexual Revolution.” This movement is a joint creation of the mass media and entertainment industries, who have turned us into a “striptease culture” that encourages both sexes to indulge their lusts, and whose vehicle is the exposed female body. Its components include the following: suggestive TV programs, like NBC’s “Friends” or the BBC’s “Graham Norton Show;” uninhibited women’s magazines, like Cosmopolitan or Vogue, which encourage readers to strive for sexual fulfillment with “hot guys;” semi-pornographic advertising, in which scantily-clad beauties peddle jeans, beer, shampoo, and automobiles; popular music, particularly a new batch of supremely “sexed-up” female vocalists, including, Madonna, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga.

A new type of female has emerged from this cultural shift. Like the lusty ladies on HBO’s “Sex and the City,” she insists, without shame, upon her right to sexual freedom and satisfaction. This relaxed attitude is very common among younger women. In 2001 the Alan Guttmacher Institute reported that 80% of American girls had lost their virginity by age eighteen. This statistic will not surprise anyone familiar with adolescent girls’ fondness for exposed thong underwear, “sexting,” and “freak” dancing. Even “tweens” are becoming sexualized. In 2007, a team of researchers studying the Internet’s impact on eight- to thirteen-year-old girls in France, Canada, and Britain, unearthed some startling information. They found that “girls as young as nine are using Internet chat rooms to talk about their sexual encounters” and some “appear to engage freely in sex with their boyfriends.” In fact, “three-quarters of the girls claimed to have had sexual intercourse.” Even when we factor in youthful exaggeration, this study indicates that children are now interested in matters once reserved “for adults only.”

Given Islam’s emphasis on chastity and contempt for zina, it should be no surprise that most Muslims view the West as a moral garbage dump. Reflecting that general conviction, Dr. Rabee Ibn Haadee al-Mazhdalee recently exclaimed, “O Westerners, claimants of civilization, you have constitutions and statutes that destroy upright moral character, and permit all kinds of fornication.” Therefore, “a man does not feel protection of his wife, sister, or daughter, and thus she fornicates with or intimately befriends whomever she pleases.” And according to Musa Qutb and M. Vazir Ali: “The West is consumed in a total moral breakdown unprecedented in human history . . . the society is collapsing all around, fuel to the fires of pornography, overt sensuality, wild amorous, masculine sexual adventures … womankind is in rubble, in shambles, under the siege of sex-peddling barons and porno-overlords with displays of woman’s sexual organs and sexual acts in every marketplace … the West is filled with MASCULINE SEXMANIA.”

Let me finish with a brief observation: Westerners are not going to embrace chastity, veiling, and gender segregation anytime soon, nor are Muslims going to legitimize zina and grant sexual freedom to their women in the foreseeable future. Consequently, these areas will remain a major source of tension and hostility between the two cultures.

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Introducing a Controversial New Book on Islam

Since 9/11 the public has hungered for information about Islam and Muslims. In response scholars have written a spate of new, academic books on al-Qaeda, the Taliban, suicide bombing, and America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite this explosion of print, however, no one has yet produced a concise and accessible work capable of answering the biggest question of all: “Can we ever live in peace and harmony with the Islamic world?” That is … until now. My groundbreaking new book, A Tale of Two Cultures: Islam and the West provides a troubling reply to that query.

 In brief, Westerners and Muslims are destined to eternal conflict because they adhere to opposing and irreconcilable worldviews. Since the West’s increasingly secular inhabitants have, for the most part, abandoned belief in the supernatural, along with the prospect of life after death, they are bent upon maximizing material prosperity and happiness in the here-and-now. In contrast, Muslims, who continue to assume the reality of supernatural forces, know beyond a shadow of doubt that the universe has a Creator who will judge each and every one of us in the hereafter. Consequently, they are determined to maximize the individual’s chances of attaining heaven and avoiding the flames of hell.

This gigantic “clash of worldviews” compels Muslims and Westerners to disagree about almost everything, including freedom of expression, religious liberty, women’s rights, homosexuality, and terrorism.

 Written in clear, but scholarly fashion, A Tale of Two Cultures: Islam and the West is must reading for anyone who wants unbiased and frank answers to all the tough questions about Islam and its contentious relationship with the West today.

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Islam and the West: A Clash of Worldviews

Since the bloody events of September 2001 Americans have wanted to know if harmonious coexistence with the Muslim world is genuinely possible. In the discussion that follows I offer a very disturbing answer to that question: Westerners and Muslims are destined to unceasing conflict because they adhere to opposing and irreconcilable worldviews. That said, our exploration of the yawning chasm between cultures begins with a discussion of modernity and secularization.

Over the past 200 years the West has embraced a unique set of institutions known as modernity. To be modern means living in an industrial society that downplays tradition in favor of scientific innovation, is dubious about claims to supernatural truth, and emphasizes democracy, individual liberty, and equality for all. Modernity goes hand-in-hand with a process known as secularization—the marginalization of religion in public life and its relegation to the private sphere. This shift away from religious faith, often known as “the disenchantment of the world” is most obvious in Western Europe. Here the masses have stopped attending church, are increasingly inclined toward atheism, and indifferent to the prospect of life after death. Summing up Christianity’s collapse in its traditional heartland, Pope Benedict XVI laments that “there is no longer evidence for need of God, even less of Christ.”

The USA has also succumbed to secularization, albeit in its own distinctive fashion. Christianity has not collapsed outright here, but the churches have altered their message, substituting the old-time Gospel, with its emphasis on sin, depravity, and damnation, in favor of a “Gospel Light,” that stresses personal fulfillment and “being the best that you can be,” along with other concepts borrowed from the language of self-help and therapy. Moreover, America’s Christians—including many evangelicals—have begun to set aside the principle that salvation comes only through Christ for a pluralistic assumption that all religions contain elements of truth and are able to win God’s favor. When we combine these dramatic changes in the content of American Christianity with evidence that the nation’s rates of church attendance—the main evidence for claims that America is exceptionally pious—have been grossly exaggerated, it becomes clear that the USA has indeed been secularized.

Lurking behind modernity and secularization stands an ancient philosophy, materialism. It holds that nothing exists but the physical world, rejects the possibility of supernatural beings or occult phenomena, and finds the prospect of life after death inconceivable. That viewpoint has trickled down to average people in the West, producing a variety of “practical atheism,” which stresses the need to “have fun” because “you only live once.” This passion for the here-and-now is evident in contemporary Americans’ fascination with supermodels, movie stars, pop singers, cosmetic surgery, and “shopping ‘til you drop.” In fact, the never-ending urge to buy and enjoy objects is fueled by a disillusioned secular civilization’s haunting suspicion that nothing awaits us beyond the grave.

The Islamic world, however, has traveled a very different path into the twenty-first century. In stark contrast with the marginal role that Christianity now plays in the West, their ancestral religion still commands enormous power and prestige among the planet’s 1 billion Muslims. “In the course of the last one hundred years,” remarks Ernest Gellner, “the hold of Islam over the minds and hearts of believers has not diminished and by some criteria has probably increased … Islam is a Qur’an belt.” Islam’s abiding success among the Muslim masses stems from its ability to furnish them with a compelling spiritual answer to the following “big” question: “What is the purpose and ultimate goal of my fleeting time upon this earth?” With great firmness, the Qur’an declares that “the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime. It is the life to come that is the true life” (Qur’an 29:64). Following the Last Judgment, those men and women who have practiced Islam faithfully will be rewarded with entry into heaven, a place so full of delights that Muslims think “even the smallest place in paradise is better than this world and all that is in it,” to use the words of Umar Sulaiman al-Ashqar. But, “whoever opposes God and His Messenger” (Qur’an 9:63), shall be cast into the fiery bowels of hell, a realm so abominable that the vast majority of Muslims concur with Harun Yahya’s observation that “the main aim, the basic goal of humanity, should be to avoid hell. The biggest threat to man is hell and nothing can be more important than saving one’s soul from it.”

For those who presume that I am exaggerating Muslims’ certainty about an afterlife because no “sane” or “thinking” person could believe in something so “absurd,” let me provide some revealing statistics. In 2000, when the World Values Survey (WVS) asked interviewees from several geographically-diverse Muslim nations “Do you believe in hell?” it received the following percentage of “yes” answers: Egypt, 100; Indonesia, 99.3; Saudi Arabia, 97.5; Bangladesh, 100; Iraq, 97.8; Pakistan, 100; Morocco, 99.6; Jordan, 98.9. And when asked an accompanying question “Do you believe in heaven?” the same respondents replied as follows: Egypt, 100; Indonesia, 99.5; Saudi Arabia, 98.4; Bangladesh 100; Iraq, 98.3; Pakistan, 100; Jordan, 99.2; Morocco, 99.7. These striking numbers demonstrate that Islam retains a profoundly supernatural and God-centered understanding of reality, one totally at odds with the materialism that now dominates the West.

The preceding analysis has revealed that Westerners and Muslims do subscribe to remarkably different worldviews. And that difference in emphasis leads, inevitably, to utter disagreement about almost everything. If one suspects, like most of the West’s inhabitants, that death is truly “the end,” then society should grant people a long list of rights—freedom of speech, religious liberty, sexual freedom, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, etc.—to make their short stay on earth happy and fulfilling. But if one is sure, as Muslims are, that this existence is no more than a relatively trivial preparation for life after death, then the powers-that-be should do everything possible to maximize our chances of entering heaven and avoiding hell. Consequently, no one may be given the right to insult Islam or its Prophet, convert Muslims to another religion, and to engage in fornication or homosexual deeds because these actions lead to eternal damnation. Instead, society must enforce Islamic law and restrict individual liberty now to ensure the greatest of all benefits later: unceasing bliss in paradise.

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