5 Barriers That Must Be Overcome for Islam to Move toward Democracy

Westerners who live in democratic countries usually have trouble imagining other forms of political systems. It’s sort of like most Americans who think that other people in the world would be American if they only had the chance. Extending such reasoning implies that most people believe that Muslims would be democratic if they only had a chance. And while such reasoning might be seductive, the road to democracy will be long and difficult. Here are some basic forces preventing the adoption of serious democratic conditions anytime soon: A good source for additional information is a book titled Islamic Democratic Discourse by M.A.  Muqtedar Khan.

1. Democracy is relatively unrealistic for serious Muslim polities because of its emphasis on individualism and secularism and the almost idealization of these things. The basic Enlightenment principles of progress and a continuous movement toward a more free and truthful future is quite alien to Islam. Moreover, many Muslims are skeptical about the gap between the truth and the ideal of democracy. They believe the United States sells an appealing sounding tonic but its actual consumption is bitter.

2. Muslim societies are not oriented toward individualism and they are more attached to collectivist ideals and an authoritative text. Pushing a democracy agenda continues to impose models and values on Muslim societies that do not serve the needs of that society and are inconsistent with it. And pushing democracy results in a distraction for Muslims directing their attention away from the achievement of a genuine Islamic society. Some of the radical thinkers thought that it took time to achieve a genuine Muslim society and democracy interfered with that. These radical thinkers (such as Sayyid Qutb) were also more interested in returning to earlier idealized political organizations and clearly democracy is inconsistent with these historical periods.

3. Many Muslims, especially the traveling intellectual class, are “put off” by what they see in capitalist systems. They easily believe democracy is for the rich and is based in corruption, colonialism, and is a general anathema to Islam. And it is not difficult to find examples of all of these things even though it is an exaggeration and not particularly correct to assume that they are the definitional base of democracy. The sort of personal freedom that democrats value and cherish is seen by many Islamic intellectuals as resulting in corruption and social degradation, whereby moral standards slip away and prohibitions about sexual conduct and other behaviors are abandoned. Again, it is easy enough to find examples of these things and make the case. Some even take it a step further and conclude that the goal of democracy is to destroy Islam.

4. The West has tried to make the case that there is no serious contradictions between Islam and Western civilization namely democracy. But Muslims increasingly respond with statements of clear contradiction. For example, they explain that Muslim civilization is dependent on divine revelation and that life is directed toward religious fulfillment. By contrast, Western democratic societies are more rooted in materialism, secularism, and individuality. These things are quite distinct from Islamic spiritual and moral values. For Islam, science and reason are subject to the conditions of revelation and there is no separation of mosque and state.

5. Finally, some theorists compare the Muslim system of consultation in decision-making with democracy. But these two systems remain distinct enough such that democracy cannot be compared. Muslim decision-making is top-down and a sort of elitist consultation. It lacks the nitty-gritty interaction of the population. And the consultation system is typically more concerned with the proper interpretation of Islam than it is with civic jurisprudence. Shia sects have always been more preoccupied with the existence of a divine ruler than with democratic processes and this forms a barrier to change. In fact, these principles have become alternatives to democracy and interfered with many democratic influences. Democracy will have a tough time as long as the primary objective of the Islamic state is to implement divine law even if this law is interpreted by erudite men.

Muslims see themselves as essentially an ethical enterprise and not as an enlightened polity on its way to democracy. In fact, the intrusion of human discretion makes the implementation of divine commands more difficult. For the serious Muslim human development and law are unambiguously derived from Islamic sources. This makes democracy quite untenable.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on October 1, 2013, in Democracy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Substitute Orthodox Judaism, Fundamentalist Christianity, or Traditional Catholicism for “Muslim” in your article, and you reach the same conclusions – but with a different target group.

    In the same vein, substitute the above groups in your sentence “For the serious Muslim human development and law are unambiguously derived from Islamic sources. This makes democracy quite untenable.”

    … and if I may further ask, “What indeed is a “serious Muslim” or for that matter, “a serious Jew”, “a serious Christian” or “a serious Catholic”? As one of the above, I am quite insulted by the term!

  2. Thank you for your response. I do think you are being a little “touchy” with respect to the word “serious.” It certainly was not designed to offend anybody. And, yes, fundamentalism of any type is not going to be receptive to democracy in the full sense of the term. But still, the political-religious polity that is currently largest and most struggling with these issues is Islam. And this is not particularly the place but there’s also differences between religions and their historical development such that receptivity to things like democracy is different than the situation I refer to.

    • I greatly appreciate your taking the time to reply to my comment.

      I do agree that it is naive to assume that other cultures, given a chance, will adopt US customs and thinking. Indeed, I think that this has been the mistake the US made (perhaps with all good intentions) in other parts of the world (Iraq, Afghanistan, dealing with Iran, etc.) At the same time, I don’t think it is productive to make sweeping generalizations based on stereotypes. Indeed, to understand the “other” is one of the first steps in resolving conflicts. Perhaps this is your intention.

      Incidentally, I live in Israel and have been there for the last 41 years!

      • What stereotypes are talking about? And what is the difference between a stereotype in the negative sense of the term and a defensible cultural generalization. Is it not possible to make some generalities about Judaism, Islam, or Americans that are defensible?

      • Again, thank you for taking the time to dialogue with me on this.

        Re the earlier exchange, I do think the term “serious Muslim” is a poor choice. If one extrapolates to other groups i.e. “serious Jew” I, have sadly seen that some streams of Judaism do not see other streams of Judaism as legitimate – some even refer to these as dangerous. Thus, I truly do not understand the term “serious” when applied in the context of your article, and think it raises unintended issues. I don’t think I was / am being “touchy”.

        As to the value of stereotypes or (your term) “cultural generalizations”, I confess that I don’t really see their value except when applied in some statistical context or broad descriptive sense … and even then – qualified. There are many individual differences and subgroups involved in the issues you discuss. I think that attempts at “cultural generalization” muddies the picture.

        Barry Berger (Barry)

%d bloggers like this: