Defenders of Islam in the West are quick to reassure the faint of heart that Islam and democracy are completely compatible, and that anyone who says otherwise really doesn’t know what he/she is talking about. In fact, some Islamophiles go so far as to say, with a straight face, that Islam actually created democracy!
Yet, in all the histories of Muslim caliphates and empires over almost fourteen centuries, there has never been an example of governance approaching true democracy until the rise of modern Turkey in 1923 from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey has been touted as a true Muslim democracy, but in fact it was able to succeed (until recently) because it was founded politically not on Islam but on Western secularism. Kemal Ataturk jettisoned Shari’a in favor of a model based on Swiss civil and Italian penal codes. The country has been able to survive as a democracy despite upheavals fostered by Islamic hardliners, due in no small part to a strong military committed to maintaining a secular government. Recent events under President Erdogan do not bode well for democracy, as he has hammered through the legislature new and expanded powers for himself. Erdogan dreams of ruling over a new, Ottoman-like caliphate, starting with Turkey. He has gradually steered the country away from its secular foundations established by Ataturk, and is injecting Turkish society with heavy doses of Islam. For our purposes in this blog, it is instructive to note that the more a government leans toward the embrace of Islam, the farther it drifts from the heart of democratic rule.
Some observers point out that a few countries in the Middle East have parliaments and hold elections. Isn’t that what democracy is all about? Well, no, not really. Certainly these are elements necessary for any true democracy, but they are not sufficient. The marks of true democracies include a recognition of the rights of all individuals to personal freedoms and private ownership as well as full or representative participation in government. Likewise, the consent of the governed is underscored by the right of a society to create and change the laws by which it operates. Shari’a law enshrines inequality in how men and women are treated, and particularly in how non-Muslims are treated in contrasted to Muslims. There is no equal protection under the law for those who refuse to convert to Islam.
Islam by nature is authoritarian and unbending when it comes to governance and statute. Allah is the uncontestable authority, whose will was known and enforced originally only through one man, Muhammad, and then after his death by only one caliph (“commander of the faithful) at a time. Islam never developed the idea of a “body politic” with the authority to make decisions for the nation as a representative body. Caliphs or Sultans might consult a small body of advisers privately, but the decision was theirs alone to make. Of course, any decrees would have to line up with Shari’a, or they would be subject to expulsion or worse.
And here is the second crucial reason why Islam and democracy do not mix well. True democracies demand legislative bodies so that the people through their representatives can shape the laws which govern their collective lives. As realities or values change in a culture, the laws can be changed through legislative process to mirror those movements. But this cannot be the case with Islam, which proclaims as an unassailable maxim that Shari’a is divine law, perfect in all of its ways and therefore incapable of being amended by anyone other than Allah. Islamic countries have no need of legislatures, since Shari’a cannot be changed. Puppet legislatures are merely for show.
Indeed, if a legislator were to lobby for alteration of Shari’a, his or her life would be endangered by core Muslims in whose eyes the legislator was proposing idolatry (the enacting of imperfect, human laws) over obedience to Allah. This is precisely what took place in Pakistan in 2011 when the Muslim governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, lobbied to change the country’s anti-blasphemy statutes and to set free Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who had been wrongly convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Taseer himself was assassinated by one of his government bodyguards, a deeply religious Muslim believing his act of murder was pleasing to Allah. The bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, was executed by Pakistan in 2016, but as a signal of the of popular mindset, some 100,000 Muslims gathered the day after his execution to publicly mourn his passing and to celebrate his allegiance to Allah and Islam (for full details, see here and here).In the last year, mosques have been erected in his name, and religious celebrations held in his honor. The victim, Gov. Taseer, is all but forgotten.
Democracy in essence is government of the people, by the people, for the people. Shari’a is government of Allah, by his caliph, for the glory of Islam. They mix about as well as fire and water.