Islam and democracy: made for each other?

Article published on June 10, 2003
community published
Article published on June 10, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

After Stalin the Bolshevik, now it is the Bin Laden the Islamic who has the knife between his teeth. It's time to nip some of our most irrational fears in the bud.

There are plenty of Europeans who brandish the spectre of Islam to reject a civilisation which they regard as alien to Western values. There is a long list of prejudices frequently attributed to the Muslim world. These include the incompatibility of Islam with political pluralism, its rejection of the separation of religion and politics / church and state and its total inability to cope with democracy. As soon as you address issues relating to values and beliefs the reactions often become pretty irrational. It is as if we were seeing an increasingly watertight barrier being built between Europe as the guarantor of human rights and democracy and an Arab-Muslim world condemned to be either a secular dictatorship or an Islamic democracy. If we are to believe the cultural fault lines set out by Samuel Huntington and his clash of civilisations, then Islam really would be incompatible with democracy.

Islam is democracy

The first set of arguments on Islams incompatibility with democracy are based on the idea that Islam does not recognise pluralism. It is true that in one section of Islamic thinking there is an anti-democratic group that rejects pluralism as the opposite to the structural unity of the Muslim community (ouma) as this unity is determined by a consensus between the Oumas (doctors of Islam) and the primacy of divine justice. But another group states that there is a fundamental distinction between the political and religious spheres. This is the case of the Muslim Brothers, about whom Rachet Ghanouchi wrote: Stop saying that democracy is alien to our culture. You are wrong, democracy is Islam. Freedom could not be a danger to Islam because it is at its very core. The following verses from the Koran are often quoted to support this viewpoint: You, the human being. We created you from a man and a woman. We have divided you up into groups and tribes so that you can find out about each other. These verses show that the Muslim deity does recognise pluralism and stresses the need for dialogue between peoples. The right to objective opposition is also recognised in the Sharia (the body of Islams religious rules). This is how the caliph Abou Bakr asked to be helped when he was on the right path and to be corrected when he was on the wrong path. So it is wrong to say that Islam is incompatible with pluralism. The structural untiy of the Muslim community is also a view of the spirit as Arab societies are based on the Asabyats, each of which are very small communities.

Sharia against the vox populi

The relationship between Islam and secularism also raises problems. As Islam is based on divine law, can it recognise groups that do not respect it? Thus the leader of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), Abbassi Madani, said that he would only recognise the decisions of the majority if they accorded with the Sharia. Whoever is an enemy of Islam is an enemy of the people. And yet although experience has shown that Islamic political movements were very intolerant towards non-religious groups, Muslim countries have never been under the direct control of a religious power. A fâqîh (specialist in divine law) has never been in power, and the Omeyyades and abbasides caliphs, the manlûks (war leaders) have not been fâqîhs any more than the Ottoman sultans were. Western democracies are not without religious references either. The German, British and American (In God we trust) constitutions all refer to Christianity. And what about the Swiss and Norwegian constitutions which ban those who are not Christians from working as judges in the supreme court? All democracies recognise some principles as intangible, even as secular a state as France. And what about the German constitution, which says that no law will be guaranteed to a citizen who does not explicitly recognise its principles