Is Islam compatible with democracy?

2013-07-10 00:00

THE question raised by the ouster of Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi is whether Islam is compatible with democracy or any form of government that empowers the people and limits the power of leaders to hold representative offices with limited terms of public service.

Islam is the most recent of the Abrahamic religions to emerge on the world stage. Monotheism in general, and specifically as it developed in the Dark and Middle Ages, in principle reflects extremely authoritarian regimes. Theologically, it posits a heavenly hierarchy with absolute authority in God, angels in go-between positions, and fallen humanity in need of salvation at the base of the pyramidal power structure. In the centuries when the Catholic Church was at its zenith of influence in the West, political power was held by kings, popes, emperors, and powerful nepotistic and despotic elite with huge economic chasms between the people and their rulers. These structures were not compatible with democracy.

Christianity and Judaism, being monotheistic, are no less inheritors of this stratified and centralised power paradigm, but unlike Islam these religions were effectively secularised and toned down during the century of the European Enlightenment.

Traditional monotheism, with its highly categorised view of man and God, may not in itself be wholly compatible with democracy, but modern Western monotheism gradually moulded itself to new ways of thinking during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and was forced to do so amid rapid scientific and technological advances.

The Islamic world enjoyed its own renaissance during the Islamic Golden Age (mid-eighth to mid-13th centuries) with advances in the sciences, mathematics, and literature, yet the period declined and has never been restored to its former glory.

Is it possible to transition from hierarchical religious authoritarianism to a modernised and even secularised form of Islamic democracy — one that accepts the separation of church and state? This is a tall order since Islam, perhaps more than other monotheistic religions, invites itself into every aspect of social life. Religiously, the concept of the separation of church and state is entirely foreign to most Islamic orthodoxy, and even if a political party were secular in name, it dares not forsake the basic tenets of Islam.

First, citizens of the Arab world require a change from the ground up in the way their religion is approached and instituted socially, politically, and economically. With the rise of free-thinking youth and exposure to new ways of interpreting Islam, a secularised and modernised Islam adapted to modern democratic principles must emerge.

Second, the Arab world needs egalitarian economic development that distances itself from tribal, clannish and centralising hegemonic models, and seeks to build a strong middle class provided with basic social support in education and health care.

Third, the Arab world needs time. It took centuries for the Western world to free itself from the bondages of religious ignorance and the divine right of kings.

Unlike the West, Arab states do not need to wait for the concurrent advances in social, physical, and political sciences that paved the way for the industrial revolution and the information age, as the youth are already exposed to new technologies.

It is not enough, in the long term, for a country just to have economic development, like Saudi Arabia, or just elections, like Egypt and Iraq. Without balanced development, extremism in even one of the three social institutions will colour the other two.

I disagree that the ouster of the freely elected Morsi will encourage opposition Islamic parties throughout the Arab world to dismiss democratic forms of governing and violently pursue their sociopolitical agenda in the streets as they lose faith in a free electoral system. On the contrary, Islamic parties that seek power should learn from the Egyptian experience, that being elected democratically does not bestow authoritarian powers, and governing must be inclusive, representing all the people while equally caring about their welfare, regardless of any political affiliations.

Morsi was not ousted because he is a devout Muslim. Rather, he betrayed the premise of a freely elected leader, which requires accountability, inclusiveness, and the responsibility to live up to the spirit of the revolution. Moreover, Morsi failed to separate his Islamic instincts from the democratic principles with which he was empowered to govern.

Egyptians want their country to be modern and outward-looking, and do not wish to replace one dictator with another, albeit elected. Morsi subordinated politics to religion and succumbed to the conservative branch of Islamists who view political Islam as the answer to centuries of deprivation and of injustice. He consolidated his powers while doing little to save the economy from collapse. He placed himself above judicial review and appointed fellow Brothers into key posts, while allowing Brotherhood hooligans to beat up liberal opponents. He undermined the core of freedom of speech by intimidating the media and failing to build democratic institutions. Moreover, he pushed for a new constitution fully reliant on Sharia law, expanded blasphemy prosecutions, and supported discrimination against women. Morsi surrendered to Islamic authoritarianism in a time when the nation was demanding inclusiveness and political freedom.

For political Islam and democracy to work, a transitional government, led by a leader who is not shackled by a strong ideology and who can cultivate consensus, must be allowed to take at least two years to allow secular and Islamic parties to develop their political platforms.

In the interim, a new constitution should be written based on freedom, democracy and equality with separation of church and state constitutionally enshrined. Any new constitution written in Egypt that does not clearly separate church and state will be doomed to fail, potentially ushering in yet another revolution.

Brighter days will yet come to Egypt as long as Tahrir Square remains true to its name, “Liberation Square”. The Egyptian people have acquired the ultimate weapon that prevents despotism from rising to power. Those who seek to lead will do well to remember that.

• Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Centre for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24


Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.