Islamic Democracies

The question is, does the United States really want them to exist?

Can Islam embrace democracy? This basic question and others like it have become the titles of countless news shows, articles, debates, and panel discussions. Can Islam be pluralistic? Does Islam tolerate free speech, free association? Does it allow voting and elections? When President Bush addressed the nation after September 11, saying that "they" hate us because of our freedom and our democracy, is the reason "they" hate freedom and democracy because of Islam? Can we live at peace? Or to ask the question that is lurking behind all of them, is Islam the new global threat to the West, the new Soviet Union?

Few questions are more important in shaping our calculations about the future of the world. Yet, if understanding the future is the goal, the question is wrong.

Islam is a religion. It is a sacred history, a holy scripture open to varying interpretations, and a set of practices. Islam cannot embrace, welcome, or tolerate. Only Muslims can. And the fact from the now famous "Muslim street" is that hundreds of millions of Muslims already do embrace democracy, while many millions of others daily risk everything to obtain it.

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The notion that, by definition Islam and democracy are somehow incompatible, is belied by Bangladesh and the 129 million Bangladeshis who participate in one the world's largest parliamentary democracies. And by Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, that is making progress from a long-entrenched authoritarian regime to a more pluralistic, representative democracy. And by India, where nearly 200 million Muslims live and participate in the world's largest democracy.

It is also belied by the many Muslims listed every year in reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch who are jailed, tortured, and in some cases killed as they work to bring about democratic reforms to the largely secular, authoritarian regimes that still dominate much of Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

There are, of course, Muslims whose interpretation of religious tradition leads them to reject democracy. The theological argument being that in democracies, the will of the people is supreme, whereas under a true Islamic regime, the will of God, as revealed in the Qur'an and by the example of Prophet Muhammad, should be paramount.

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