Democracy and Islam

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Many in the Muslim world and in the West differ on the ways to reach democratic governance. Significant questions remain: 

Democracy or Theocracy? 

How can democracy thrive in countries with authoritarian cultures? Can democracy exist where religion and politics are intertwined? The electoral victories of Shiites in Iraq and Hamas in Palestine seem antithetical to Western democracy’s separation of church and state. Is it possible to have democracy and Sharia? 

Although many Muslim and Western governments talk about democracy, self-determination as understood by the majority of those polled does not require a separation of religion and state. Poll data show that large majorities of respondents in the countries surveyed cite the equal importance of Islam and democracy as essential to the quality of their lives and to the future progress of the Muslim world. Politics and Islam have been mixed from Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, and Jordan to Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, where Islamically oriented candidates and/or parties have succeeded in national and local elections. 

Along with indicating strong support for Islam and democracy, poll responses also reveal widespread support for Sharia. Commonly thought of in the West as a harsh and primitive code of law, Sharia represents something very different for many Muslims. Sharia literally means “the path to water” but means “the path to God” when used in a religious context and symbolizes a path of both spiritual and societal guidance. Sharia represents the moral compass of a Muslim’s personal and public life. So what are Muslims calling for whfti they say they want Sharia as a source of legislation? The answer to this is as diverse as the Muslim community. 

Historically, the principles of Sharia could be used to limit the power of the sultan. A Muslim writer for Al Jazeera magazine,21 Sheikha Sajicta, wrote in October 2006: 

It’s logical to install Sharia Law in Arab and Muslim states, where the majority of the population is Muslim. It’s the only way for Muslims to escape the dictatorship and oppression of some of the Arab rulers, those who favor perceived self- interest over what’s best for their nations.

 In response to a question posted on the “Let’s Talk” section, Sajida continues:

Islam advocates justice and I see no conflict between Islamic law and human rights. On the contrary, applying Islamic law in Muslim states safeguards human rights against the oppression of some of the Arab rulers who are only focused on how to use their influence to the utmost before they lose the throne. 

When the Nigerian state of Kano first announced it would apply Sharia in 2000, for example, many Nigerians gathered to celebrate the decision in the state capital’s main prayer grounds. Hassan Dambaba, a teacher who was present at the proclamation ceremony, said, “It is the fulfillment of our dreams. Now we can practice our religion as we should."

The world’s attention turned to Nigeria in 2002 when a 30-year-old Nigerian woman, Amina Lawal, was sentenced to death by stoning. In response to her pregnancy out of wedlock, the Islamic court convicted her of adultery, punishable by stoning, Sharia as a source of le’gislation today, draws strong support fro ban 7 in 10 Nigerian is who say they want sharia as at least, a source of legislation lin-5 wants it as the only source. Democracy or Theocracy? 

While the man who allegedly had sexual relations with her was freed because of the lack of four witnesses. Although such cases have come to represent Sbaria in the West, many Muslims believe that these cases reflect a departure from the true spirit of Sbaria. An editorial in the Ghanaian Chronicle read: 

Some so-called Muslim scholars have attempted to justify stoning on the grounds that it applies where the adulterers and fornicators are married. In any case, in the case of Amina Lawal and the Katsina Sharia court how come that no punishment was meted out to the man who made Amina Lawal pregnant? Why create the impression that there is no justice for women in Islam? Obviously at work was a combination of pre-Islamic practices, male chauvinism, sheer ignorance, and zealotry.

A Sharia Court of Appeal overturned her conviction in 2003. According to four of the five judges, the original sentence had violated certain precepts of Islamic law because: it did not meet the requirement that three local judges hear her case only one was present at the time of conviction; the defendant’s right to proper legal defense was not provided;25 and circumstantial evidence, in this case her pregnancy, was not considered sufficient evidence, according to Islamic law.

The charges by scholars that Nigeria’s Islamic court had mis- applied Islamic law in the Lawal case reflect the plurality of interpretations within the Islamic legal tradition. 

 It is likely that Nigerian Muslims will continue to explore the flexibility built into Sharia as they develop their system of law. According to Gallup data, Sharia as a source of legislation today draws strong support from more than 7 in 10 Nigerian Muslims who say they want Sharia as at least a source of legislation 1 in 5 wants it as the only source. At the same time, about 1 in 5 does not want it to be a source of legislation at all.

 If the West and many Muslims want democracy for the Muslim world seeing it as a stabilizing force and key to future progress critical questions must be addressed: 

Why is democracy absent in so much of the Muslim world? Is Islam the problem? 

How do 1.3 billion Muslims view democracy? 

Should majority Muslim support for Sharia make the West panic? 

When Muslim men and women express a desire for Sharia, what do they mean? 

What is Muslim democratic thought? 

If democracy is a desired goal for many Muslims and for U.S. foreign policy, do Muslims believe the West has any role to play? 

Excerpted from "Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think" written by John L. Esposito & Dalia Mogahed. 

John L. Esposito is an Islamic studies professor at Georgetown University. Dalia Mogahed is executive director of the Center for Muslim Studies at Gallup.