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Who Speaks for Islam? Part 2- Democracy or Theocracy


| Intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3a | Part 3b |Part 4 | Part 5 |

Chapter 2: Democracy or Theocracy?

This is definitely a juicy, and eye-opening chapter. It is probably the misconceptions on this issue that have literally caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Both in terms of Muslims upset at the double standards in democracy promotion, and the West in using the democracy card to go to war.

The chapter begins with a quote from a former neocon, Francis Fukuyama,

Liberal democracy and free markets do not work everywhere. They work best in societies with certain values whose origins may not be entirely rational. It is not an accident that modern liberal democracy emerged first in the Christian west, since the universalism of democratic rights can be seen as a secular form of Christian universalism.

The reality of the Muslim world is that most of the countries are not democracies, and a number of the ones that are have elections where the ruler somehow manages to win about 90% of the vote in every election. It is no surprise then, that George (lowest approval rating of all time) Bush made democratization a key goal of his foreign policy. While the surveys show that most people admire the West’s freedoms, they do not feel that the US is actually serious about promoting democracy in Muslim lands.

In fact, the Bush Administration has shown that it flip flops quite a bit regarding the promotion of democracy in the Arab world. One example is Condoleezza Rice visiting Egypt in 2006 discussing their push for democracy, and when returning later she described the authoritarian regime as part of an important strategic relationship. The US cutting off funding to the Palestinian government after the election of Hamas members another example of American double standards in its promotion of democracy. The book quotes an editorial from the Syria Times saying,

Bush and his neo-conservative aides are still determined to fight the whole world using false mottos and hypocrisy. In practice, they are standing far away from the principles of freedom, independence, and democracy.

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Esposito and Mogahed note that despite not believing the US is serious about democracy there, many Muslims say political freedom and liberty, and freedom of speech, is what they admire most about the West. Lack of unity, economic and political corruption, and extremism are what they admire least about the Arab and Muslim world. A large majority of people polled actually cite the equal importance of Islam and democracy as essential to their quality of life and future progress of the Muslim world.

This brings up the question then, of how shari’ah law can be incorporated with the above findings. Shari’ah is something thought of as harsh or primitive in the West, but is something different for Muslims. It represents the moral compass of a Muslim’s personal and public life. It is something that was historically used to actually limit the power of the sultan. The book quotes a Muslim writer from aljazeera magazine, Sheikha Sajida as saying,

It’s logical to instill 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 …. applying Islamic law in Muslim states safeguards human rights against the oppression of the Arab rulers who are only focused on how to use their influence to the utmost before they lose the throne.

Democracy cannot be forced upon the region without first properly assessing the situation there. Why is democracy absent in the first place, and is it because of Islam? How should we react to Muslim support for Shari’ah law? What does shari’ah law mean? What is the role of the West in promoting democracy there?

Why Democracy is Absent in the Muslim World, and is it Because of Islam?

Muslim governments, relatively speaking, are not that old. Many were created after World War II, with their borders and rulers appointed by colonial powers.

Arbitrary borders and non-representative rulers produced weak nation-states with non-democratic governments that perpetuated a culture of authoritarianism … Many countries also suffered from failed economies and political corruption… Europe and America turned a blind eye to such conditions, supporting autocrats in the Muslim world and elsewhere to gain their allegiance during the Cold War and – in the Middle East – to ensure access to oil.

To date, Western movements have failed in Islamic lands and are blamed for robbing Muslims of their identity and values, and thus their unity and strength. Movements calling for a return to Islam gain strength in opposition, especially since it is seen as something that can wipe out the corruption there. This obviously leads to a big fear of ‘radical Islamic fundamentalism,’ but what many fail to note is that there is a ‘quiet revolution’ taking place as well. This is the existence of mainstream and non-violent Islamic political and social movements seeking reform with “ballots, not bullets.” This is strange, because these are the types of movements that people claim to favor in the first place.

Ironically, it is the terrorist threat of groups such as Al-Qaeda, that is actually being used to further legitimize authoritarian regimes in the region. They can brand any opposition as extremist and control the elections. It is therefore important to differentiate between legitimate mainstream groups versus the real extremists.

Polls show (what is otherwise obvious) that most Americans see Islam as a violent religion, especially after 9/11. Most Muslims though, see it as a moderate and peaceful religion.

How do Muslims View Democracy?

Most admire many aspects of democracy (such as freedom of speech) but they want their own model that incorporates shari’ah and is not completely dependent upon Western values. Those wanting no shariah and only shariah were the minorities. Most favored shari’ah as a source of legislation. A 2006 Gallup Poll also indicated that Americans are no different, with a majority wanting the Bible as a source of legislation. 46% want the Bible as ‘a’ source, and 9% want it as the ‘only’ source of legislation.

Should Support for Shari’ah Make us Panic?

Western leaders have often equated any mention of shariah with complete theocracy. Gallup Poll responses, however, indicate that this is not the case. Significant majorities in many countries actually said religious leaders should not play a direct role in drafting a constitution, writing laws, determining foreign policy, or regulating how people dress. Others said that religious leaders should serve only in an advisory role to government officials. Many who favor shari’ah actually view some of the restrictions in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran to actually be un-Islamic interpretations of shari’ah.

One interesting result to note is that women view shari’ah as compatible with their aspirations for empowerment. The majority of respondents indicated they believe women should have equal rights as men, the right to vote, the right to hold any job for which they are qualified, and the right to hold leadership positions at cabinet and national council levels.

What is the West’s Role in Promoting Democracy?

The West’s role cannot be assessed without looking at the criticisms leveled against its foreign policy. There is a large double standard in democracy promotion, most notably the support of authoritarian regimes and failure to support democracy in the Muslim world similar to how it was done in other countries after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Richard Haass, a former State Department official in the Bush adminsitration,

remarked that before the invasion of Iraq, both Democratic and Republican administrations practiced “democratic exceptionalism” in the Muslim world, subordinating democracy to other national interests such as accessing oil, containing the Soviet Union, and grappling with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

This coupled with things like failing to recognize the democratically elected Hamas has equated promoting democracy with ‘regime change’ in the Muslim world, losing all credibility. This further strengthens extremist groups, because they can show the people the democracy being brought is really just more trouble for them.

What Can the West Do?

The main thing respondents cited was for the West to demonstrate more respect and consideration. They need to demonstrate understanding of Islam as a religion, and not downgrade what Islam stands for.


Before any Muslims jump on the correctness or incorrectness of the conclusions reached, an important point must be kept in mind. The point here is to demonstrate what is really on the minds of most Muslims, and this data gives us exactly that. Most Muslims want societies that incorporate democratic principles. Most Muslims want freedom of speech, and equal rights for women.

The Shari’ah is one of the biggest issues facing us in the media. It is the buzz word to equate Muslims with being backwards and oppressive. The problem is, most Muslims themselves do not have adequate knowledge of the shari’ah to be able to defend it against such attacks.

Esposito and Mogahed referenced the well-known case of a Nigerian woman who was sentenced to death by stoning for being pregnant out of wedlock, and the man who had relations with her was freed due to the lack of the 4 witnesses needed to establish proof. A Sharia Court of Appeal overturned her conviction in 2003 becaues it violated Islamic Law.

This reminds me of something I learned while taking the AlMaghrib Rays of Faith class regarding this issue. Sh. Waleed was discussing the issue of stoning, and the four witnesses needed to establish the proof. To many people, this may seem like an illogical law. When are you ever going to find 4 people all witnessing this type of situation? Here’s the key point though: the goal of the shari’ah is not to punish people, it is to encourage them to repent. When the sin is that far out in the open though, that it is affecting the society, then yes, the punishment is applied. The proof for this is the well known hadith of the woman who fornicated and came to the Prophet (saw) to apply the punishment on her. He sent her back until she delivered her child, and she came back. He sent her back again to nurse the child, and she came back again, and they finally established the punishment. Some people have commented that it was almost as if he (saw) was trying to get her to just go and not come back for the punishment to be applied.

The laws of Islam come from Allah (swt) and are founded upon mercy and justice. We need to do our best to properly understand them, and the aims of the shari’ah so that we can respond back to the stereotypes laid out against us. As the data shows, Muslims are very much in favor of things like civil rights, civil liberties, human rights, economic stability, and just governance. The West needs to reassess its course of action in light of how Muslims think, and properly engage them, instead of painting a picture of them that does not reflect reality, and acting in response to it – all it does is strengthen extremist opposition and make things worse.

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Omar Usman is a founding member of MuslimMatters and Qalam Institute. He teaches Islamic seminars across the US including Khateeb Workshop and Fiqh of Social Media. He has served in varying administrative capacities for multiple national and local Islamic organizations. You can follow his work at



  1. Manas Shaikh

    April 25, 2008 at 8:50 AM

    There is little doubt that most of us just want to live peacefully.

    I think the real question is how can we set up a system in which everybody can be brought to book (Book, actually). Iran and Pakistan are somehow managing to function. But that itself is commendable, given the backdrop.

    The Kingdom model is unacceptable, no question about that. Democracy is definitely better.

  2. Siraaj

    April 26, 2008 at 1:57 AM

    The hypocrisy of the neo-cons knows no bounds. On the one hand, they invoke the judeo-christian underpinning of the Declaration of Independence as proof positive that America’s founding fathers meant for America to be a bible-based land, and thus American law should reflect this tradition, yet on the other hand, when Muslims wish to implement their religious values into the system, they go up and arms crazy about it.


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  4. Manas Shaikh

    April 26, 2008 at 5:34 AM


    I suspect they say include Jews in the equation now, but I suspect the founders of USA were very passionate about Christianity, and would have hardly cared about Jews.

    I may be wrong, though!

  5. Manas Shaikh

    April 26, 2008 at 6:05 AM

    woops! typo!

  6. Manas Shaikh

    April 26, 2008 at 6:07 AM

    I mean repeated word “suspect.” Not exactly a typo.

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  8. Sharif

    May 6, 2008 at 4:07 PM

    I believe that most, if not all, of the founder fathers of the United States were actually deists, not Christians.

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  10. Shaitaan's Worst Enemy

    August 12, 2008 at 10:58 PM

    George Dubya Butcher doesn’t want democracy, he wants money.

    And American laws aren’t totally based on Judeo-Christian Laws, because if they were, then there would be punishments for having pornography, aldutry, fornification, on TV as well as in real life.

    Noam Chomsky said that George Dubya Butcher & his brainwashed-American puppets are the biggest supporters of the Wahhabi-Fundamentalist State of Saudi Arabia & the King Adumbasslama. Iran is a free republic compared to Saudi Arabia, even though I think that Iran still has Shi’ite Extremism.

    I don’t think western styled democracy or middle eastern style theocracy will make much difference in the Islamic-dominated world.

    I think a mixture of goods from both societies would be great.

    I think certain aspects of sharia Law should not be removed, but they should be REFORMED.

    I think civil sharia laws should remain, but the Hudud criminal sharia laws should be reformed.

    For ex. Instead of punishing murderers, rapists, thieves, alcoholics, gamblers, with executions, stonings, amputations, floggings etc., we should replace all these punishments with imprisonment. So, that people will see Islam as a more of peaceful religion rather than a barbaric one. There are also times when the innocent gets punished barbarically, that’s why imprisonment is the only good solution.

    And yes, dictatorship is haraam in Islam, but I see alot of dictatorship in the Muslim world. Therefore, there should be free elections.

    Plus, the biggest law breakers under Sharia, are the people who control it. The King of KSA drinks, but he never gets flogged. The King has the right to send a cop to murder you, if you say something against him. The king’s grandchildren drink & party with fornicating women in Las Vegas, but they never get lashed.

    In conclusion, pure theocracy doesn’t work.

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  14. IbnAbdullah

    December 24, 2009 at 2:50 PM


    This is an excellent chapter to an excellent book. I believe that Sharia and democracy are not mutually exclusive, and we can have both in the Muslim world. The Quran teaches Muslims to consult (shura) each other.

    I do not know that the Prophet SAAS commanded one particular political model, but rather he taught us principles like shura, ijma, maslaha, and ijtihad which help us apply the universal laws of Islam (like justice) to particular situations which did not come up during the time of the Prophet. I believe Islam is flexible enough to authentically adapt to different cultural and political contexts. With this in mind, Muslims in different regions need to write and enforce constitutions that the people decide are best for governing them. There is wisdom in democratic philosophy and I believe we can take from that while still remaining true to our classical heritage.

  15. United Ummah

    January 8, 2013 at 1:34 AM

    @Shaitaan’s Worst Enemy. Assalamu Calaykum. While I was reading your post brother or sister some things disturbed me. You said that Hudud crimes should be reformed. I do not know if you are aware of this but the Hudud laws are taken from the Quran. Hudud are Pre-established by Allah(SWT) in the Quran so to say it needs to be reform is absurd. Do you honestly believe the laws prescribed by Allah(SWT) needs to be changed? That seems crazy to me and I do not think I am only the one who thinks this way. I do not think our religion needs to change so that it can look “peaceful” to people. I think Muslims need to change and come back to Quran and Sunnah.

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