Are Islam and democracy compatible? A large literature has developed arguing that Islam has all the ingredients of modern state and society. Many Muslim intellectuals seek to prove that Islam enshrines democratic values. But rather than lead the debate, they often follow it, peppering their own analyses with references to Western scholars who, casting aside traditional Orientalism for the theories of the late literary theorist and polemicist Edward Said, twist evidence to fit their theories. Why such efforts? For Western scholars, the answer lies both in politics and the often lucrative desire to please a wider Middle East audience. For Islamists, though, the motivation is to remove suspicion about the nature and goals of Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and, perhaps, even Hezbollah.
Some Western researchers support the Islamist claim that parliamentary democracy and representative elections are not only compatible with Islamic law, but that Islam actually encourages democracy. They do this in one of two ways: either they twist definitions to make them fit the apparatuses of Islamic government—terms such as democracy become relative—or they bend the reality of life in Muslim countries to fit their theories.
Among the best known advocates of the idea that Islam both is compatible and encourages democracy is John L. Esposito, founding director of the Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and the author or editor of more than thirty books about Islam and Islamist movements. Esposito and his various co-authors build their arguments upon tendentious assumptions and platitudes such as "democracy has many and varied meanings;" "every culture will mold an independent model of democratic government;" and "there can develop a religious democracy."
He argues that "Islamic movements have internalized the democratic discourse through the concepts of shura [consultation], ijma' [consensus], and ijtihad [independent interpretive judgment]" and concludes that democracy already exists in the Muslim world, "whether the word democracy is used or not."
If Esposito's arguments are true, then why is democracy not readily apparent in the Middle East? Freedom House regularly ranks Arab countries as among the least democratic anywhere. Esposito adopts Said's belief that Western scholarship and standards are inherently biased and lambastes both scholars who pass such judgments without experience with Islamic movements and those who have a "secular bias" toward Islam.
For example, in Islam and Democracy, Esposito and co-author John Voll, associate director of the Prince Alwaleed Center, question Western attempts to monopolize the definition of democracy and suggest the very concept shifts meanings over time and place. They argue that every culture can mold an independent model of democratic government, which may or may not correlate to the Western liberal idea.
Only after eviscerating the meaning of democracy as the concept developed and derived from Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece through Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in eighteenth century America, can Esposito and his fellow travelers advance theories of the compatibility of Islamism and democracy.
While Esposito's arguments may be popular within the Middle East Studies Association, democracy theorists tend to dismiss such relativism. Larry Diamond, co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, and Leonardo Morlino, a specialist in comparative politics at the University of Florence, ascribe seven features to any democracy: individual freedoms and civil liberties; rule of the law; sovereignty resting upon the people; equality of all citizens before the law; vertical and horizontal accountability for government officials; transparency of the ruling systems to the demands of the citizens; and equality of opportunity for citizens. This approach is important, since it emphasizes civil liberties, human rights and freedoms, instead of over-reliance on elections and the formal institutions of the state.
Esposito ignores this basic foundation of democracy and instead draws inspiration from men such as Indian philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), Sudanese religious leader Hasan al-Turabi (1932-), Iranian sociologist Ali Shariati (1933-77), and former Iranian president Muhammad Khatami (1943-), who argue that Islam provides a framework for combining democracy with spirituality to remedy the alleged spiritual vacuum in Western democracies. They endorse Khatami's view that democracies need not follow a formula and can function not only in a liberal system but also in socialist or religious systems; they adopt the important twentieth century Indian (and, later, Pakistani) exegete Abu al-A'la al-Mawdudi's concept of a "theo-democracy," in which three principles: tawhid (unity of God), risala (prophethood) and khilafa (caliphate) underlie the Islamic political system.
But Mawdudi argues that any Islamic polity has to accept the supremacy of Islamic law over all aspects of political and religious life—hardly a democratic concept, given that Islamic law does not provide for equality of all citizens under the law regardless of religion and gender. Such a formulation also denies citizens a basic right to decide their laws, a fundamental concept of democracy. Although he uses the phrase theo-democracy to suggest that Islam encompassed some democratic principles, Mawdudi himself asserted Islamic democracy to be a self-contradiction: the sovereignty of God and sovereignty of the people are mutually exclusive. An Islamic democracy would be the antithesis of secular Western democracy.
Esposito and Voll respond by saying that Mawdudi and his contemporaries did not so much reject democracy as frame it under the concept of God's unity. Theo-democracy need not mean a dictatorship of state, they argue, but rather could include joint sovereignty by all Muslims, including ordinary citizens. Esposito goes even further, arguing that Mawdudi's Islamist system could be democratic even if it eschews popular sovereignty, so long as it permits consultative assemblies subordinate to Islamic law.
While Esposito and Voll argue that Islamic democracy rests upon concepts of consultation (shura), consensus (ijma'), and independent interpretive judgment (ijtihad), other Muslim exegetes add hakmiya (sovereignty). To support such a conception of Islamic democracy, Esposito and Voll rely on Muhammad Hamidullah (1908-2002), an Indian Sufi scholar of Islam and international law; Ayatollah Baqir as-Sadr (1935-80), an Iraqi Shi'ite cleric; Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), an Indian Muslim poet, philosopher and politician; Khurshid Ahmad, a vice president of the Jama'at-e-Islami of Pakistan; and Taha al-Alwani, an Iraqi scholar of Islamic jurisprudence. The inclusion of Alwani underscores the fallacy of Esposito's theories. In 2003, the FBI identified Alwani as an unindicted co-conspirator in a trial of suspected Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders and financiers.
Just as Esposito eviscerates the meaning of democracy to enable his thesis, so, too, does he twist Islamic concepts. Shura is an advisory council, not a participatory one. It is a legacy of tribalism, not sovereignty. Nor does ijma' express the consensus of the community at large but rather only the elders and established leaders. As for independent judgment, many Sunni scholars deem ijtihad closed in the eleventh century.
Esposito's arguments have not only permeated the Middle Eastern studies academic community but also gained traction with public intellectuals through books written by journalists and policy practitioners.
In both journal articles and book length works as well as in underlying assumptions within her reporting, former Los Angeles Times and current Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Robin Wright argues that Islamism could transform into more democratic forms. In 2000, for example, she argued in The Last Great Revolution that a profound transformation was underway in Iran in which pragmatism replaced revolutionary values, arrogance had given way to realism, and the "government of God" was ceding to secular statecraft. Far from becoming more democratic, though, the supreme leader and Revolutionary Guards consolidated control; freedoms remain elusive, political prisoners incarcerated, and democracy imaginary.
Underlying Wright's work is the idea that neither Islam nor Muslim culture is a major obstacle to political modernity. She accepts both the Esposito school's arguments that shura, ijma', and ijtihad form a basis on which to make Islam compatible with political pluralism. She shares John Voll's belief that Islam is an integral part of the modern world, and she says the central drama of reform is the attempt to reconcile Islam and modernity by creating a worldview compatible with both.
In her article "Islam and Liberal Democracy," she profiles two prominent Islamist thinkers, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the exiled leader of Tunisia's Hizb al-Nahda (Renaissance Party), and Iranian philosopher and analytical chemist Abdul-Karim Soroush. While she argues that their ideas represent a realistic confluence of Islam and democracy, she neither defines democracy nor treats her cases studies with a dispassionate eye. Ghannouchi uses democratic terms without accepting them let alone understanding their meaning. He remains not a modernist but an unapologetic Islamist.
Wright ignores that Soroush led the purge of liberal intellectuals from Iranian universities in the wake of the Islamic Revolution. While Soroush spoke of civil rights and tolerance, he applied such privileges only to those subscribing to Islamic democracy. He also argued that although Islam means "submission," there is no contradiction to the freedoms inherent in democracy. Islam and democracy are not only compatible but their association inevitable. In a Muslim society, one without the other is imperfect. He argues that the will of the majority shapes the ideal Islamic state. But, in practice, this does not occur. As in Iran, many Islamists constrain democratic processes and crush civil society. Those with guns, not numbers, shape the state. Among Arab-Islamic states, there are only authoritarian regimes and patrimonial leadership; the jury is still out on whether Iraq can be a stable exception. Soroush, however, contradicts himself: Although Islam should be an open religion, it must retain its essence. His argument that Islamic law is expandable would be considered blasphemous by many contemporaries who argue that certain principles within Islamic law are immutable. Upon falling out of favor with revolutionary authorities in Iran, he fled to the West. Sometimes, academics only face the fallacy of what sounds plausible in the ivy tower when events force them to face reality.
What Ghannouchi and Soroush have in common, and what remains true with any number of other Islamist officials, is that, regardless of rhetoric, they do not wish to reconcile Islam and modernity but to change the political order. It is easier to adopt the rhetoric of democracy than its principles.
While time has proven Wright wrong, the persistence of Esposito exegetes remains. Every few years, a new face emerges to revive old arguments. The most recent addition is Noah Feldman, a frequent media commentator and Arabic-speaking law professor at Harvard University. In 2003, Feldman published After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy, which explores the prospects for democracy in the Islamic world. His thesis rehashes Esposito's 1992 book The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? and the 1996 Esposito-Voll collaboration Islam and Democracy. Even after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Feldman argues that the age of violent jihad is past, and Islamism is evolving in new, more peaceful, and democratic directions. Included in Feldman's list of Islamic democrats is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Islamist theoretician who has endorsed suicide bombing and the murder of homosexuals.
While most academic debates do not exit the classroom, the debate over the compatibility of Islam and democracy affects policy. Feldman pushes the conclusion that the Islamist threat is illusionary. Accordingly, he argues that Islamist movements should have a chance to govern. Feldman concludes with the prescription that U.S. policymakers should adopt an inclusive attitude toward political Islam. "An established religion that does not coerce religious belief and that treats religious minorities as equals may be perfectly compatible with democracy," he explained in a September 2003 interview.
Shireen Hunter, a former Iranian diplomat who now directs the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also repackages Esposito's general arguments in her book, The Future of Islam and the West: Clash of Civilizations or Peaceful Coexistence?, and, more recently, in Modernization, Democracy, and Islam, her edited collection with Huma Malik, the assistant director of Esposito's Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Both books deny the Islamist threat and try to reconcile Islamic teachings with Western values. She seeks to counter Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilization and gives an assessment of the relative role of both conflictual and cooperate factors of Muslim-Western relations. She argues that the fusion of the spiritual and the temporal in Islam is no greater than in other religions. Therefore, the slower pace of democratization in Muslim countries cannot be attributed to Islam itself. Although Hunter acknowledges that Muslim countries have a poor record of modernization and democracy, she blames external factors such as colonialism and the international economic system.
Other scholars take obsequiousness to new levels. Anna Jordan, who gives no information about her expertise but is widely published on Islamist Internet sites, argues that the Qur'an supports the principles of Western democracy as they are defined by William Ebenstein and Edwin Fogelman, two professors of political science who focus on the ideas and ideologies that define democracy. By utilizing various Qur'anic verses, Jordan finds that the Islamic holy book supports rational empiricism and individual rights, rejects the state as the ultimate authority, promotes the freedom to associate with any religious group, accepts the idea that the state is subordinate to law, and accepts due process and basic equality.
Most of her citations, though, do not support her conclusions and, in some cases, suggest the opposite. Rather than support the idea of "rational empiricism," for example, Sura 17:36 mandates complete submission to the authority of God. Other citations are irrelevant in context and substance to her arguments. Her assertion that the Qur'an assures the "basic equality of all human beings" rests upon verses commanding equality among Muslims and Muslims only, plus a verse warning against schisms among Muslims.
Gudrun Kramer, chair of the Institute of Islamic Studies at the Free University in Berlin, also accepts the Esposito thesis. She writes that the central stream in Islam "has come to accept crucial elements of political democracy: pluralism, political participation, governmental accountability, the rule of law, and the protection of human rights." In her opinion, the Muslim approach to human rights and freedom is more advanced than many Westerners acknowledge.
Islamist Rejection of Esposito's Theory
Ironically, while Western scholars perform intellectual somersaults to demonstrate the compatibility of Islam and democracy, prominent Muslim scholars argue democracy to be incompatible with their religion. They base their conclusion on two foundations: first, the conviction that Islamic law regulates the believer's activities in every area of life, and second, that the Muslim society of believers will attain all its goals only if the believers walk in the path of God. In addition, some Muslim scholars further reject anything that does not have its origins in the Qur'an.
Hasan al-Banna (1906-49), the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, sought to purge Western influences. He taught that Islam was the only solution and that democracy amounted to infidelity to Islam. Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), the leading theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood, objected to the idea of popular sovereignty altogether. He believed that the Islamic state must be based upon the Qur'an, which he argued provided a complete and moral system in need of no further legislation. Consultation—in the traditional Islamic sense rather than in the manner of Esposito's extrapolations—was sufficient.
Mawdudi, while used by Esposito, argued that Islam was the antithesis of any secular Western democracy that based sovereignty upon the people and rejected the basics of Western democracy. More recent Islamists such as Qaradawi argue that democracy must be subordinate to the acceptance of God as the basis of sovereignty. Democratic elections are therefore heresy, and since religion makes law, there is no need for legislative bodies. Outlining his plans to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia, Abu Bakar Bashir, a Muslim cleric and the leader of the Indonesian Mujahideen Council, attacked democracy and the West and called on Muslims to wage jihad against the ruling regimes in the Muslim world. "It is not democracy that we want, but Allah-cracy," he explained.
Nor does acceptance of basic Western structures imply democracy. Under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic adopted both a constitution and a parliament, but their existence did not make Iran more democratic. Indeed, Khomeini continued to wield supreme power and formed a number of bodies—the revolutionary foundations, for example—which remained above constitutional law.
Is Islamic Democracy Possible?
The Islamic world is not ready to absorb the basic values of modernism and democracy. Leadership remains the prerogative of the ruling elite. Arab and Islamic leadership are patrimonial, coercive, and authoritarian. Such basic principles as sovereignty, legitimacy, political participation and pluralism, and those individual rights and freedoms inherent in democracy do not exist in a system where Islam is the ultimate source of law.
The failure of democracies to take hold in Gaza and Iraq justify both the 1984 declaration by Samuel P. Huntington and the argument a decade later by Gilles Kepel, a prominent French scholar and analyst of radical Islam, that Islamic cultural traditions may prevent democratic development.
Emeritus Princeton historian Bernard Lewis is also correct in explaining that the term democracy is often misused. It has turned up in surprising places—the Spain of General Franco, the Greece of the colonels, the Pakistan of the generals, the Eastern Europe of the commissars—usually prefaced by some qualifying adjective such as "guided," "basic," "organic," "popular," or the like, which serves to dilute, deflect, or even reverse the meaning of the word.
Islam may be compatible with democracy, but it depends on what is understood as Islam. This is not universally agreed on and is based on a hope, not on reality. Both Turkey and the West African country of Mali are democracies even though the vast majority of their citizens are Muslim. But, the political Islam espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists is incompatible with liberal democracy.
Furthermore, if language has an impact on thinking, then the Middle East will achieve democracy only slowly, if at all. In traditional Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, there is no word for "citizen." Rather, older texts use cognates— in Arabic, muwatin; in Turkish, vatandaslik; in Persian, sharunad— respectively, closer in meaning to the English "compatriot" or "countryman." The Arabic and Turkish come from watan, meaning "country." Muwatin, is a neologism and while it suggests progress, the Western concept of freedom—understood as the ability to participate in the formation, conduct, and lawful removal and replacement of government—remains alien in much of the region.
Islamists themselves regard liberal democracy with contempt. They are willing to accommodate it as an avenue to power but as an avenue that runs only one way. Hisham Sharabi (1927-2005), the influential Palestinian scholar and political activist, has said that Islamic fundamentalism expresses mass sentiment and belief as no nationalist or socialist (and we may add democratic) ideology has been able to do up until now.
Why then are so many Western scholars keen to show the compatibility between Islamism and democracy? The popularity of post-colonialism and post-modernism within the academy inclines intellectuals to accommodate Islamism. Political correctness inhibits many from addressing the negative phenomenon in foreign cultures. It is considered laudable to prove the compatibility of Islam and democracy; it is labeled "Islamophobic" or racist to suggest incompatibility or to differentiate between positive and negative interpretations of Islam.
Many policymakers are also conflict-adverse. Islamists exploit the Western cultural desire to accommodate while Western thinkers and policymakers attempt to ameliorate differences by seeking to find common ground in definitions if not reality.
Into the mix comes Islamist propaganda, portraying Islam as peace-loving, embracing of civil rights and, even in its less tolerant forms, compatible with all democratic values. The problem is that the free world ignores the possibility that political Islam can threaten democracy not only in Middle Eastern societies but also in the West. The legitimization of political Islam has lent democratic respectability to an ideology and political system at odds with the basic tenets of democracy.
Esposito's statement that "the United States must restrain its one-dimensional attitude to democracy and recognize [that] the authentic roots of democracy exist in Islam" shows a basic ignorance of both democracy and Islamist teachings. These conclusions are exacerbated when Esposito places blame for the aggressiveness and terrorism of Islamic fundamentalism on the West and on Said's "Orientalists." It is one thing to be wrong in the classroom, but it can be far more dangerous when such wrong-headed theories begin to affect policy.
 John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 211-2; John O. Voll and John L. Esposito, Islam and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 18-21.