Sign Up

Islam's Wide World

How does Islam's view of democracy compare to other major world religions?

September 22, 2003

How does Islam's view of democracy compare to other major world religions?

Certainly, the Qur'anic model of leadership is authoritarian. The Muslim holy book is bursting with examples of the just king, the pious ruler, the wise arbiter. But the Bible has its authoritarian tendencies as well.

The kings of the Old Testament were hardly democrats. The biblical Solomon — held up as the wisest man of all — was after all an absolute monarch. The Bible also contains passages that seem to justify slavery and the subjugation of women.

The truth is that little is to be gained by searching in the Qur'an for clues to Islam's true nature. The Qur'an is a vast book, filled with poetry and contradictions — much like the Bible and the Torah.

All three books praise kings, as do most religious texts. As for mixing spiritual and temporal authority, Catholic popes combined religious authority and political power for centuries in a way that no Muslim ruler has ever been able to achieve.

Judaism has had much less involvement with political power because — until Israel's founding — Jews were a minority everywhere in the modern world. Yet, the word "theocracy" was coined by Josephus to describe the political views of the ancient Jews.

The founding religious texts of all faiths were, for the most part, written in another age — one filled with monarchs, feudalism, war and insecurity. They bear the stamp of their times.

Still, Western scholars of the 19th and early 20th centuries often argued that Islam encourages authoritarianism.

This assertion was probably influenced by their view of the Ottoman Empire — a community of several hundred million Muslims laboring docilely under the sultan in distant Constantinople, singing hosannas to him before Friday prayers.

But most of the world at the time was quite similar in its deference to political authority. In Russia, the czar was considered almost a god. In Japan, the emperor was a god.

On the whole, Asian empires were more despotic than Western ones — but Islamic rule was no more autocratic than Chinese, Japanese or Russian versions.

Indeed if any intrinsic aspect of Islam is worth noting, it is not its devotion to authority — but the opposite: Islam has an anti-authoritarian streak that is evident in every Muslim land today.

Islam has no religious establishment — no popes or bishops — that can declare by fiat which is the correct interpretation. As a result, the decision to oppose the state on the grounds that it is insufficiently Islamic belongs to anyone who wishes to exercise it.

There is also the question of timing. If Islam is the problem, then why is this conflict taking place now? Islam and the West have coexisted for fourteen centuries. There have been periods of war, but many more periods of peace.

Many scholars have pointed out that, until the 1940s, minorities — and particularly Jews — were persecuted less under Muslim rule than under any other majority religion. That is why the Middle East was for centuries home to many minorities.

It is commonly noted that a million Jews left or were expelled from Arab countries after the creation of Israel in 1948. No one asks why so many were living in Arab countries in the first place.

The trouble with thundering declarations about "Islam's nature" is that Islam — like any religion — is not what books make it, but what people make it. Forget the rantings of the fundamentalists. They are a minority.

Most Muslims' daily lives do not confirm the idea of a faith that is intrinsically anti-Western or anti-modern. The most populous Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, has had secular government since its independence in 1949, with a religious opposition that is tiny — though now growing.

As for Islam's compatibility with capitalism, Indonesia was until recently the World Bank's model Third World country, having liberalized its economy and grown at 7% a year for almost three decades.

It has now embraced democracy — still a fragile experiment — and has elected a woman as its president.

After Indonesia, the three largest Muslim populations in the world are in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India (India's Muslims number more than 120 million.)

Not only have these countries had much experience with democracy, all three have elected women as prime minister — and they did so well before most Western countries.

So although some aspects of Islam are incompatible with women's rights, the reality on the ground is sometimes quite different. And South Asia is not an anomaly with regard to Islamic women.

In Afghanistan — before its 20-year descent into chaos and tyranny — 40% of all doctors were women and Kabul was one of the most liberated cities for women in all of Asia.

Although Osama bin Laden may have embraced the Taliban's version of Islam, most Afghans did not — as was confirmed by the sight of men in post-Taliban Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif lining up to watch movies, listen to music, dance, shave — and fly kites.

Then there is Turkey, with the fifth-largest Muslim population in the world. It has a flawed, but functioning liberal democracy. It is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) — and perhaps soon will be a member of the European Union.

Add fledgling democracies such as Nigeria and Mali and you have a more rounded view of the world of Islam.

It is not the prettiest picture. Most Muslim countries are in the Third World — and share the Third World's problems of poverty, corruption and misgovernment. But there is no simple link between Islam and repression.

If there is a fundamental incompatibility between Islam and democracy, 800 million Muslims seem unaware of it.

Adapted from “The Future of Freedom” by Fareed Zakaria. Copyright © 2003 by Fareed Zakaria. Used by permission of the author.