Can Islam and Democracy Coexist?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Updated October 24, 2003

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Saudi Arabia recently announced that it would hold elections for municipal council positions. The Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., heralded the news as part of the kingdom's reform agenda and echoed an address by King Fahd last May in which he vowed to "broaden popular participation in the political process."

The eventual scope of Saudi reform remains to be seen, and the reasons driving such a decision are debatable. Yet even a small step towards democracy in the conservative kingdom raises eyebrows as questions reemerge about the future of participatory government in the Islamic world. How compatible are Islam and democracy, and under what conditions do the two thrive together?

A Matter of Perspective

Louay Safi, a member of the board of directors of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), has spent a lot of time thinking about the pairing of Islam and democratic forms of government. He sees a good fit.

"I think that Islam as a set of norms and ideals that emphasizes the equality of people, the accountability of leaders to community, and the respect of diversity and other faiths, is fully compatible with democracy. I don't see how it could be compatible with a government that would take away those values."

Yet throughout the Islamic world there are those who paint the two as at odds. Columbia University professor Richard Bulliet, who specializes in the history of the Middle East and other Islamic nations, feels that most of those presumptions are grounded in anti-U.S. and anti-West sentiment.

"Some of the people who say that democracy has no place in Islam, what they really express is a sense that the word 'democracy' as presented in international discourse appears to be wholly owned by the West," he said. "The word itself has, for some, a connotation of cultural imperialism. If you talk about representative government without the baggage of these institutions in the U.S., but on more idealistic grounds, then it makes perfectly good sense to a lot of Muslims. The idea of citizenry participating in government is, particularly within Sunni Islam, sort of a bedrock theory."

Bulliet adds, however, there is a minority that simply doesn't agree that democracy is right for Islam. "There are people who support the idea that Islam should be an emirate, that there should always be a ruler—the Taliban for example," he said. "You do have people who feel that autocracy is intrinsic to the Muslim system, and some of those people are on the violent side but some of them are not."

Self-government does have some roots in the Islamic world. Safi explains that historic Muslim societies were more representative than their modern counterparts because the central state was not as powerful. "I would argue that Muslim society was a society where communities had some control of their own affairs. There was more decentralization of power. The central government was mainly focusing on issues of law and order or security. There was a lot of liberty for individuals to negotiate many of the norms and rules within their own communities."

Safi feels that a historic mistrust of central authority, bolstered by post-colonial experiences with oppressive central governments, could spark Muslim societies to seek more participatory governments with weaker national authority.


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