Robert a. Levine 1-28-15
The recent violence against those who had satirized religion and particularly Islam, perpetrated by a small group of Muslim terrorists, does not necessarily mean that Islamic ideas are incompatible with democracy. Or does it? Though a number of Muslims in France marched in solidarity with the supporters of Charlie Hebdo and denounced the attacks and murders that had occurred, many other French Muslims in interviews said that the killings of those who made fun of the Prophet Muhammad were justified. And there were furious demonstrations throughout the Muslim world supporting those who had upheld the honor of Islam against the blasphemous cartoonists. Of course, this was not the first time that freedom of expression had been challenged by Muslims and one must wonder whether Islam and democracy can coexist in the same nation.
In 2013, there was a survey of the viewpoints of 38,000 Muslims in 39 countries by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. A brief summary of the results follow.
Over three quarters of Muslims in South Asia and more than half in the Middle East and North Africa favored death for apostates (those who renounce Islam or practice it differently) and approved cutting off the hands of thieves. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in all Islamic states desired Sharia (Islamic religious law) for the official legal system. Large majorities of Muslims also believed that women must always obey their husbands and only a minority thought women should be permitted to divorce. Belief in God was felt to be a prerequisite for being a moral person, and immoral conduct included sex before marriage, drinking alcohol, and homosexuality. Western pop culture and media offerings were considered threats to morality in Islamic nations.
Though a majority of Muslims denounced suicide bombings, considerable minorities in all Islamic countries said it was justified in certain circumstances. And though most Muslims favored a democratic system of government, they wanted religious leaders to have a hand in shaping government policy. When asked to choose between democracy and a strong leader, just 55 percent opted for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa and only 45 percent in South Asia. A large proportion of Muslims found there was a conflict between Islam and modern society, as well as Islam and science.
Examining how Muslim democracies have fared does not provide support for the idea that Islam and democracy are compatible. Pakistan is currently a disaster with corruption running rife, Islamic terrorists battling the military, Baluchistan trying to secede, the justice system in thrall to the affluent and politically connected, Sunni extremists murdering Shiites and other minorities, and intermittent military takeovers since independence almost seventy years ago. Iraq and Afghan democracies installed by American force of arms are both kleptocracies with corruption present in every facet of life. Ethnic and religious conflicts are raging even as the governments wage war against Islamic extremists. The Iraqi army disintegrated under attack by ISIS, their leaders inept political appointees instead of military men. Survival of democracy after Western military and economic support stops is questionable in both countries.
Turkey has evolved from a democratic state into an Islamist autocracy, with President Erdogan controlling the media and removing any independent voices from the judiciary, the police and the army. Though he and his family have been accused of corrupt activities, there are no prosecutors or judges free to investigate them. And Erdogan has defined women’s roles in Islamist terms after they had unlimited opportunities in the previous secular democracy. A Kurdish insurrection continues in the east.
Malaysia is a multi-ethnic state with Chinese and Indian minorities in addition to the Muslim Malays. The ruling party has remained in power after losing the last election, as rural Islamic areas have more voting power than the cities where the opposition is concentrated. The opposition leader was previously imprisoned on trumped up charges of sodomy and corruption until he was released by the Supreme Court. Freedom of expression is a myth, the media unable to criticize government ministers under the threat of suspension. Preference is given by law to the Muslim Malays in education, housing, employment, bank loans, and so forth, democracy practiced in name only.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocratic state controlled by the Ayatollah Khamenei and the religious authorities. Candidates for office must first be vetted by clerics before being allowed to run and government policy must be approved by the Supreme Leader Khamenei. There is no freedom of speech or expression and appropriate dress and conduct by women are enforced by the morality police. In no way can Iran be considered a democracy.
Indonesia is the largest Islamic democracy with free elections only since 1999. Corruption is endemic with the establishment reluctant to back the systemic changes necessary to reduce profiteering and fraud. Attacks on minority religious groups by extremists occur intermittently with Christian churches forced to close in spite of laws that protect freedom of worship. Though there was a peaceful transition in the presidential election last year, there are extensive problems facing the government and its ability to transform the nation remains in question.
Thus it can be seen that in the attitudes and beliefs of adherents to Islam, Western concepts of democracy with freedom of expression and gender equality are not acceptable. In the Islamic states that are nominally democracies, democratic freedoms and practices are not being followed. Democracy and Islam appear to be ideologies at odds.