Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Islam and Democracy

by John Heit

I often hear people asking questions about why Islam and democracy are incompatible. Why doesn’t democracy work with Islam? Actually, that’s not entirely accurate; usually I hear the statement that Islam and democracy aren’t compatible. And after a few moments of discussion, someone may raise the question: well, why not? That’s a good question...

I should offer a disclaimer from the beginning: I am not an expert on Islam and democracy. But, as a student aspiring to such heights, I will offer my opinion in print for the first time. Here’s my thesis: Islam and democracy are not incompatible.


Instead of launching into a long, academic treatise on this question, I think I’ll start with what are some of the more common explanations for this supposed incompatibility. This is not the medium to address all the arguments out there, but I can look at what are the two or three most common ones I hear. These explanations are actually more like bad case studies from which far-reaching extrapolations are drawn but here they are:

1) The image of Islam forced to the forefront by extremists, most notably Osama bin Laden,

2) Images and stories from Middle Eastern countries that are interpreted as proof of the incompatibility of Islam and democracy, and

3) Lack of argumentation—there are not many people disputing that the former two prove the incompatibility of Islam and democracy.

First off, these are powerful images. Osama bin Laden has surely soiled the name of Islam in the West due to his grossly intolerant and violent interpretation of religion. The fact that he is probably the most (in)famous Muslim in the United States makes it rather easy to see why so many of us look at his perverted brand of Islam and extrapolate that Islam is essentially intolerant and totalitarian. The problem with this is pretty straightforward: bin Laden is the epitome of religious intolerance and violence; he is the fringe of the spectrum of interpretation. The scale of his violence has made him the spokesman for Islam in the U.S. And, unfortunately, there seems to be little expectation from Americans outside the Muslim community to hear another spokesman/woman.

The second explanation is a lot trickier. It seems logical that one would look to Muslim countries to get an idea of what Islam is really all about and, most unfortunately, the governments of the Middle East hardly constitute the ideal of tolerance and freedom. This fact is more often than not seen as proof of the ill-fated relationship of Islam and democracy.


However, the picture is more complicated. The United Nations Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) has, I think, offered a view that corrects this second explanation. The AHDR is a lengthy and in depth report of the state of human development in the Arab world written by Arab academics, policy professionals, journalists, and other professionals. The AHDR cites repressive government as the obstacle to democracy, not Islam. These governments are the ones that do not allow open political competition and _expression, or freedom of the press, or freedom of religion. In fact, most venues for the development of civil society are shut down, leaving only the mosques and Islam as possible avenues for _expression. But those streets are dominated by clerics who, by virtue of their staunch conservative views, are kept in authority. It is a bleak situation that is generated by repressive autocratic regimes, not Islam.

Abdelwahab El-Affendi is a Muslim scholar living in London who makes an interesting note on this issue. In the Qur’an, there are direct and explicit verses dealing with the prohibition of alcohol and women’s dress and behavior. There are no such explicit verses dealing with political organization (El-Affendi 165-167). This has allowed a “textualism” to develop in which those in power can point to the text of the Qur’an for certain issues like women’s dress and alcohol and at the same time not worry about anyone pointing to scriptural passages condemning repressive, autocratic governments.


So where does this leave us today in the U.S.? Obviously it points to a lack of understanding regarding contemporary Islam and its relationship to government. But, more than that, this misunderstanding (and equally important, the lack of public counter to it) allows and seems to perpetuate an angry, condescending view of Muslims. Certainly, Americans today don’t accept public discussions of the inherent intolerance of Christianity because of the persecutions of non-Christians in the 4th and 5th centuries, or the divine right of European kings, or the Inquisition. Why should we accept similar reasoning regarding Islam and democracy? For when we in the West say Islam is incompatible with democracy, it is hardly a benign comment on a disputed matter in political philosophy—it is more akin to a condemnation of that which is “other”, barbarian, and backwards. That is quite a label to give another on the basis of such faulty, incomplete information.

Citations and sources for more information on Islam and democracy:

Esposito, John, Voll, John. Islam and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

El-Affendi, Abdelwahab. “Rationality of Politics and Politics of Rationality: Democratisation and the Influence of Islamic Religious Traditions.” Chapter in Islam and Secularism in the Middle East. Assam Tamimi and John Esposito, Eds. New York: New York University Press, 2000, 151-169.


John Heit was an SCU senior and Hackworth Fellow in 2004-05. Posted June 2005.

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