Islam and Democracy

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Some 1.3 billion people are adherents of Islam; the majority live in the Middle East, and Indonesia is the country with the most Muslims.

Islam and democracy

In relation to democracy, Islam has the same problem as Judaism, in that Islamic laws have been formulated from the Quran and Hadith, i.e. Muhammad's customs, which apply to all aspects of life and society.

In relation to tolerance, Islam has the same problems as Christianity, as it would like to convert the whole world and only leaves room for other religions under certain conditions (Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism do not do missionary work.)

In relation to enlightenment, the Quran encourages people to explore the world because that is the only way one can understand the greatness of God's creation. However, the Quran has numerous warnings against doubting the Quran. Surah 2, verse 1 of the Quran can be translated in various ways; for example: "This scripture is infallible", "This book should not be doubted," and "This is the Scripture; there can be no doubting it."

Islam and Human Rights

In 1981, the Islamic Council in London drew up a "Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights". At first glance, the declaration has much in common with the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it differs in two main areas, namely, the rights of women and minorities, and in addition that the only valid law is the law of God. In the foreword, it says, among other things:

Human rights in Islam are firmly rooted in the belief that God, and God alone, is the Law Giver and the Source of all Human Rights. Due to their Divine origin, no ruler, government, assembly or authority can curtail or violate in any way the human rights conferred by God, nor can they be surrendered.

Among the rights that are mentioned are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, protection from abuse and torture, and the right to education and a private life, but these are given by God. One can therefore see the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights either as an attempt to associate themselves with the UN declaration of human rights without compromising their religion; as proof that the Quran came in advance of man-made human rights; or as a fundamental misunderstanding of what human rights are all about, namely an agreement we make with each other out of respect for each other and not because of a belief in unseen powers.

Islam in practice

In practice, the Quran is open to interpretation, and Islamic law is based in reality more on Hadith, the traditions of how Muhammad lived. At the same time, Islamic law is not just a single entity; there are different schools within Islam, which emphasise different aspects, or even disagree on interpretations. In addition, the individual plays a significant role in Islam, and even though priests of all religions at all times try to give the impression that there is one and only one true version of their religion, the practice takes its form from each individual, also in Islam.

A key concept in Islam is jihad. This is often translated as "holy war", but in fact it means "to exert oneself." Jihad is thus very much an individual project. According to the Quran, jihad consists of four things: to exert oneself for a just cause, to fight against one's own weaknesses and desires; to take responsibility for society; and to defend the right to worship God.

The interpretation of what that means in practice is widely different from Muslim to Muslim, and from school to school. Personal effort and responsibility to society can be interpreted in a democratic way and also in a totalitarian Islamist direction. However, people with a desire for totalitarian power easily find support for it in the Quran, for example, Surah 6:114-115: Those to whom we have given the Scripture know that it is sent down with truth from your Lord. So you'd better not be among the doubters! Your Lord's words are perfect in truth and justice. No-one can change His words.

The democratic possibilities

The absolute majority of countries that call themselves Muslim and base their legislation on Islam are also among the world's least democratic, but in theory it need not be so. The Quran speaks to the individual and recommends consultation, but does not prescribe a specific political system. On the other hand, democratic society is the one that best meets the actual substance of the Muslim declaration of human rights.

The Arab Spring - democracy in the Middle East

For years, many people have been doing everything they could to convince everyone that Islam and democracy are incompatible. This applies, for example, to religious rulers in the Middle East, Islamophobic Christians in the West and the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda and other groups that want to make Islam political.

The popular protests and political upheavals in the Middle East in 2011 have shown that Muslims have the same desire for democracy and a life in freedom and security as everyone else.

Democracy in the Middle East is, however, facing some huge challenges. Democracy is hard work and it demands a lot of the people who are going set it up, live with it and maintain it. Sometimes it can seem easier just to hand the responsibility over to priests and holy scripture. This is the major reason that democracy requires freedom of information, knowledge and an open and free debate. This openness and the freedom to speak out against religious authorities will be a huge challenge in Muslim societies, but it is a challenge that is not fundamentally different to what we in the West have been through the last 500 years in our struggle against Christianity as a political power. Hopefully, the Middle East can establish viable democracies somewhat faster than us.


Next chapter: Protestantism and Democracy