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Islam and Democracy: A Critical Perspective on a Misconstrued Relationship
Jan 1, 2008
Nowadays, there is hardly any topic in the field of political science more interesting than the question of the relationship between Islam and democracy: Is Islam compatible with democracy and democratic ideals? This question has a direct impact on the lives of one quarter of the world’s population. At the same time, the question also has implications for students of social science: Does religion in general, and Islam in particular, affect the political regime of a country? It becomes an even more attractive question considering the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslim-populated countries (with only a few exceptions) are governed by either non-democratic regimes, or unstable democracies.

In this essay, I will embark on the task of clarifying some common problems associated with the study of Islam and democracy, and introduce alternative ways of looking at the relative absence of democratic regimes in Muslim-majority countries. In doing so, I will make use of two important recent works. The first is Islam and the Challenge of Democracy by Khaled Abou El Fadl (2004). Abou El Fadl discusses opportunities within the Islamic theological doctrine for a democratic form of government; in fact, he suggests that democracy best suits the social and political values set forth by the Islamic doctrine. The second piece includes the ideas of the well-known Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen compiled in a special issue of The Muslim World journal dedicated to Gulen in 2005. To a series of questions regarding the individual, the state, and the type of regime, Gulen approaches the question from a different perspective, emphasizing “universal values” in both Islamic fundamentals and democratic ideals, and he rejects the incompatibility between Islam and democracy. I will also briefly discuss the implications of the debate on Islam and democracy from a broader perspective, bringing the religion, in general terms, to the discussion, and I will explain what the implications might be from an interfaith perspective.

Political Islam? Misconstrued Islam of the modern times

One common problem in the analyses of Islam is the misjudgment of what is observed in the last century or so, predominantly through the eyes of Orientalist writers. In essence, this perspective focuses on Islam more as a political ideology and less as a religion, whereby individuals organize their lives around the pillars of the faith. According to this new scheme, Islam is confined to a system of political ideas, and the problems of Muslims worldwide are to be solved by this emerging concept of Islam. Interestingly, this perspective has been embraced by some Muslims, as well as by observers from the West. The Islamic authenticity of this perception is never questioned.

A closely related problem arises in viewing the states that emerge in Muslim-majority countries as Islamic, regardless of any objective criteria to judge them as Islamic. In many cases, the Islamic rhetoric used by government officials is considered enough to categorize them as Islamic, even though no legal Islamic authority has been implemented in such states. In essence, many authoritarian rulers disguise themselves as representing Islam when they do not even come close to being Islamic in their actions. Having an Islamic population or a Muslim leader does not equate to an Islamic state; in this vein, not every state that uses Islam in its discourse should be regarded as Islamic. Esposito and Voll draw attention to this problem. According to them, what we observe in Muslim-majority countries is the coupling of authoritarian regimes with more secular understandings, and democratic demands with the more Islamic portions of the populations: “As a result, authoritarian political establishments have become identified with secularist approaches to politics and modernization…The most effective opposition to authoritarian regimes is expressed through a reaffirmation of the Islamic identity and heritage.”2 Politicians in every country make use of religious rhetoric as best as they can because it provides a significant amount of legitimacy to their political strategies. Hence, just as President Bush’s or German Chancellor Merkel’s3 occasional references to religion do not make their rule non-secular, nor their countries theocracies, similar references by the various rulers in the Muslim-majority countries should be regarded in a parallel way.

An alternative problematic conceptualization concerns the principle of secularism, and the separation of religious and political spheres. One commonly asserted claim is that most Muslim-majority countries are ruled with a fusion of these two spheres. Samuel Huntington is a leading figure in pursuing this line of argument. In arguing against the possibility of democratic regimes in Muslim-majority countries, Huntington claims that Islam also rejects any distinction between the religious community and the political community. Hence there is no equipoise between Caesar and God, and political participation is linked to religious affiliation.”4 However, in Steven Fish’s observation, it is, in fact, difficult to come up with more than a couple examples of states in the Islamic world that intertwine religious and political powers, such as Iran and the Taliban’s Afghanistan.5

Culture and Islam

Ronald Inglehart, who is among the pioneers of cultural arguments, claims that diverse Islamic cultures do not go well with democratic practices. In an article in Foreign Affairs in 2003, Inglehart and Norris claim that various cultural elements stand between democracy and Muslim countries, including divorce, abortion, gender equality, and gay rights.6 From a different cultural perspective, Manus Midlarsky claims that a low level of tolerance has been the root cause of the inconsistency of Islam with democracy.7 In other contexts, hierarchy and obedience were introduced as Islamic cultural elements that are incompatible with democracy and economic development.

There are two kinds of problems with these cultural arguments. First, in a direct sense, some of these cultural attributes do exist in Muslim-majority countries, yet their connection with Islam has not been well established by the proponents of such arguments. For example, on the issue of intolerance and gender inequality, it would take considerable effort to find theological evidence from the scripture or the practices of the Prophet to support any behavior that is disrespectful and intolerant toward non-Muslims, or suggesting the superiority of men over women. In this sense, even though it may be argued that such cultural traits are not consistent with a democratic culture, relating these attitudes to an Islamic culture seems unfounded.9

Secondly, it seems rather unusual to conceptualize the issues of divorce, abortion and gay rights together with democracy. In many instances, the comparison groups used to evaluate the relative merits of such cultural traits are irrelevant. Take for example, Inglehart and Norris’ comparison of contemporary Western societies, which made the transition to democracy a long time ago, contrasted with contemporary Muslim societies, most of which have not experienced democracy yet. When we consider contemporary Western societies, we cannot show that current or similar cultural attitudes were dominant a century ago, when most democratization happened in these countries. In this regard, it is important initially to establish the causal relationship between “cultural” factors such as divorce, abortion, and gay rights, and democratization in contemporary Western democracies; otherwise, simple correlational analysis will not provide useful evidence for this end.10 It may easily be the case that these new “post-materialist”11 cultural values in Western societies, A la Inglehart, are only a product of various phenomena, including economic development and democracy, and not a cause of them.

In essence, the distinction between religion, that is, Islam, and culture-which varies with respect to the conditions in which a society lives, such as geography, education, wealth, and history-has to be emphasized. This misunderstanding underlies most of the judgments against the incompatibility of Islam and democracy.

Doctrinal underpinnings

It is important to evaluate the relationship between Islam and democracy from the vantage point of existing political systems. There is no doubt that democracy provides the most appropriate alternative among the myriad of political systems that exist today. Two recent analyses by Gulen and Abou El Fadl make this point very clear. Both Islam and democracy emphasize and embrace values and ideals, such as human rights, the protection of minorities, freedom of expression and religious practice, and the rule of law.

A common concern about the relationship between Islam and democracy is where sharia rule fits in this context. Abou El Fadl draws attention to the contradiction between the contemporary states which call themselves “Islamist,” and the historical practice in prioritizing the legislative powers of the state versus the “divine law”: “For instance, the claim of precautionary measures (blocking the means) is used in Saudi Arabia to justify a wide range of restrictive laws against women, including the prohibition against driving cars. This is a relatively novel invention in Islamic state practices and in many instances, it amounts to the use of sharia in passing laws that create an oppressive condition-a condition that itself is contrary to the principles of justice under sharia.”

On sharia, Gulen argues that if a (democratic) state gives an individual the “opportunity” to learn and practice his or her religion, then the political system is “not considered to be against the teaching of the Qur’an.” Moreover, when a political system is consistent with “universal norms of law,” particularly in human rights and freedoms, there is no need for another form of state: “Even if such a renewal is not considered tashri’ (based on sharia), it is not conceived of as being against it.”14 Moving beyond black or white, and yes or no, Gulen argues that a political system that does not stem from sharia does not necessarily imply being against sharia; hence, a political system, such as democracy, may in fact be congruent with the basic tenets of the religion. Sharia, Gulen suggests, for the most part, relates to the personal religious life “supported by God’s commands, the Prophet’s sayings and practices, and the consensus of the Muslim community.” Principles regarding politics and state administration account for only five percent of the whole, whereas the rest focuses on issues related to “the articles of faith, the pillars of Islam, and the moral principles of religion.”15 As a result, most of the concern about Sharia is unfounded.

The final point in this section concerns the role of the individual and the nature of the relationship between the state and the individual. Islam regards government as a contract between the ruler and the ruled. Both have duties, responsibilities, and rights. In contrast to the common practice in many Muslim-majority countries, both the ruler and the ruled are subject to the rule of law. Hence, dictatorship and arbitrary rule are illegitimate forms of government: “In an Islamic administration, those who are at the top have to obey the law like ordinary people: They cannot violate these principles and cannot act in their practice against these principles.”16 In a similar vein, the right to rule does not belong to any kind of spiritual leaders, that is, the ulama, or to any other religious institution. Instead, the value and importance of the individual human being, and his/her righteousness, has been emphasized on various occasions. In this context, Abou El Fadl, like Gulen, addresses the ulama and its role in Islamic rule. He argues that while the ulama might have played a mediatory role between the rulers and the ruled, and even “thwarted tyrannous measures” in the past, unfortunately, in modern times, they have turned into “salaried state functionaries who play a primarily conservative, legitimist role for the ruling regimes in the Islamic world.”17 Based on this discussion, it becomes important to recognize the fact that Islam, on doctrinal grounds, underscores human rights, freedom of expression and religion, and individual accountability.18 This indicates the compatibility of Islam within a democratic political system.


Instead of trying to find the root-causes of the democratic gap in Islam, one should carefully analyze alternative factors to account for the dearth of democratic politics in Muslim-majority countries. Various alternative explanations have been discussed in the literature to account for democratization. One such model is Modernization Theory, which takes economic development to the center and asserts that education, social mobilization, urbanization, and communication are all considered integral parts of the modernization process that marks the transition from traditional forms of life to modern ones. This entire modernization process generates new social groups such as urban workers and union members that have different needs and demands from the political system compared to the old “social strata.”19 The political system, now, is placed at the center of the demands of these new social groups. In order to respond to the newly-emerging needs of the modern citizen, who has incidentally become aware of his/her capacity, the political system takes a more responsive and democratic form.

An alternative explanation comes in the form of “resource curse,” a term coined during the 1990s to explain various problems associated with countries endowed with rich natural resources. In contrast to what is observed in the rest of the world, in the Middle East, the idea of a rentier state prevails thanks to the abundance of natural energy resources. The state, in the region, does not depend on its subjects for revenues, that is, taxes. The state, and to a large extent the ruling elite, collect the revenues from the sale of natural resources in world markets. Lisa Anderson, in her analysis of state-building in the Middle East, brings forth the idea of democratic accountability of the ruling elite and the role it plays, or its lack thereof.

The distribution of these massive revenues entails an important benefit for the state. The state becomes “autonomous” from the society by means of “winning popular acquiescence through distribution rather than support through taxation and representation.” The absence of dependence on society on the part of the state results in the absence of democratic accountability to the people. The underlying rationale behind the “distributive state” is that everyone in the society receives roughly the same amount of benefits from the state, or “egalitarian current consumption” in Anderson’s terms. The result is an authoritarian political system with no internal mechanism to press for democratic development.

Religion and democracy

Concerns about the compatibility of democracy with various other religions have been frequently raised, namely with regard to such religions as Catholicism, Christian Orthodoxy, Confucianism, and Buddhism.21 Similar issues, as in the case of Islam, have been raised about these religions, and their cultural spheres: the hierarchical structure of the church, the emphasis on communal life rather than individualism, and the prominence of obedience and respect.22 Such criticisms over the course of this century, in fact, have a common implication from an interfaith dialogue perspective. Although in certain instances the concerns invoked against these cultural and religious traits may hold, we should bear in mind the fact that these religions embody a complex set of ideas, and doctrines; more than anything else, these religions indeed have the capacity to renew themselves over time to synchronize themselves with the requirements of the present. Hence, judging against religions too soon may prove inaccurate.

In this essay, I have tried to correct a number of misconceptions about Islam and its compatibility with democracy. In doing so, I have relied on the recent writings of two Islamic scholars of our time, Gulen and Abou El Fadl. Often, cultural traits of Muslims worldwide are accepted as Islam itself; similarly, Muslim-majority countries are, by default, regarded as being “Islamic” even though nothing in their constitutions or practices suggests this conclusion. The absence of stable democratic regimes among Muslim-majority countries is, in my opinion, due to non-religious reasons such as oil-dependency in the case of Middle East, and low levels of education and economic development more generally.

A. Kadir Yildirim is doctoral candidate at the Ohio State University in Political Science. He studies politics of globalization and social protection in developing countries, and politics of the Middle East. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


1.Throughout the modern era, a number of Muslim-populated countries experienced democratic regimes such as Turkey, Indonesia, Algeria, and Pakistan. However, most of such regimes are far from being recognized as stable democracies, where the chances for an authoritarian backlash are significantly lower than the unstable and precarious regimes in many Muslim-majority countries. In this regard, even though the current political regime – as opposed to the Suharto era – is democracy in Indonesia, the regime is qualitatively different than the ones we observe in Australia or Britain. Hence, the emphasis here is not merely on procedural elements of democracy, but on democracy as a comprehensive and stable political system with both its substantive and procedural elements. For more on democracy and elements of democratic regimes, please see Robert Dahl, 1971, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, Yale University Press; Dankwart A. Rustow, 1970, “Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model,” Comparative Politics, vol. 2(3); Samuel P. Huntington, 1968, Political Order in Changing Societies, Yale University Press; Larry Diamond, 1999, Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation, Johns Hopkins University Press.

2.John L. Esposito and John O. Voll, 1996, Islam and Democracy, p.16.

3.For an article by Ron Suskind on President Bush’s occasional references to religion, please see the 10/17/2004 issue of NY Times’ Magazine section. Merkel’s reference to the Christian roots of the EU: "I can't deny that I would have preferred to see a clearer reference to God based on Christian ideals in the constitution.” For complete text, please see the following webpage:

4Samuel Huntington, 1991, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, p. 307. A similar point is raised by Bernard Lewis in “Islam and Liberal Democracy: A Historical Overview,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 7(2), (1996).

5.M. Steven Fish, 2002, “Islam and Authoritarianism,” World Politics, vol. 55 (October).

6.Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, 2003, “The True Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs, March-April issue, p. 63.

7.Manus Midlarsky, 1998, “Democracy and Islam: Implications for Civilizational Conflict and the Democratic Peace,” International Studies Quarterly, vol. 42(3), pp. 485-511.

8.Jim Granato, Ronald Inglehart, and David Leblang, 1996, "The Effect of Cultural Values on Economic Development: Theory, Hypotheses, and Some Empirical Tests," American Journal of Political Science, vol. 40(3), pp. 607-631.

9.To see how women’s rights and treatment of non-Muslims are dealt with in Islam, please see the Farewell Sermon of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): Sahih Al-Bukhari, Hadith number 1623, 1626, 6361; Sahih of Imam Muslim also refers to this sermon in Hadith number 98.

10.Correlational analysis can only demonstrate that we observe divorce, abortion, gay rights and democracy in Western democracies; in and of itself, such an analysis can neither provide a causal mechanism to prove that these cultural traits lead to democratization, nor that the relationship is historically accurate.

11.These are the values that emphasize self-expression and quality of life in contrast to materialist values which center around economic and physical security. See Ronald Inglehart, 1997, Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies, Princeton University Press.

12.See The Muslim World, vol. 95(3), pp. 450-456 for Gulen’s comments. Also, see Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, Princeton University Press (2004), pp. 3-5 for Khaled Abou El Fadl’s comments on this point.

13.Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, p. 15.

14.The Muslim World, vol. 95(3), p.451.

15.Ibid, p. 451.

16.Ibid, p. 450. A similar point is raised by Abou El Fadl, p. 3.

17.Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, p. 16.

18.For further treatment of the subject, please see John L. Esposito and John O. Voll, 1996, Islam and Democracy; Omer Caha, 2003, "Islam and Democracy: A Theoretical Discussion on the Compatability of Islam and Democracy," Alternatives, vol. 2(3-4); Fethullah Gulen, 2001, “A Comparative Approach to Islam and Democracy,” SAIS Review, Vol. 21(2); Ermin Sinanovic, 2004, “The Majority Principle in Islamic Legal and Political Thought,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relation, vol. 15(2).

19.Karl Deutsch, 1961, “Social Mobilization and Political Development,” American Political Science Review, vol. 55(3), pp. 493-514.

20.Lisa Anderson, 1987, “The State in the Middle East and North Africa,” Comparative Politics, vol. 20(1), pp. 1-18.

21.See Nader A. Hashemi’s commentary on Abou El Fadl’s article in Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, p. 51.

22.Various studies have analyzed the relationship between religions and democratic origins and compatibility. For examples, please see Max Weber, 2001, Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Routledge; Jim Granato, Ronald Inglehart, David Leblang, 1996, "Cultural Values, Stable Democracy, and Economic Development: A Reply," American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 40(3); Steve Bruce, 2004, “Did Protestantism Create Democracy,” Democratization, vol. 11(4); Michael Minkenberg, 2007, "Democracy and Religion – Theoretical and Empirical Observations on the Relationship Between Christianity, Islam and Liberal Democracy," Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies; Bruce, S., 2004 "Did Protestantism Create Democracy?" in Anderson, J. (ed.) Religion, Democracy, and Democratization, Frank Cass; Chaibong, H., 2004 "The Ironies of Confucianism," Journal of Democracy, vol. 15(3).