Democracy and Theocracy in Islam

February 2, 2011

Many who comment on the current round of unrest in the Middle East frame the issue in terms of the democratic aspirations of the masses.  America’s role, they say, should be to promote Democracy.  I would, however, make two points.  One, from a western perspective, a democratic constitution that does not guarantee human rights is worthless.  Two, Islam more than most religions is incompatible with human rights, as that concept is understood in the West.

Islam is more incompatible with human rights than Judaism and Christianity for two reasons.

  • The scriptures of Judaism and Christianity are not held to be literally the word of God but merely inspired by God and written by ordinary humans.  Therefore, the Judeo-Christian scriptures admit interpretation.  The Holy Koran, however, is thought to be literally the words of God, spoken to the Profit, by the angel Gabriel.  Mohammed did not think he was composing the verses of the Koran, but simply reciting them. Consequently, the scope for interpreting the Koran is very limited.
  • Unlike Christ, the Profit lived long enough to found a theocracy.  The Koran implies a theocracy and without the possibility of interpretation devout Muslims must take the teachings of the Profit at face value. 

Islam need not be as hostile to women’s rights as it has been, but the structure of marriage as it is prescribed in the Koran cannot be altered.  I see nothing in the Koran that would preclude democracy, but only in the context of an Islamic theocracy.  The Koran does not prescribe world domination.  It contains much less violence than does the Christian Bible.  However, the fundamental tenants of the Koran and its presumption of theocracy cannot be altered.

In a predominantly Muslim country democracy will yield a theocracy and a theocracy will always be antithetical to some aspects of human rights as we understand the term.  To take just a few examples, Islam cannot permit to freedom of speech that is blasphemous, that proselytizes for another religion, or even questions Islam.  Granting civil rights to homosexuals is out of the question.  Women’s rights will be limited by the Koran’s concept of the superiority of men to women (e.g. Sura 4, 38). 

All this does not mean that Islamic countries must persecute other religions.  Nor does it mean that the West cannot find common ground with Islam.  It does not mean that Islamic countries are bound to be fanatical.  It does, however, mean that there will be an ideological gulf between Islam and the West over the issue of human rights and it means that the gulf will widen if the masses achieve democracy.

Given the fundamental realities of the Muslim religion, the West cannot expect to be able to impose a secular democracy or our ideas of human rights on Muslim countries.  The prospects for bringing Western style government to the Middle East (given its turbulent history and economic backwardness) are nil.  The best we can hope for in our relations with Islam is peaceful coexistence.

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