Is Islam Compatible with Democracy?

Is Islam Compatible with Democracy?
Posted on July 3, 2016 | Yasser Harrak | Written on July 3, 2016
Letter type:

There is an ongoing debate about whether Islam is compatible with democracy. There are two ways to look at this question. The first one is by asking if democracy can be possible in a predominantly Muslim nation. The second way to look at this question is by asking if democracy can be fused with Islam as a form of government.

To answer the question if democracy is possible in countries where Muslims form a majority, we can utilize the Council on Foreign Relations report "In Support of Arab Democracy ,Why and How?". The very fact that the Council sponsored a task force that finds that the United States should support the development of democracy consistently throughout the Middle East, where Muslims are the majority, means that it is possible to have democracy in a country with Muslim majority. Otherwise, the recommendation would be that the US should not support the development of democracy in an predominantly Muslim environment where it would not develop. Reading the Arabic version of the report, one cannot find where Islam is referred to as an obstacle in the way of democratizing the Middle East. In fact, the obstacles that were mentioned are more political and socio-economic than religious. The report talks about corruption, education, rule of law, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the role of the fourth estate  and ,to some extent, it talks about Islamist political parties as areas to work on (CFR 2005, pp 22-26). The report finds that the threat of Islamist parties can be avoided with strong constitutions that protect rights and freedoms. In addition, predominantly Muslim countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey have relatively adopted democratic principles and are far advanced in embracing democracy compared to many predominantly non-Muslim countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The conclusion that we draw from the CFR report is that Islam as a spiritual experience does not constitute an obstacle in the democratization process in the Middle East, whereas Islamism or political Islam may be.  

This leads us to answer the second question that seeks to find if democracy can be fused with Islam as a form of government. In other words, it seeks to evaluate the possibility of creating a form of democracy that is unique to Muslims. The uniqueness of this hypothetical democracy has a lot to do with  undermining basic democratic notions, most important of which is the freedom of religion. A system that tortures or jails citizens based on blasphemy laws, or executes them based on heresy laws cannot be called democratic simply because it has a parliament and regular elections. Islamist parties are all about using democratic institutions to impose undemocratic rules. The laws that Islamists aim to pass using democratic institutions limit or undermine individual freedoms, minority rights and gender equality. For this matter, there can be no democracy á la Shari'a.

Islam, in the Middle East, can play a role similar to the role played by Judaeo-Christianity in Western constitutions. A minimum of moralistic background compatible with modernity can be allowed in the writing of constitutions. Political parties that  are based on religion, social class or ethnicity must be banned. This remains, in my opinion, the sole possibility of fusing democracy with Islam.



Council on Foreign Relations. In Support of Arab Democracy: Why and How. Independent Task Force Report No. 54: 2005 (Arabic Version). Accessed March 17,2016.

About The Author

Yasser Harrak's picture

Alma mater: American Public University (MA, Grad Cert), Concordia University (BA). 


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