Islam, Sharia law and democracy
Nader Hashemi talks to Lewis Gropp 31 March 2011

In your book, “Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy” you write about Muslim societies and democracy. What do you tell people that categorically state that Islam and democracy will always be at odds because of Islam’s inherent anti-democratic nature?

I tell these people two things: First, you need to study history, and second, you need to overcome your Islamophobic prejudices. It should be remembered that not long ago similar arguments were advanced that claimed that Catholicism had an “inherent anti-democratic nature” and thus Catholic-majority societies could not democratize. How many people would make this claim today and be taken seriously? These arguments, if you think about them seriously, are spurious because they are based on the unexamined assumption that religion, in this case Islam, is fossilized and unchanging. The claim, therefore, that Islam is not subject to evolutionary transformation and development – like all religious traditions obviously are – ignores what really matters: the changing socio-economic and political context, which is all important in shaping how Islam/religion manifests itself in different regions of the world, at different moments in time. Moreover, Islam does not exist in the abstract but it is constantly interpreted by Muslims living in specific historical circumstances. As a friend of mine, Ebrahim Moosa, perceptively observed: “I’ve never seen Islam walking down the street, but I have seen Muslims walking down the street.” The point here is of human agency and the centrality of human interpretation. Thus, the proper question is not “what Islam is” but “under what social conditions can Islam be compatible with democracy?”

Where, for example, has Islam proven to be compatible with democracy?

According to most recent rankings by Freedom House, a respected non-governmental organization that monitors global democratic development, over half of the global Muslim population – about 800 million – is located in countries that are listed as “free” or “partly free”. Indonesia, for example, the most populous Muslim country in the world, receives very high scores for both civil rights and political rights, a remarkable achievement for a country that about a decade ago underwent a democratic transition, after decades of authoritarian rule. A similar story can be told about Turkey today, which also gets very respectable scores from Freedom House for democratic development. What is especially noteworthy about these recent gains for democracy in both of these important Muslim-majority countries is that these recent gains for democracy have been as direct result of the political participation of Muslim intellectuals and religious-based parties. This fact shatters long standing modernization theory and Orientalist assumptions about Islam and the supposed inherent dangers of introducing Muslims values into politics. The claim – which is still widely believed today – is that these traditional Muslim values were fossilized and unable to adapt to modernity and thus the only hope lay with overtly secular, pro-Western parties, institutions and intellectuals who could lead the Muslim world toward democracy, modernity and progress. The empirical evidence, as we enter the 21st century, suggests otherwise. I would also like to point to the case of contemporary Iran. The leaders of the Green Movement and its leading intellectuals are mostly religiously pious and practicing Muslims and by the standards of Europe they are very socially conservative. Nonetheless, they have all reconciled their understanding of Islam with secularism, human rights, democracy and gender equality.

What about Sharia law, though? There are various schools and it is not codified and therefore it seems it is thoroughly arbitrary and, therefore, unjust. Can Sharia be reconciled with democracy?

This is precisely why it can be reconciled with democracy, because there are several schools, it is not codified and it is arbitrary, subject to human interpretation. Having noted this, the opposite also applies; Shariah can be used for destructive and inhumane purposes as it is in Saudi Arabia and Iran today. Several points are worth noting. First, any legal system, whether it rooted in religion or secular humanism, can be put to sinister ends. What fundamentally matters is whether the system is accountable, adaptable and transparent and subject to democratic checks and balances. Secondly, Sharia is part of Islamic tradition and it cannot be wished away because some people in the West do not like it. As Karl Marx famously noted: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.” Thus, any emerging Muslim democracy will have to grapple with the monumental task of adapting and modifying Sharia so that it can be reconciled with contemporary democratic values and international standards of justice. This process will not be easy or straightforward. There will be gains and setbacks but in the end the struggle for democracy in Muslim societies will have to involve this difficult process of reconciling tradition with modernity, especially with respect to Islam’s legal system and the heritage that has been bequeathed to it. In this context, the important work of Muslim legal scholars such as Khaled Abou El Fadl and Abdullahi An-Na’im, to name just a few, are incredibly important in leading the way forward and creating new possibilities.

The end of any judicial system is equality and justice for all individuals subject to it. But under Sharia law, all non-Muslims will always be second-class citizens, at best. Is it really better to reform an unjust system to a less unjust system instead of working for a religiously neutral judicial system under which all subjects are treated equal? Sharia law will always discriminate against religious minorities – so why not advocate democracy, as we know it, straight away?

This is an excellent question whose answer should come from Muslim themselves. Any modern legal system in the Muslim world that seeks to draw upon Sharia law will have to deal with the principle of equality for non-Muslims and justice for religious minorities. There is no avoiding these important ethical issues. I would also add the status of women under Sharia law as well. But I notice you twice use the term “always” when discussing this topic. You affirm that Sharia law will “always” view non-Muslims as second class citizens and it will “always” discriminate against religious minorities. This suggests a certain essentialized and fossilized view about Islam; that it is – allegedly – forever struck in a pre-modern mindset and that it cannot evolve, adapt or reform itself due to its basic nature. I totally reject this understanding and approach to Islam. In fact it reminds me of the famous line from Lord Cromer, the British colonial administrator in Egypt, who quipped that “Islam reformed is Islam no longer.”

Islam in general and its legal system in particular are subject to human interpretation. Beyond a basic set of principles, everything else is up for grabs and is subject to revision, transformation and re-thinking – by human beings – residing in a particular historical, political and socio-economic context. Secondly, when you suggest that it better to disregard Islamic heritage and in exchange “advocate democracy, as we know it, straight away” you ignore the critical issue of cultural identity. Every society has a history, a heritage and an identity that is fluid that cannot be wished away. In the case of Muslim societies today, due to a very troubled history with external powers over the past 200 years and the rise of globalization, affirming a distinct cultural identity in the face of Western hegemony has become an important political theme in Muslim societies. The more the West tells Muslims to abandon Islam and to imitate “us”, the more the Muslim world will push back.

Finally, why do you assume that I am not advocating democracy? In fact, this is where the solution lies. It is only in the context of democracy, with a strong and vibrant civil society, that Muslims will be able to openly discuss and debate the type of legal system they want. Historically, Muslims have not had this opportunity due the persistence of political authoritarianism and the broad failures of the post-colonial state. It is in the public sphere where an ethical contestation of ideas will have to examine unavoidable contradictions and tensions, such as the ones you mention, and where over time an emerging consensus will develop based on a set of legal norms that will form the bedrock of any modern democratic Muslim polity. This process will be evolutionary and gradual but democracy will help keep it on track.

I don’t mean to say Islam and democracy are incompatible – on the contrary: Islam and democracy are compatible wherever Muslims live in a democratic environment, as they do in the US, in Germany, Turkey or Indonesia, for instance. I do, however, believe that minorities will always be a problematic issue with Sharia law, or indeed any religiously or ethnically or otherwise biased law, and I think that as soon as minorities are not an issue anymore, we’re not talking about Islamic law, because it is not specific to Islam-dominated societies anymore.

You seem to reduce the entire corpus of Islamic law to the question of minorities. This strikes me as a limited reading of the history and nature of Islamic law. Yes, the question of minority rights is deeply problematic for Sharia law, but based on recent scholarship by people like Khaled Abou El Fadl and Abdullahi An-Na’im, the possibilities of reconciling traditional Sharia norms with modern values are far greater than most people – including Muslims – realize. Yes, conservatives and traditionalists will cry foul at any attempt at reform but what is often forgotten is that the entire corpus Sharia law is based on human interpretation. As Muslim societies democratize and allow for open debate on pressing moral and ethical questions – such as the normative status of minorities in Islamic law – these issues will begin to be resolved. For example, recent rulings and interpretations of Islamic law on the status of Baha’is in Iran from the late Ayatullah Hossein Ali Montazeri give me hope and suggest that the doors of ijithad, i.e. independent reasoning within Islamic law, are reopening.

In “Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy” you explain how religious conflicts in Europe took literally centuries to resolve. What can we learn about contemporary Islam, and Islamic societies, when looking at 17th century Europe, or England in particular?

The first thing we can learn is that there are no “quick fixes” when it comes the question of religion’s role in the polis. In all emerging democracies this topic is deeply divisive and it sometimes takes generations, if not longer, to develop a broad democratic consensus; Muslim societies are no different in this regard. Secondly, it is important to point out key differences between today’s world and the 17th century. The role of the modern state in shaping internal societal debates is very different largely because the state, and the elites who control it, are more powerful than they were 300 years ago.

Moreover, globalization is a huge factor especially in terms of shaping identities and influencing social norms. Finally, the international context is qualitatively different. In Locke’s England, for example, there were no superpowers who could project their power across the world, invade, occupy and re-shape entire regions, including the internal make up of countries in the same way that the UK, France and later the USA has done in the Middle East during the 20th and 21st centuries. Finally, the process of modernization itself – which is inherently destabilizing – in the context of Europe took place over a longer period of time. In the case of most Muslim societies they are still in the early phases of modernization which also carries with it common destabilizing effects that are a by-product of rising literacy rates, an expansion of information networks, migration from rural to urban centers etc.

As the Princeton historian L. Carl Brown has noted in his comparative study of modernization “the time involved is squeezed down for today’s Muslims to a few decades as opposed to at least a century and a half, if not more, for Reformation Europe”. I would also add that two inherently destabilizing processes are occurring in Muslim societies simultaneously – democratization and secularization, or the debate on the normative role of religion in government. This partly explains why there is so much political upheaval in Muslim societies today and why they are so vertiginous.