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January 27, 2010

Human Rights, Democracy and Islam - Part I

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

More by this author...

Democracy, at least in theory, provides for the realization and protection of human rights.

As captured in Article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by equivalent free voting procedures.”

One aspect of democracy that has been debated long and vigorously by intellectuals, activists and politicians concerns the connection of democracy to Islam, as in the question: “Is there a relationship between Islam and democracy?”

If you ask me, this is a very strange question. 

First, such a question has not been posed in the context of any other mainstream religion. Second, if democracy is deemed to be politically and socially the best system of governance for the common good, then Islam not only accepts, but encourages, democracy.

But I suspect that the answer is not that simple, or at least, there are people who do not wish to make it so.

Two high-profile groups maintain that Islam and democracy are incompatible.

Westerners against Islamic democracy

One is represented by Western-hemisphere writers like Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes, both Zionist Jews. In their view, Islam is anti-democratic. “For Islamic fundamentalists, democracy is obviously an irrelevance, and unlike the communist totalitarians, they rarely use or even misuse the word,” says Lewis, “They are, however, willing to demand and exploit the opportunities that a self-proclaimed democratic system by its own logic is bound to offer them.”

Since Western thought directly correlates democracy with world peace, the only conclusion to be drawn from them is that most of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are an impediment to peace.

If the Lewis and Pipes group were to ask me—an unlikely scenario—I would respond that theirs is a racist and dangerous ideology based on twisted dogma and chopped logic.

Muslims against Islamic democracy

Another group whose ideology is similarly based on thin evidence emerges from within Islam itself. Certain Muslim politicians and self-styled spiritual leaders trash all that is Western and blame democracy for every ill that has befallen humanity over the past century or more. [Need examples]

As they see it, Western concepts of democracy, secularization and the nation-state rely for their authority on human, rather than divine, legislation, and as such contradict Islamic religious and political thought.

They maintain that Islam is both superior to and different from Western democracy, and they spread this message to the masses with slogans like “al-islam howa al-hal,” which roughly translated means: “Islam is the solution for everything.”

This separatist point of view can be seen in the writings of Sayyid Qutb, a major figure of the Muslim Brotherhood who was executed by Egyptian authorities in 1966. [Need citation]

Many Muslims thinkers agree with Qutb, among whom is the prominent Pakistani scholar Abu‘ala al-Mawdudi.

Both Qutb and al-Mawdudi believe that Western democratic values corrupt the human soul and to society. Qutb, who lived in the U.S., said Western democracy had reached the point of virtual bankruptcy and should not be imported to the Muslim world.

“It is necessary to revive that Muslim community which is buried under the debris of the man-made traditions of several generations, and which is crushed under the weight of those false laws and customs which are not even remotely related to the Islamic teachings, and which, in spite of all this, calls itself the world of Islam,” said Qutb.

If the supporters of this group were to ask me—another unlikely scenario—I would say that theirs is a dangerous dogma that exploits and distorts the love of Muslims for their faith.

Each group is guilty of politicizing the question of Islam’s supposed non-relationship with democracy in order to advance a warped agenda.

Ironically, the first group (Lewis, Pipes, et al.) likes to use arguments offered by the second, saying in effect, “Look, we told you so! Islam is not compatible with democracy. Even these Muslims are saying so!”

So, what is the true relation of Islam to democracy and human rights?

That question will be taken up in this series.

Dr Mohamed Elmasry is Professor Emeritus of Computer Engineering, University of Waterloo. He can be reached at

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