THE DEVELOPING WORLD
Understanding Islamic democracy
Europe has a vitally important role to play in repairing relations between the West and the Islamic world, says Dalia Mogahed of the Gallup Organization. Her article reflects a poll of 10,000 Muslims around the world that reveals the depths of Western and Islamic misunderstandings about religion and government
An oft-repeated claim in the United States about the Muslim world’s generally unfavourable opinion of America is that much the same applies to Western civilization as a whole. The argument is sometimes taken further with suggestions that anger toward the US is part of a much broader hatred of democracy, freedom and gender equality.
But a recent in-depth Gallup survey of ten predominantly Muslim countries, whose combined populations of some 830m represent over 80% of the Islamic world, paints a very different picture. Not surprisingly, the data show a generally unfavourable opinion of both the United States and Britain, as well as a distrust of American intentions in the Middle East. Europe, however, comes out in a rather more positive light. People in Muslim countries who feel themselves fairly familiar with the European Union were more likely to agree than disagree with the proposition that the EU plays a positive role in promoting peace around the world. There was also a generally favourable opinion of France and Germany.
These findings clearly fly in the face of the “they hate our freedom” mantra that a number of influential Americans uttered repeatedly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. They also make it plain that Muslims do not generally see “the West” as a monolith, nor do they divide the world along religious lines.
The goodwill that most Muslims expressed towards Europe suggests an opportunity for the EU to act as a bridge of greater understanding between the predominantly Muslim nations and the West as a whole, provided it can bring with it a nuanced understanding of the region. This would include questioning some of the most popular assumptions about Islam, Shari’a, and Muslims’ views of democracy.
Noah Feldman describes in his book “After Jihad” the paradigm of the West as focusing on two diametrically opposed models for government, each tracing its origin to one of two ancient cities: Jerusalem, the birthplace of Christianity, and Athens as the birthplace of democracy. Jerusalem represents a model in which religion is dominant and where there is no separation between church and state, which is characterized by the near-absolute rule of an emperor who is also the head of the church. Athens, on the other hand, represents reason where religion is strictly “privatised” and the god of science is dominant, and where the people have a direct say in who is to lead them. Western history is characterized by a dynamic tension between these two cities in which only one can be dominant at a time.
Given these two templates, one is tempted to evaluate other civilizations through this binary model. That in turn leads to the assumption that if a society’s idea of an ideal government does not fit cleanly into the secular Athens model, it must of necessity be opting for the Jerusalem model. In this binary model – as in primary computer code – an input can only be a one or a zero, and no third choice exists.
Yet Islam’s political history originates in another city altogether, that of Medina, a place of origin for both Islam’s spiritual and democratic traditions. Widespread support amongst Muslims for this third model of government embracing both religious principles and democratic values, was one of the most important findings of the Gallup study. Understanding this model may be Europe’s key to helping build authentic and popularly supported democracy in this region of the world.
There was of course a great deal of diversity among the nations we polled, ranging as they did from Turkey to Indonesia, but many of the salient themes that emerged fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Perhaps one of the more surprising finding was Muslims’ widespread support for Shari’a, the Islamic religious principles that are widely seen as governing all aspects of life from the mundane to the most complex. Often seen in the West as an oppressive corpus of law that is supported only by a handful of fanatics, and especially detested by women, the reality is very different. Shari’a as a source of legislation enjoys the support of a mean of 79% in the ten nations surveyed. There was also no large difference between men and women regarding their support for the incorporation of Shari’a into governance. The only country to depart from the general trend was Turkey, where 57% said that Shari’a should not be a source of legislation; in fact that was not really surprising as the country’s constitution as drawn up by Kemal Attaturk’s, explicitly limits the role of religion in government.
So does such widespread support amongst Muslims for Shari’a mean a general rejection of democratic values and a call for the absolute rule of an infallible clerisy? Not at all; the vast majority of those surveyed support freedoms of speech, religion and assembly – as well as a woman’s right to vote, drive and work outside the home. The majority of opinion in every nation surveyed save Saudi Arabia also believes it is appropriate for women to serve at the highest levels of government; even in Saudi Arabia 40% of all adults subscribed to this view. A mean of 60% in the ten countries said they would want religious leaders to play no direct role in drafting a country’s constitution, and even among those who took a contrary view, most wanted clerics limited to advisory functions.
So while Muslim support for Shari’a is high, so is support for democratic and egalitarian values. Given that the vast majority of Muslims support an approach that refuses to exclude God from the governmental sphere, the West needs to recognize that its notion of separation of religion and state is simply not shared in most of the predominantly Muslim countries. It is worth reminding ourselves in the West that the Islamic world enjoyed its own “age of enlightenment” at a time when science, art, and technology flourished under Shari’a, not outside it.
The countries surveyed by Gallup were: Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia. In each, polling consisted of 1,000 face-to-face interviews, carried out between August and October last year, amongst adults of 18 year and over living in both urban and rural communities. One of the fundamental lessons we at Gallup drew from it is that the EU has a historic opportunity to promote peace and understanding between the West and these predominantly Muslim nations, and their people have told us how. In an open ended question that allowed for any possible answer, the people surveyed were asked what the West could do to improve relations with the Muslim world. The most frequently heard reply was not for the West to stop being free and prosperous, but instead that it should “respect Islam”. Understanding Islam's view of democracy would seem to be the best place to start.