Islamic Sharia and democracy

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Muslim Brotherhood has won the most seats in Egypt’s recent parliamentary elections

America’s lexicon and political discourse have a new challenge. It is the word, Sharia.

Sharia is a comprehensive regime of laws and guidelines that govern the religious and temporal lives of Muslims everywhere. Although based on the Holy Koran and Prophet Mohammad’s teachings, Sharia remains a man-made body of laws subject to ongoing interpretations. Sharia includes the entire, highly complex, and flexible system of Muslim religious and legal norms and their interpretation. It is a monumental system of rules on ritual, social, ethical, and legal questions, which, however, is beset by denominational disputes and partly ossified. Sharia sees no difference between the state and religion as it offers specific rules of conduct affecting both spheres.

The implications of Sharia and its perceived or real threat to America is a topic of discussion not only on the TV circuits but also in many prestigious academic institutions. For this piece, we aim to reflect on the inherent contradictions or lack thereof between Sharia and the concept and practice of democracy. Its position on democracy entails a complex set of interpretations with which Muslims and non-Muslims continue to grabble. Islamic political parties are not per se opposed to democracy but that is only a partial answer.

How terrible would it be if, in future, Libyan laws that contradict Sharia were to be deemed invalid? In almost all constitutions in place in the nations of the Muslim world, Sharia is the primary but not the only source of all laws. And indeed, in Libya itself, family law and the law of inheritance have long been based on Sharia principles.

In the American debate of the issue, and in the view of some Muslims, Sharia is predominantly seen as being in absolute contradiction to the democratic rule of law.

Non Muslim critics of Islam argue that much but by no means all, of what goes under the name of Sharia is in clear contradiction to principles of human rights: for example, they point to the draconian physical punishments it foresees, or the unequal treatment of men and women or of people of different religious beliefs ‒ all of which were prevalent in the West for many years. In comparison, the introduction of a Muslim banking sector in Libya is completely unspectacular.

Opponents of Sharia, moreover, bring out the antidemocratic applications of Sharia, which run counter to principles of human rights, such as those, we see in Saudi Arabia or Iran, there are interpretations that work on the basis of Sharia to justify democracy and the protection of human rights. In Tunisia, for example, polygamy was banned in 1956 after the contradictory statements on the issue in the Koran were subjected to a new reading. In Morocco, a similar re-interpretation led to the requirement that a first wife must approve any further marriages.

In Libya, however, the existing right to polygamy will be relaxed further, in that the permission of a first wife will no longer be required. This is a controversial step backward as a concession to Muslim political parties. So, what is going to happen in North Africa? Currently, no one can say for sure.

In the democratic election processes currently underway in the Arab world, Islamic parties are winning plenty of support. They owe their popularity, specifically in poorer and in rural areas, to their social commitment and the fact that they are one of the very few groups not to be considered corrupt. There is certainly a political conflict between strongly secular and religious parties, but this conflict is even greater between religious groups that are extremist and intolerant, like the Salafists of Egypt and Saudi Arabia and those that support democracy and the rule of law.

In Egypt, both young leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and activists working for the Wassat Party, which is closely allied to the Muslim Brotherhood, repeatedly made positive statements about the compatibility of democracy, the rule of law and Islam even before Mubarak was overthrown

Sharia can also be used to justify the fight against state torture, corruption, and tyranny against citizens. In its political program, the party of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt describes Sharia as being the same as democracy, in contradistinction to theocracy or military rule. At least that is what it currently says on paper.

On the other hand, the main religious parties of Tunisia and Libya have taken the Turkish AKP as their model. In spite of some backward steps in the recent past, the AKP has done more for the protection of human rights during its period of rule than the allegedly laciest Kemalist moderates did in decades. It now sees itself as a kind of “Islamic Christian Democrat” party.

But there is also a social conflict hidden in all this: secular big-city elites against ambitious, religious residents of small towns and the poor. The dictatorships pretended to be moderate, justifying their human rights abuses ‒, which were ignored by the world ‒ with the fear of religious tendencies. The democratic nations of the world that uphold the rule of law have lost a lot of credibility because of their willingness to go along with these states over many years. That is why sustainable reform can only come from within. Good advice from outside will only help if it is asked for.

Currently, it looks as though there is wide support for the establishment of democratic mechanisms and the rights to such liberties as freedom of opinion, freedom of the press and protection against the tyranny of the repressive regimes that are still in control (even in Egypt). In addition, improvement in the social situation of the masses of the poor, including the rights of children, opportunities for education and so on, are also on the agenda.

The prospects for women’s personal legal rights and the role of religion in the public arena are more doubtful. At least the party that won the election in Tunisia has said it does not want to interfere with the fairly extensive rights that women enjoy there. That being said, it does not look as if there will be further progress either. It is likely that criticism of religion by Western standards will remain impossible and at the very least dangerous.

But even here, there are some remarkable developments: the party of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has Rafiq Habib, a Christian as a vice-president. The party’s program emphasizes the contribution of Christians to the nation’s common set of values. That is new and goes much further than the traditional toleration. What’s more, in Egypt the people went out onto the streets not as members of a religious group, but as Egyptians.

However, those political forces that wish to move beyond the liberal secular elite and appeal to the wider population will find it hard to do so without referring to Muslim culture and Sharia. This is why Muslim human rights pioneers like Shirin Ebadi or Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid are in favor of the cultural translation of human rights into the country’s dominant tradition of thought so that people will be able to experience human rights as something of “their own.”

The catastrophe that threatens the Arab Spring is not actually Sharia itself, but further economic and social destabilization. This is one area where the United States could do more than just offer trite advice and actually provide effective help: it could open its markets and offer sustainable local investment. Economic prosperity will contain if not replace the grassroots of extremist ideologies in the Arab Middle East.

Aref Assaf, president of American Arab Forum, a think tank specializing in Arab and Muslim American affairs.

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