Why do Muslims look to religion to address political issues?

by Dalia Mogahed
Washington, DC - One of the foremost experts on what he refers to as Islamic democracy, Noah Feldman, explains in his book "After Jihad: America and the struggle for Islamic Democracy" how the Western paradigm has focused on two diametrically opposed models of government, each tracing its origin to one of two ancient cities: Jerusalem, the birthplace of Christianity and Athens, the birthplace of Democracy.

In broad strokes, Jerusalem represents a model in which religion is dominant, there is no separation between Church and State, and is characterised by near-absolute rule by an emperor who is also the head of the Church. Whereas Athens represents reason, where religion is strictly "privatised", the god of science is dominant, and the people have a direct say in who is to lead them.

Western history is characterised by a dynamic tension between these two cities. This leads to the assumption that if a society's conception of an ideal government does not fit neatly into the secular Athens model, it must of necessity be opting for the Jerusalem model. In this binary paradigm, no third choice exists.

However, Feldman asserts, Islam's political history originates in another city altogether, Medina, the place of origin for both Islam's spiritual and democratic tradition.

A recent Gallup survey shows that while there is a great deal of diversity among Muslim nations, some salient themes emerge which fly in the face of conventional wisdom. One of these findings is Muslims' widespread support for shari'a, Islamic religious principles that are widely seen as governing all aspects of life, from the mundane to the complex.

Often assumed in the West to be an oppressive corpus of law supported only by a small handful of fanatics (and especially detested by women), the incorporation of shari'a as one source of legislation enjoys the support of a majority in the eight Muslim-majority nations surveyed. Perhaps more surprising is the general absence of any large difference between men and women regarding their support for the incorporation of shari'a into governance. The only outlier is Turkey, where 57% say that shari'a should not be a source of legislation.

But how is shari'a understood by the majority of Muslims? Does its inclusion mean a rejection of democratic values and a call for the absolute rule of an infallible clergy?

The findings suggest that this is not the case. The vast majority of those surveyed, in addition to their admiration for political freedom in the West, also said they support freedoms of speech, religion and assembly as well as a woman's right to vote, drive and work outside the home. Indeed, majorities in every nation surveyed save for Saudi Arabia (where the number is 40%) also believe it appropriate for women to serve at the highest levels of government in their nation's Cabinet and National Council. In addition, a mean of 60% say they would want religious leaders to play no direct role in drafting a country's constitution (and even among those who take the contrary view, most would want clerics limited to an advisory function).

Should the West be surprised by this response? Richard Bulliet, in his book "The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization", explains that shari'a traditionally acted as a limit on the power of government. He writes, "All that restrained rulers from acting as tyrants was Islamic law, shari'a. Since the law was based on divine rather then human principles, no ruler could change it to serve his own interests."

To use more familiar language, shari'a in Muslim understanding represents those inalienable rights each person is endowed with by their creator. Government's role therefore should be to protect those rights. Thus, complete secularism can mean for many the lifting of all constraints on the tyranny of government, in fact taking away people's God-given rights.

That the vast majority of Muslims support an approach that refuses to exclude God from the governmental sphere even as they embrace democratic values may bewilder many who can only fathom a French-style secular democracy.

However, what is surprising is how many Americans may actually embrace a similar model. In a recent Gallup poll of American households, 46% say the Bible should be a source, but not the only source, of legislation and 9% more say the Bible should be the only source of legislation.

However, the majority of Americans, like Muslims, do not favour handing control over to religious leaders. Interestingly, American views of the role of religious leaders almost exactly parallels those in Iran, with 55% of Americans and Iranians saying religious leaders should have no part in drafting a constitution for a new country, while the balance believes they should have at least some role.

Understanding this third model of government, one that embraces both religious principles and democratic values, may be America's key to helping build authentic, popularly supported democracy in this region of the world.


* Dalia Mogahed directs the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and is co-author, with John Esposito, of the forthcoming book "Who Speaks for Islam? Listening to the Voices of a Billion Muslims". This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 5 June 2007, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.
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What is it about Western secularism?
What words can mean
Envisioning Islamic democracy
Myths about Western secularism and politics in Islam
False dichotomies: "Secularists" and "Islamists" in Turkey
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Other articles in this series

What is it about Western secularism? by Jorgen S. Nielsen
What words can mean by Javed Anand
Envisioning Islamic democracy by Jocelyne Cesari
Myths about Western secularism and politics in Islam by Asma Afsaruddin
False dichotomies: "Secularists" and "Islamists" in Turkey by Nora Onar