Saturday, January 10, 2009

Is Democracy Enough?

In recent months, both due to election campaigning and deteriorating political situations, the American public has heard much about upholding the 'fledgling democracies' that are our 'allies' on the other side of the planet. I.E. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq. A new term has entered the political dictionary: 'Islamic democracy'. Defined, it is a government which permits elected representation within the constraints of Islamic sharia law.

So is using the words 'Islam' and 'democracy' in the same phrase an oxymoron? Or can democracy exist within the framework of shariah law?

Yes, of course, if democracy is defined simply as holding elections for a chosen slate of local politicians. A resounding 'no' if one's definition of democracy includes any semblance of human rights and freedom. Afghanistan's 2004 post-Taliban Constitution, paid for with U.S. dollars and the blood of American soldiers, is a prime example. Consider its first three articles:

Article One: Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic, independent, unitary and indivisible state.

Article Two: The religion of the state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam. Followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law.

Article Three: In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.

That 'provisions ' clause is the kicker. Every 'right' mentioned in Afghanistan's new constitution (and Iraq's) is conditioned by and limited to 'the provisions of [sharia] law'. Here are a few things Islamic democracy does NOT include:

Freedom of religion: By sharia law, it is apostasy for anyone born into the Muslim faith (or whose ancestors were conquered and converted at the point of the sword, like most of the Islamic world) to choose any other faith or form of worship. The penalty for apostasy is death. The most public recent example was the 2006 trial of Afghan Christian convert Abdul Rahman. Rahman became a Christian while living abroad as a refugee. Upon returning to the new, liberated 'democratic' Afghanistan, he was arrested for apostasy and condemned to death. After a huge international outcry, he was released to exile in Italy, not in any nod to religious freedom, but because it was determined he was mentally unstable and so ineligible for the death penalty. Afghan president Hamid Karzai refused to intervene while the Afghan parliament enthusiastically endorsed the death sentence. While U.S. and other Western governments made formal protests, no sanctions nor even withholding of military aid were even suggested. Since then other converts have been jailed and murdered.

Freedom of speech: By sharia law, it is blasphemy to say or do (or think!) anything that could be construed critical of Islam, the religious scholars interpreting Islam, past Islamic history, or Islamic laws governing every aspect of personal life. This includes both Muslims and non-Muslims. Once again, the penalty is death. In 2008, 23-year-old Afghan journalism student, Sayed Parwez Kaambakhsh, was sentenced to death for downloading an article published in Iran (ironically, considered a liberal, 'free' society by Afghan or Pakistani standards), which criticized the treatment of women in Islam, and photocopying parts of it for friends. Once again, Karzai refused to intervene while the Afghan parliament overwhelmingly ratified the death sentence. Just recently, that sentence was commuted to 20 years. Again, not in a nod to freedom of speech, but because Afghan president Karzai has to publicly sign off on an execution, politically inexpedient with Western funds paying even his daily bodyguard, while he can simply ignore any lesser sentence. Meanwhile, a 23-year-old is now locked up for the next two decades in Afghanistan's most notorious prison, Policharki, for the crime of believing the new Afghan democracy--and their Western allies--were serious about freedom of speech.

Freedom of person: Men and women are 'equal' under the 2004 Afghan constitution; that is, subject to sharia law, under which a woman is worth half the value of a man, is the legal property of her male relatives, and can move, speak, or study only with their permission. Just as under the Taliban, most women in Afghan jails today are there for the crime of 'zina', or unlawful contact with the opposite sex, which can be anything from being raped (adultery under shariah law), running away from an abusive marriage or home, refusing to be forced into marriage, or just being caught in the company of a male non-relative, even if not by their own choice.

I could go on and on. You see, it is not and never has been democratically elected leaders that guarantees our freedom.

Americans may scream and fume when the other party wins an election. But we do not live in abject fear over what will happen the day after inauguration. Why? Because regardless of who has taken control, our basic rights and freedoms are above the will of a majority vote. Freedom to worship as we choose. Freedom to form our own opinions and speak them freely. Freedom from unlawful search and imprisonment. Freedom of minorities to enjoy the same privileges as a majority. Even freedom to begin planning the next political campaign to throw out the current victors. Guaranteed by a constitution and legal system based on Judeo-Christian values of human freedom, choice and equality before God, those basic rights cannot be taken away by any democratic vote. Just as under an Islamic shariah constitution, those same rights cannot be granted by any democratic vote--as Iran, the original Islamic democracy, sadly discovered when they elected their former president on a reform platform (more on that in another posting).

Five years ago, shortly after what was thought to be the end of conflict in Iraq, as attention turned to creating a new constitution for Iraq and Afghanistan, I wrote an opinion piece entitled 'Is Democracy Enough', warning of the compromise of freedoms if the U. S. signed off on shariah-based democracy. I came across that column the other day. I wish I had not proved so prophetic. I offer that column again here today as a renewed warning. (READ). Because if we as a nation continue to export 'democracy' as a value defined by holding elections rather than any serious framework of human rights and justice, the time may come when that same definition becomes accepted in our country. May Americans never have to live under the definition of democracy their dollars and blood is currently supporting among our 'allies' in the Islamic world. Let us not remain quiet!


  1. I am reposting my comment... not sure if the first one went through???

    This is a brilliant post.

    I have always understood, especially after reading the Koran, that true democracy and the Islamic faith cannot go hand in hand.

    The provisions that you mention will be according to Sharia Law and Sharia Law does not allow for any freedoms at all.

    You have summed up the many problems of this so called 'Islamic democracy' very well. It is very much an oxymoron; I just wish that there were more people who realise this.


  2. I am honored to come and read your absolutely brilliant post .In my opinion democracy and religion can never go hand in hand .I feel freedom means no bondages and shackles of any sort.
    What I have read about the so called Islamic democracy and through your article it is evident that this is just a face off.Women especially suffer under any of these situations ,a true freedom would be freeing the women from the painful laws and customs that have caged them for centuries .
    awesome write up .hope it will stir some deep sentiments in people around the globe .


  4. You make an excellent point. And, honestly, I never even bothered to make the link you point out -- that America is apparently in the business of exporting democracy, yet the nations we're involved in changing cannot truly become democratic if Islam/Sharia is the law of the land.

    Thanks for the post.

  5. Jeanette,

    These are great and sobering thoughts. I have long said trying to make a true democracy out of any Islamic State is a waste of time. Not because democracy is a bad idea, but sharia law, as you have said, is radically opposed to it. It is something that just will not work. I am looking forward to your new book!

  6. american democracy cannot be worked in an islamic society, but 'classical' democracy can. classical democracy, as practiced and developed in Athens around 2700 years ago, was tyranny of the majority. 51% of the populations could force their will on the minority if they so chose. classical democracy also only included landed males over a specific age.

    what we have, and what makes it special, is actually constitutional representative democracy, which makes basic and specific guarantees for the safety and freedoms of ALL the citizens. what we should export is freedom, freedom for all. if that looks like democracy, republicanism or even oligarchy, so long as rights are protected that's okay.

    but what we export today? that is democracy raised to the level of a religion, somehting we believe in and adhere to even when we know it won't work.