Can Islam and democracy coexist in today’s world?

Published: September 29, 2017
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A Muslim student wears a so-called 'Burqini,' a full-body swimsuit, at a swimming pool in Freiburg, southern Germany. PHOTO: AFP

Germany has given its verdict and elected Angela Merkel for the fourth consecutive term. Her victory has relieved many as her popularity took a nosedive after her brave decision to take in refugees in 2015. However, at the same time, the reduced margin of her victory has also raised alarms.

The German far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), has accumulated 13% of the total votes, becoming the first such party to win so many seats in more than 50 years. The improvement in its vote tally is remarkable, given the fact that it only won 4.7% of the total votes in the 2013 elections, narrowly missing the 5% threshold required for winning seats in the Bundestag, the German federal legislative assembly. This time, the party won 94 seats and its performance has even forced to make Merkel acknowledge the “concerns” of its voters.

Founded in 2013, initially as an “anti-Euro” party, AfD subsequently changed its focus in 2015 towards Muslim refugees, after Merkel’s decision to accept them. Immediately, AfD found acceptance and their hateful rhetoric against Muslims became one of the highlights of their campaign. Soon after, the entirety of Berlin was plastered with bright posters highlighting the following sexist and racist slogan, “Burqas? We prefer bikinis”.

Backlash against immigration often has a lot to do with fears about losing economic privileges such as jobs and welfare benefits. However, in this case, the perceived cultural differences between immigrants and the West played a significant role.

AfD tried to convince Germans that Islam was not a part of Germany. AfD’s co-leader, Alexander Gauland, went on to say that Islam is incompatible with a free democratic order. Furthermore, he claimed that he feared the Islamisation of Germany due to the influx of so many Muslim refugees. It is clear that these views have resonated with a significant part of the German electorate. However, to what extent are these views actually supported by actual evidence?

Can a million refugees actually Islamise an entire country? Is Islam incompatible with a free democratic order? To what extent are these security fears justified?

Let me candidly admit that some of the security-related concerns do hold some validity. Most of the refugees are coming from war-torn Syria and therefore, chances that Islamic State (IS) members may be amongst them cannot be ruled out.

In fact, there is evidence that IS successfully smuggled several of its members who went on to conduct terrorist activities in France. Although the number of such potential attackers remain exceedingly small, but due to the huge influx of refugees in a short period, it has become extremely difficult to vet their backgrounds properly and in time. Due to this problem, the threat and fear of terrorism has increased in Germany.

While the security concerns are valid, the rhetoric of AfD would actually prove counterproductive. Painting the entire Muslim community with the same brush and whipping hate against it will in fact fuel radicalisation as opposed to countering it.

AfD’s case about the possible threat of Islamisation of Germany is somewhat exaggerated. A million refugees, even if they are deeply religious, cannot Islamise a country with a population of over 82 million. Furthermore, a majority of the Muslims live in ghettos and do not integrate with the rest of the society. While this isolation leads to various other problems – alienation, lack of proper integration and even radicalisation – it does not facilitate the so-called Islamisation of Germany.

In fact, before the recent influx of refugees, Germany was already home to around four million Muslims. While most of those Muslims are religiously conservative and have failed to integrate properly, by no stretch of imagination have they managed to Islamise Germany.

Burqas and headscarves have also attracted a lot of attention and have been used as examples of a threat to western values. While I agree that these clothing articles are not compatible with western culture, they also do not threaten the freedom of others. If you compare an act that is personal, such as wearing a veil, you have to differentiate it with an act that infringes upon the freedom and security of others. In this case, a burqa or headscarf does not affect anyone but the person wearing it. Personally, I do not endorse the burqa as I think that it is a sign of patriarchy.

Things get more complicated when we try examining the claim of Islam’s incompatibility with the free democratic order. It is true that Muslim countries score low on the Freedom House Index, which ranks countries on democracy. If we look at the Freedom House (FH) scores of 2014, we will find that out of the 10 worst ranked countries, six are Muslim. Furthermore, out of the 88 countries ranked as “free,” only one is a Muslim country.

The extent of Islamic countries’ lack of democratic progress was also noted by the president of FH, Adrian Karatnycky, in 2001. Remarking on the relative dismal performance of Muslim majority countries, he noted that “non-Islamic state is nearly three times more likely to be democratic than an Islamic state. Furthermore, none of the 16 Arab states is an electoral democracy”.

In his opinion, the third wave of democratisation had virtually left the Islamic world and its Arabic core untouched. Some empirical studies have also confirmed this negative relationship. Particularly problematic is the fact that even Muslim democracies are not exactly liberal democracies. A liberal democracy is qualitatively distinct from an electoral democracy as the former instead of merely relying on majority votes also stresses upon individual freedom, minority rights and gender balance.

While the above facts portray a rather sombre picture, there is no reason to believe that Muslim countries are inherently incapable of transitioning to a democracy. It should be remembered that once even Catholicism was thought to be inimical to democracy. Gradually, catholic countries also made a transition. Thus, there is hope.

More importantly, while one can argue whether Muslim majority countries are democratically deficient or not, there is no reason to believe that ordinary Muslims cannot live and contribute to a liberal democracy. In countries such as the US, Canada and Britain, a large number of Muslims are living under liberal democracies and making important contributions.

Some of the problems that spring up in European countries are mainly because of the notion that Muslims are the excluded minority and discriminated against due to their faith. Alienating them further through a hateful rhetoric will merely worsen the problem, not alleviate it.

raza.habib

Raza Habib Raja

The author is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House. He tweets @razaraja (twitter.com/razaraja?lang=en)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • hp kumar

    Without any doubt I can say muslims r unruly people.hence no question of democracy arises.only anarchy prevail where muslims r in majority.Recommend

  • Striver

    This is a question that has been amply answered in the texts the author probably has not has access to or is too lazy to search for.

    Of course democracy and Islam can coexist in today’s world. The only issue is what type of democracy.
    Each country in Europe has its own version that suits the temperament of its people. Study it a little closer and you will realize the subtle differences. Indian democracy is of a type that suits its people’s disposition.
    The reason why democracy has not flourished in the Muslim world is the political turmoil and upheaval supported by the forces that wanted access and control of the resources of the Muslim world.
    I suggest to the author he start his research on this from 1973 when the Saudis placed an oil embargo. The events from 1973 to 1990 that follow are an eye opener. Some changed occur from 1991-2001, then all hell breaks loose after 911.
    Study also how India made a conscious attempt to change structurally and culturally so as to be distinguishable from the Muslims. Check also how they emulate the USA and made their film industry align with western values and techniques.

    This should give you plenty to write about on the subject of democracy, Islam and the modern world.Recommend

  • passiveobservant11

    One can understand when some segments of western societies act islamophobic, since such societies are based on strong institutions, which would try their best to produce such a conducive environment where people belonging to different faiths and schools of thought can co-exist and they have, so any militancy or trend towards militancy should be justifiably crushed and quashed. However, there is some developing understanding in western world that the wars which have destabilized Muslim majority countries have contributed to the rise of militant groups and their strife to spread their wings worldwide. West can’t wash off its hands totally. On the contrary, one finds itself aghast when one reads comments from Indians which portray extreme intolerance, hatred, revulsion for Muslims, and then one throws a cursory look at Indian society and its fabric, its intolerant outlook towards social problems existing in Indian society, the ignorant mindset which readily advocate mob violence and murders just because it clashes with their own ideals and religion, ignorance and intolerance is a deadly mixture. And the Indian society will be the first guinea pig on which this mixture will be tested. I mean well, Indian society is stuck in denial, where it fails to call a spade a spade and I don’t see things improving in future. We Muslims realize that we have problems, but Indians blame every problem on others. You are digging your own graveRecommend

  • KlingOn2K

    Maybe in the future you might have Islamic nations that will be compatible with democracy. Right now, there aren’t too many examples. Certainly some moderate nations might lay claim to it. Recommend

  • vinsin

    1) Burqa/Niqab is also not a secular clothing.

    2) No of attackers/terrorists may be small but they have huge support base.Recommend

  • Sid

    Yes it can Democracy in India is the role model for how various religions, languages and ethnicity can co exist in the same societyRecommend

  • kulbhushan Yadav

    Do you really need to ask this question??? Look around the Muslim majority countries. The number of democracies can be counted on finger.Recommend

  • Rizwan Nasar

    The day the Muslim world will accept that out of 1.7 billion Muslim 67% cannot read or write will be the day they may start a change. That is a huge number of illiterate Muslims. The irony is that 4 out of 10 richest countries on planet earth today are Muslim majority/ruled countries. The day the Muslims decide to educate themselves democracy and they will coexist. It is as mandatory to seek knowledge/education for Muslims just as Iman (faith) and Salah (five times prayers).Recommend

  • Rizwan Nasar

    Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei just to name three…Recommend

  • Reeba

    If you are talking about a democracy based on equal rights, freedom of speech, respecting all religions, inclusiveness of various cultures and celebration of diversity, Sufi islam is the only type of islam that will be compatible. Recommend

  • chakrs

    When did India struggle to distinguish itself from Muslims? Was there any need to try?Recommend

  • HZR

    do not integrate with the rest of the society….As Prof Samuel Huntington said the cultural and civilizational faultlines will not allow integration and that means there is no democracy.Not compatible with the religion.Recommend

  • Arunanshu M

    East Asian nations with Hindu roots such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh have done much better democratically than west Asian, Arab or African Muslim nations.Recommend

  • Parvez

    That was a thought provoking good read.
    I would say that the principles of Islam and democracy are compatible…….but when you get down to ground realities one sees that that these very same principles are to be found in the democratic ‘ west ‘, while in the ‘ east ‘ we see only lip service being paid to them.
    The reason democracy has flourished in the west is because they have managed to distance religion from politics ……. trial and error has taught them that the two are not compatible.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    The rise of far right in Germany encompasses several factors most if not all are on account of undemocratic deeds of Dr Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and her Government made up of grand coalition of Christian democratic and socialist parties. It ws unwise of her to allow millions of refugees nto the country indiscriminately simply on the basis of a human act underrating the problems related to their integratin into the communitiesny, whle at the same time ignoring the need to improve the well being of many citizens in the country. There has been a backlash which is seen from the majority of AFD electorates voting for AFD out of protest and not out of conviction. In any case 87 percent did vote for regular political parties, the Socialists deciding to go into opposition in the next parliament. This is good for Germany and good for democracy too.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • KlingOn2K

    @Striver, I really don’t understand this “type of democracy” argument. If you’re referring to presidential and parliamentary democracies, the difference is not all that great. It is the people that still have a say in how their state is run and by whom.
    Recommend

  • Rohan

    Germany is not obliged to take anyRecommend

  • sakali

    Democracy can flourish in Muslim countries if the religion is separated
    from politics. So long religion will be central in public life and the politicians
    cozy up with the religious leaders, democracy will remain stunted. Any
    deviation from orthodox views in religion is not tolerated which stokes
    intolerance in public at large. Tolerance for dissent and free debate are
    esssential for democracy to get entrenched. The best that can be said
    that electoral democracy exists in muslim countries. It is work in progress
    and can grow in strength over time. Stay the course.Recommend

  • http://gravatar.com/skchadha SKChadha

    Islam and Democracy can Co-exist. Recommend

  • Citizen

    I think this democracy has got more to do with preferences of local population rather than the religion. For e.g. majority of South Asian, North African and S.E Asian countries have democracies but in Middle East majority of them prefer to have kingship. Now if Muslim countries happen to be concentrated in Middle East doesn’t necessarily means that majority of Muslims don’t prefer Democracy. It is a flawed argument.Recommend

  • K

    Faridabad NCR India, in 2016 People gave shelter to the rohingya refugees in their community centre(most of the locality is jain faith follower the follow non violence), This Eid rohingya tried to butcher buffalo in that same community? can you plz answer this? Honestly can anyone answer that people gave you shelter food & jobs and you repay like this? answer anyone?Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    They r Hindu more than India with Ganesh on their currency, Garud as the airliner, Sanskrit last names SukarnoPutri. Recommend

  • vinsin

    But that structure is based on Muslim appeasement. Banning religion like Universal Sufism, rationalists groups and True Furqan doesnt put Indian democracy in the correct light.Recommend

  • vinsin

    Education and democracy has no relation. Arab world and people are educated but they dont demand for democracy. Chinese are also educated but they are not democratic.Recommend

  • vinsin

    What you said is correct to a large extend but there is not Sufism in original Islam. Recommend

  • vinsin

    In South Asia democracy is based on Muslim appeasement same is the case in SE Asian where it based on either Buddhist or Muslim appeasement. The argument was Muslims do not support secular and liberal democracies. So the argument is not flawed.Recommend

  • vinsin

    Jains are following their faith and Muslim theirs. You should be thankful that they have not destroyed the temples. Recommend

  • vinsin

    None of those state are constitutionally secular and liberal. Muslim appeasement is not democracy.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secular_state

    India is constitutionally secular but unimplemented.

    My 90% of the answer was removed and truncated. So much for democracy, secularism and liberalism.Recommend

  • vinsin

    War has no relationship with militant groups. There are no militant groups of Yezdi, Arab Pagans, Zoroastrians etc. No war ever happened in Philippines. That is not a west issue that Majority of Muslims dont demand secular and liberal laws since inception.

    Indian are 15% Muslims. Indians believe that democracy is incompatible with Muslims that is why they created Pakistan and Bangladesh. Muslim appeasement is not democracy – that is not the aim of democracy. Constitution of India to not support mob violence and murders.

    Are you supporting the argument that democracy is not compatible with Islam? No Indian know that democracy is not compatible with Islam that is why they accepted Pakistan and Bangladesh. Indian Muslim will be tested not non-Muslims

    Indian do not blame on any one. And Muslims have not realized anything yet. There is no mass movement going on any Muslim majority country for democracy, secularism and liberalism..Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    All human being equal is the essential criterion of a democracy. The acceptable system of governance in a democracy for all its pro and contras in todays world relies on the frenchise of the people imbedded in the countrys constitution, the majority being given the option to rule. Let us admit that what is prcticed in muslim mjority countries reflect more or less their respective cultures and not different faces of the religion of Islam. At times it is the cultures which are at odd with so called western cultures.

    Unlike the Trumpers, no one in Germany has a problem with the rligion of its citizens but witness non copatibility with several aspects of the cultures they bring with them requiring major effort for intgration.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Striver

    Its neither parliamentary nor presidential. Democracy evolves and over a period of time it starts to reflect the psyche of the society or the voters as a whole. This is what I meant in a nutshell. I hope I have been able to better explain it then in my attempt.Recommend

  • Striver

    The Indians (Hindu leadership) felt there was a great need to show the west we may look the same as say the Pakistanis (PK Muslims) but we are different. More importantly we are not Muslims. Therefore, stop mistaking us with them and attacking us and out women.
    Whoever thought of this was a great visionary. But, I don’t think this was the work of one man. It was a collective vision of the political elite including the American-educated Indian political scholars.
    They started with changing the name of the Bombay film industry to Bollywood and developed it as a brand. That brand had to fit into the psyche of the west. So they set about how the films are made, what message they give, what image they presented to the world and it has to be technically almost on par with the western modern techniques of film making. They then set about about changing their society to be “liberal” in their attitude towards girl-boy sexual relationships but also accepting of “woman-power”. This was done via their sitcoms.
    You need closely observe your society ti feel the changes.
    This is a credit to the Indian scholars. They pushed this vision to the political leaders in the west and are now reaping the rewards.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    sufism is only part of the religion, the methodology which facilitates the spirtual union of the human with the creator. of the universe Democracy does not require religious rituals but the recognition that all humans are brothers and have equal rights in the community.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • KlingOn2K

    “Democracy evolves and over a period of time it starts to reflect the psyche of the society or the voters as a whole.”
    Don’t know what you mean. A vote in democracy ALWAYS reflects the wishes of the people – whether parliamentary or presidential. How does democracy “evolve” with time?? The basic tenets of democracy will always remain “of the people, by the people, for the people”. There is no scope for any “evolution” and any change would make it a different system altogether.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    The best that can be said
    that electoral democracy exists in muslim countries. It is work in progress
    and can grow in strength over time. Stay the course.

    It took the saudis thousand years to allow women the right to drive. Such countries requre revolutions and not th busness as usual in reforming their cultures.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Rex Minor

    They then set about about changing their society to be “liberal” in
    their attitude towards girl-boy sexual relationships but also accepting
    of “woman-power”. This was done via their sitcoms.

    India has choosen smply the methodology of democracy for governance after decolonisation without influencing the morals of the avatars hindutwa.

    Rex minorRecommend

  • chakrs

    I don’t think there is any group that secretly rules the Indian society, including the film industry, as you believe. That is the Pakistan model.Recommend

  • Striver

    Didn’t say anything of the sort and neither is it Pakistan model. Your imagination is tainted.Recommend

  • Striver

    You lied Rex Minor. Sort itRecommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Then it is not Islam. Islam and Christianity were created to rule over people just as Communism.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    Then tell us about the caste system which is operated willy nilly despite the laws against it or the women slavery of the entire village is a norm calling it a bonded labour. I am always prepared to learn Striver.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • chakrs

    You wrote (above) that there is some Hindu leadership which guides the film industry and more; Indians haven’t heard of these leaders, so it can be safely concluded that it doesn’t exist. Pakistani papers, on the other hand, have articles recommending various things for society (my wording may not be the best). People who vigorously dissent are kidnapped, re-educated and sent back home. Some are considered incorrigible and killed like Sabeen Mahmud. So I consider it the Pakistan model. What’s wrong with my argument?Recommend

  • Sanjay Gupta

    They have a big problems with religion in Germany. There are the Neo Nazis,
    The Right Wingers, The National[ist] Socialists, the Nazi Party, though banned,
    is thriving under different names, specially in Prussia [formerly East Germany]
    The Skin Heads. The Alt Right….The majority ethnic minority are Turks. Second,
    and third generations Turks.Recommend

  • Joe Gargery

    “…it was unwise of her to allow millions of refugees…[on humanitarian grounds]”
    You have no compassion, for the downtrodden, war ravaged people with no hope?
    These refugees were facing certain death, starvation and were already homeless.
    Surprisingly, this coming from an Afghan, a refugee, like YOU. Is incomprehensible.
    There are about 300,000 of your fellow Afghan refugees, in Germany, majority of
    them illegal. Escaping death and destruction,
    So did Chancellor Merkel show her human side and not worry about politics? She did.Recommend

  • Patwari

    No. Not really. Sufism is not all methodology or ‘tariqa’.
    Sufism is a concept. Of how you can express your
    love for God and his creations. You can express this
    love, your feelings, your joy, through poetry, or dance,
    or singing. Or painting. You can choose any medium.
    This belief and way to lead your life, is called mysticism.
    In a way it’s like Buddhism. An Eight Fold Pathway of
    how you lead your life. Guidelines on how to lead your
    life. Buddha never wanted his tenets to become a religion.
    His disciples and followers made it so, after his death.
    Buddha never claimed he was a prophet. Or a messenger
    of God. Or a divine human being.Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Constitution is man made book, in most cases with influence of “white” manRecommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Sufis were rebels in reality but pretended to be Muslims. They kept their imposed Bedouinized Jewish Names but practiced native spirituality.Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Jinah was literate, so also Zia, Mush, Yahya, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Stalin, dictators of south central Americas. Democracy cannot exist where there is religion Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    India will have direct democracy. Then we will have India- China union since both at base are Dharmik who value education, hard work, innovation and value diversity of opinion.

    Jinah was literate, so also Zia, Mush, Yahya, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Stalin, dictators of south central Americas. Democracy cannot exist where there is Regal Legions aka religion Recommend

  • Striver

    Sheep just follow the direction set by the shepherd. Your shepherd made a decision and it was a good one. You are clearly far removed from the statecraft to understand its intricacies.
    It is good that Pakistani papers recommend various things fro society. That how change comes about in society and it progresses. Indian papers should be doing the same for their society but that would be wishful thinking. Indian society has become too static under the Hindutva leadership.
    What you consider the Pakistani model in based on the wrong assumptions. You have let your emotions get in the way of rational thinking once again.Recommend

  • Striver

    Wrong. You have too much of textbook knowledge of democracy.Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    DemoCrazy where monieyed crooks and criminals few especially ConAngrezis was imposed on India. Secure SMS based direct democracy will destroy the present exploitative world order of 1 Currency, 1 Prez, 1 God, 1 Book 1 Language

    Representative Democracy was easy to be managed by colonialist crooks… It was easy for them to manage few Angrezi speaking MPs & MLAs. Just as Rajiv & Sanjay fake Gandys go to Lundonabad for their BA, crook and criminal Abdul Rehman Antualy exCM of Maharashtra (with 6% Muslim population) & Yali Yawar Jung ex Governor of Maharashra in 1970s. Rootless crooks ruled over India in 70 years of democrazy.Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Last bonded case happened in Madhya Pradesh in 1974. Job in MNC and Dilli, Mumbai Sachivalaya is more devilish bonded labor. Whatever democracy working in India you see is because of end of feudalism which was introduced by Muslim foreign to create their proxies among native people. Britishers nurtured it.Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Sufism is not tariqa but taqia to fool natives before they are taken to slaughter house or distant slave bazars. Most of the soofis were goofies who worked for alien brutes.
    Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    A concept they follow after having committed sins through atrocities aganst fellow humans.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Rex Minor

    white people are caucasans and are humans too.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Rex Minor

    Although I admire Afghan people, I am neither an Afghan national nor a refugee Sir. Angela Merkel showed her human side but forgot to consult the parliament or her other European partners. Her reaction for the refugees plight in hungry brought in millions most of whom were not from war torn countries but simply seeking employment for economic reasons. Democracy is a team work it does not depend on individuals who act before reaching a consensus. I might admire such an act but am cold towards incompetency.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Salim Alvi

    They are not native where the constitution will have its sway.Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Spirituality, Dharma, Governance, Laws and food need to be organic and local.Recommend