On a Collision Course: Democracy and Islam

“Can a nation be founded on both Islam and democracy without compromising on human rights and equality?” Noah Feldman asked this question recently in the New York Times in connection with Afghanistan’s new constitution, for which so many have high hopes.

Feldman has high hopes too, although he acknowledges that its provisions about women’s rights are ambiguous. Even more distressing is what it says about the rights of non-Muslim minorities, although Feldman doesn’t seem to notice. “The provision that makes Islam the nation’s official religion,” he asserts, “also recognizes the right of non-Muslims ‘to perform their religious ceremonies within the limits of the provisions of law.’” Feldman opines that “this carefully chosen language might arguably leave room to restrict proselytizing – as, for example, do similar laws in India and Israel – but it nonetheless guarantees individual expression as an inviolable right. (It’s worth noting that the right to change one’s religion is enshrined in the human rights declaration.)”

That would be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, about which Feldman notes that “one essential provision mandates that the state shall abide by the United Nations Charter, international treaties, all international conventions that Afghanistan has signed and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” He also tells us that the new constitution calls for “elimination of traditions contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.”

What he doesn’t tell us is that those two principles are on a collision course. The human rights declaration does indeed contain the right to change one’s religion, but the Sharia does not. Muslim radicals like to remind their more restrained coreligionists that the death penalty for people who leave Islam is rooted in the words of Muhammad: “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him” (Sahih Bukhari, volume 9, book 88, no. 6922).

There are numerous other indications that democracy is going to have a tough time in the Muslim world: in Arab News on the same day that Feldman’s piece appeared, Fawaz Turki sneers at President Bush’s Wilsonian plans to export democracy: “A people’s habits of vision – their history, culture, faith, language, literature – codify that people’s immemorial reflexes, the contours of their communal reference . . . President Bush in effect wants Arabs, along with folks elsewhere in the Muslim world, to weld these habits of vision to an idiom appropriated from Jefferson, Locke and Montesquieu. Well, it ain’t gonna happen, fellow, not only because the whole enterprise is degrading for its ethnocentric bias, but because that’s not the way social systems organically evolve and transform.”

Rather, “in the end it will be in the wealth of our own heritage, not in the borrowed dress of other tongues and political traditions that an Arab renaissance will strike root.”

Wonderful. But this kind of language raises red flags for non-Muslim minorities in Islamic states, who have for centuries have been subjected to the ravages of dhimmitude: the discrimination, harassment, and second-class status mandated for them by Islamic law, the Sharia. “The subject peoples,” according to a manual of Islamic law that carries the endorsement of Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s most respected authority, must “pay the non-Muslim poll tax (jizya)” and “are distinguished from Muslims in dress, wearing a wide cloth belt (zunnar); . . . must keep to the side of the street; may not build higher than or as high as the Muslims’ buildings, though if they acquire a tall house, it is not razed; are forbidden to openly display wine or pork . . . recite the Torah or Evangel aloud, or make public display of their funerals or feastdays; and are forbidden to build new churches.”

That heritage is being asserted these days in Malaysia, where the Washington Times reported recently that “Malaysia’s biggest opposition party yesterday declared its goal of forming an Islamic state, with punishments such as stoning and amputation for criminals and a ban on non-Muslims becoming prime minister.”

They were full of reassurances: “Party leaders tempered the announcement by promising the country’s large non-Muslim minorities they would not lose religious freedoms guaranteed by the constitution or the right to hold other government posts.”

Lim Kit Siang of Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party is aware that such a reassurance is on a collision course with Islamic law. He charged that an Islamic state would create “a new dichotomy between Muslims and non-Muslims. It confirms the worst fears of the non-Muslims in Malaysia. The proposals raised would alter the citizenship rights of both Muslims and non-Muslims.”

The man knows his Islamic law. The problem is, so do millions of Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world.

Sign Up