Young women at the University of Benghazi, Libya (photo: DW)

Interview with Nader Hashemi
On the Compatibility of Islam and Democracy

In this interview with Lewis Gropp, Nader Hashemi, a leading scholar on Islam and secularism, says that the two are far from being incompatible – and that the West has to accept its share of responsibility for the revival of anti-democratic forces in the Islamic world

In your book, "Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy" you write about Muslim societies and democracy. What do you tell people that categorically state that Islam and democracy will always be at odds because of Islam's supposed inherent anti-democratic nature?

Nader Hashemi: I tell these people two things: First, you need to study history, and second, you need to overcome your Islamophobic prejudices. It should be remembered that not long ago similar arguments were advanced that claimed that Catholicism had an "inherent anti-democratic nature" and thus Catholic-majority societies could not democratize. How many people would make this claim today and be taken seriously? These arguments, if you think about them seriously, are spurious because they are based on the unexamined assumption that religion, in this case Islam, is fossilized and unchanging.

The claim, therefore, that Islam is not subject to evolutionary transformation and development – like all religious traditions obviously are – ignores what really matters: the changing socio-economic and political context, which is all important in shaping how Islam/religion manifests itself in different regions of the world, at different moments in time.

The Ortaköy Mosque, officially the Büyük Mecidiye Camii (Grand Imperial Mosque of Sultan Abdülmecid) in Beşiktaş, Istanbul, Turkey, and the Bosporus bridge in the background (photo: AP)
Shattering long standing Orientalist assumptions about Islam: The recent gains for democracy in Turkey have been a direct result of the political participation of Muslim intellectuals and religious-based parties, Nader Hashemi says

​​Moreover, Islam does not exist in the abstract but it is constantly interpreted by Muslims living in specific historical circumstances. Islam does not exist in a vacuum – there are human agents, i.e. Muslims, that are constantly interpreting and reinterpreting their religion, i.e. Islam. Thus, the proper question is not "what Islam is" but "under what social conditions can Islam be compatible with democracy?"

Where, for example, has Islam proven to be compatible with democracy?

Hashemi: According to most recent rankings by Freedom House, a respected non-governmental organization that monitors global democratic development, over half of the global Muslim population – about 800 million – is located in countries that are listed as "free" or "partly free". Indonesia, for example, the most populous Muslim country in the world, receives very high scores for both civil rights and political rights, a remarkable achievement for a country that about a decade ago underwent a democratic transition, after decades of authoritarian rule. A similar story can be told about Turkey today, which also gets very respectable scores from Freedom House for democratic development. Although there has been some backsliding in recent years by the AK Party.

What is especially noteworthy about these recent gains for democracy in both of these important Muslim-majority countries is that these recent gains for democracy have been as direct result of the political participation of Muslim intellectuals and religious-based parties. This fact shatters long standing modernization theory and Orientalist assumptions about Islam and the supposed inherent dangers of introducing Muslims values into politics.

The claim – which is still widely believed today – is that these traditional Muslim values were fossilized and unable to adapt to modernity and thus the only hope lay with overtly secular, pro-Western parties, institutions and intellectuals who could lead the Muslim world toward democracy, modernity and progress. The empirical evidence, as we enter the 21st century, suggests otherwise.

I would also like to point to the case of contemporary Iran. The leaders of Iran's Green Movement and its leading intellectuals are mostly religiously pious and practicing Muslims and by the standards of Europe they are very socially conservative. Nonetheless, they have all reconciled their understanding of Islam with secularism, human rights, democracy and gender equality.

Nader Hashemi (photo: Manjoo Hashemi)
Nader Hashemi: "Shariah is part of Islamic tradition and it cannot be wished away because some people in the West do not like it"

​​The Arab Spring, I believe, will confirm this trend, as Islamist parties compete for political office and struggle to reconcile their ideological background and socially conservative political agenda with the demands of government complex and modern society. The positive role that Ennahda has played so far in Tunisia's democratic transition certainly gives one hope but of course there are no guarantees.

What about Sharia law, though? There are various schools and it is not codified and therefore it seems it is thoroughly arbitrary and, therefore, unjust. Can Sharia be reconciled with democracy?

Hashemi: This is precisely why it can be reconciled with democracy, because there are several schools, it is not codified and it is arbitrary, subject to human interpretation. Having noted this, the opposite also applies; Shariah can be used for destructive and inhumane purposes as it is in Saudi Arabia and Iran today. Several points are worth noting. First, any legal system, whether it rooted in religion or secular humanism, can be put to sinister ends. What fundamentally matters is whether the system is accountable, adaptable and transparent and subject to democratic checks and balances.

Secondly, Shariah is part of Islamic tradition and it cannot be wished away because some people in the West do not like it. As Karl Marx famously noted: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past." Thus, any emerging Muslim democracy will have to grapple with the monumental task of adapting and modifying Shariah so that it can be reconciled with contemporary democratic values and international standards of justice. In this context, the important work of Muslim legal scholars such as Khaled Abou El Fadl and Abdullahi An-Na'im, to name just a few, are incredibly important in leading the way forward and creating new possibilities.

The end of any judicial system is equality and justice for all individuals subject to it. But under Sharia law, all non-Muslims will always be second-class citizens, at best. Is it really better to reform an unjust system to a less unjust system instead of working for a religiously neutral judicial system under which all subjects are treated equal? Sharia law will always discriminate against religious minorities – so why not advocate democracy, as we know it, straight away?

Hashemi: This is an excellent question whose answer should come from Muslim themselves. Any modern legal system in the Muslim world that seeks to draw upon Shariah law will have to deal with the principle of equality for non-Muslims and justice for religious minorities. There is no avoiding these important ethical issues. I would also add the status of women under Shariah law as well leaves a lot to be desired.

Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the Ennahda Movement (photo: AP)
"The positive role that Ennahda has played so far in Tunisia's democratic transition certainly gives one hope but of course there are no guarantees." Pictured: Rachid Ghannouchi, head of Tunisia's Ennahda Movement

​​But I notice you twice use the term "always" when discussing this topic. You affirm that Shariah law will "always" view non-Muslims as second class citizens and it will "always" discriminate against religious minorities. This suggests a certain essentialized and fossilized view about Islam; that it is – allegedly – forever struck in a pre-modern mindset and that it cannot evolve, adapt or reform itself due to its basic nature. I totally reject this understanding and approach to Islam. In fact it reminds me of the famous line from Lord Cromer, the British colonial administrator in Egypt, who quipped that "Islam reformed is Islam no longer."

Again, Islam in general and its legal system in particular are subject to human interpretation. Beyond a basic set of principles, everything else is up for grabs and is subject to revision, transformation and re-thinking – by human beings – residing in a particular historical, political and socio-economic contexts. Secondly, when you suggest that it is better to disregard Islamic heritage and in exchange "advocate democracy, as we know it, straight away" you ignore the critical issue of cultural identity. Every society has a history, a heritage and an identity that is fluid that cannot be wished away.

In the case of Muslim societies today, due to a very troubled history with external powers over the past 200 years and the rise of globalization, affirming a distinct cultural identity in the face of Western hegemony has become an important political theme in Muslim societies. The more the West tells Muslims to abandon Islam and to imitate "us", the more the Muslim world will push back.

In the end, however, it is only in the context of democracy, with a strong and vibrant civil society, that Muslims will be able to openly discuss and debate the type of legal system they want. Historically, Muslims have not had this opportunity due to the persistence of political authoritarianism and the broad failures of the post-colonial state. It is in the public sphere where an ethical contestation of ideas will have to examine unavoidable contradictions and tensions, such as the ones you mention, and where over time an emerging consensus will develop based on a set of legal norms that will form the bedrock of any modern democratic Muslim polity. This process will be evolutionary and gradual but democracy will help keep it on track.

But minorities will always be a problematic issue with Sharia law, or indeed any religiously or ethnically or otherwise biased law.

Hashemi: You seem to reduce the entire corpus of Islamic law to the question of minorities. This strikes me as a limited reading of the history and nature of Islamic law. Yes, the question of minority rights is deeply problematic for Shariah, but based on recent scholarship, the possibilities of reconciling traditional Shariah norms with modern values are far greater than most people – including Muslims – realize. Yes, conservatives and traditionalists will cry foul at any attempt at reform but what is often forgotten is that the entire corpus Shariah is based on human interpretation.

Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri in the Iranian city of Qom (photo: AP)
Orientalist scholar Joseph Schacht famously noted the gates of "ijtihad", i.e. independent reasoning within Islamic law, have been closed. Referring to the late Iranian Ayatollah Montazeri (died in 2009), Nader Hashemi suggests this might not be the case

​​As Muslim societies democratize and allow for open debate on pressing moral and ethical questions – such as the normative status of minorities in Islamic law and the citizenship and equality – these issues will begin to be resolved. For example, recent rulings and interpretations of Islamic law on the status of Baha'is in Iran from the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri give me hope and suggest that the doors of ijtihad, i.e. independent reasoning within Islamic law, are reopening.

Many commentators have argued the recent changes in the Arab world are for the good, and carry the spirit of democracy and civil rights. But how do you assess the dangers inherent in this volatile situation?

All political change entails a degree of risk. Recent protests in September 2011 in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt that included attacks on the US embassies remind us how transitions to democracy are fragile processes. There are no guarantees that democratic forces will triumph. This applies especially to societies in the developing world that have been governed by authoritarian elites for decades and where numerous social pathologies have been produced, such as the rise of anti-democratic Salafist movement.

But the real question is – what are the alternatives? Retaining the Mubarak, Ben Ali and Assad regimes? These regimes were incapable of reform and thus their demise is to be celebrated. Several points are worth pondering here.

There is an intimate relationship between authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, Western support for them, and the political ramifications of this support for the future of democracy. The proverb that "one cannot eat one's cake and have it too" is apt in this respect. Stated simply, Western support for authoritarian regimes in the Arab-Islamic world has tremendous political consequences in terms of a blowback effect on the region's prospects for democracy. Decades of political repression, particularly of secular civil society, has forced political opposition in the Middle East in the direction of more traditional sectors of society such as the mosque.

The forces of religion have indirectly and inadvertently benefited from the authoritarian policies of the post-colonial Arab state in part because all rival secular political organizations have been suffocated or crushed. A comparison with Iran is instructive in this regard.

The rise of political Islam in Iran in the wake of the 1979 Revolution made perfect sociological and political sense. What did you expect would emerge from decades of political tyranny that decimated progressive social forces? The social conditions in the decades before the revolution, that was a specific by-product of the authoritarian modernization policies of the Western-backed Pahlavi regime, created fertile ground for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. These policies undermined the forces of democratic secularism and liberalism and inadvertently strengthened the forces of political Islam.

The benchmark event of Iran's modern history was a 1953 CIA-organized coup that ended the period of democratic secularism and parliamentary politics Iran had enjoyed from 1941 to 1953. It should be remembered that Mohammed Mossadegh, the charismatic and popular prime minister toppled in the coup was a liberal, a democrat, a political secularist, in the best sense of this term, and a strong supporter of international law - as well as a practicing Muslim.

Demonstration during the 1979 revolution in Iran (photo: DW)
Political ricochet: Not least because of longstanding Western support for Middle Eastern dictatorial regimes, the rise of political Islam "makes perfect sociological sense," Hashemi says. Pictured: demonstration during the 1979 revolution in Iran

​​Imposed in his stead was the Shah of Iran who was as repressive and corrupt during the 1960s and 1970s as Hosni Mubarak and Zine al Abedine Ben Ali were in the 1990s and 2000s. This was a disastrous outcome in terms of Iran's internal political development which had huge implications for role of religion in politics and the rise of an authoritarian Islamist movement that seized political power after the revolution.

In short, in the same way that the forces of political Islam emerged from decades of political authoritarianism as the only credible and organized opposition in Iran, a similar but not identical situation prevails in Egypt and Tunisia today. To decry this state of affairs is to ignore the political consequences of supporting repressive authoritarian regimes. Thus, "one cannot eat one's cake and have it too" – support the social conditions that give rise to political Islam but then decry the strength and popularity of these religious movements after the revolution.

Given this enveloping political context, the rise of political Islam makes perfect sociological sense in part due to longstanding Western support for Middle Eastern dictatorial regimes. If illiberal and undemocratic forces emerge triumphant in Egypt and Tunisia – and I sincerely hope they do not – the West has to accept its share of responsibility for this state of affairs.

Interview: Lewis Gropp

© 2012

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

Nader Hashemi is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and an Assistant Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver, USA. He's a regular contribuar to a wide arrange of media outlets, including "The PBS NewsHour", "Time" magazine, "The Wall Street Journal", CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera and Deutsche Welle. His most recent publication is "Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy - Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies" (Oxfort University Press, 2012).

More on this topic

Comments for this article: On the Compatibility of Islam and Democracy

The single most important question for Nader Hashemi, who gets his living from his 'job' in the West is this.
Do Muslims believe in, and Islam declare, that a Caliphate should rule the world?
The chances of a 'Yes' 'No' , in other words 'straight' answer to this question is, to say the least remote, that is if one gets an answer at all - since he is permanently 'sitting on a fence' with his mealy mouthed words, fear of a fatwah.
In Islam what is important is not what the population thinks but what the teachers teach, and the Koran does not teach Democracy - it teaches Shariah; it teaches it day after day, in a language and context very few ordinary people understand and, especially will not contradict, on the threat of apostasy being invoked. Democracy? That'll be the day.

Paul Austin15.01.2015 | 13:28 Uhr