Column: Can Muslims be democratic?

By Billy Joe Mills

Many arguments against spreading democracy in the Middle East rely on the assumption that Islam is inherently incompatible with democracy. Both conservatives and liberals argue that Islamic people are incapable of democratizing and joining the modern world. They are wrong.

Freedom House, a major international non-partisan organization, annually ranks freedom in every country. The Freedom House data shows that in 1995, 70 percent of majority-Muslim nations were not free, 28 percent were partly free, and two percent were free. But, in 2005, 50 percent were not free, 43 percent were partly free, and seven percent were free – a 50-50 tie between the past and the future.

More promising, in 2005, 610 million people lived in majority-Muslim free or partly free countries and 509 million people lived without freedom as ranked by Freedom House.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country – 88 percent of its population, or 213 million people, is Muslim. Indonesia is a liberal democracy, as ranked by Freedom House. According to the CIA World Factbook, Indonesia has a republic, universal suffrage, legal structures based on Roman-Dutch law and freedom of religion.

India has the world’s third largest Muslim population with 144 million. Freedom House ranks India as a liberal democracy and one of the freest countries.

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    Bangladesh has the world’s fourth largest Muslim population – 88 percent of its population is Muslim. Freedom House ranks them as an electoral democracy, or partly free.

    The most progressive and promising Muslim country is Turkey. It houses the world’s sixth largest Muslim population with 99 percent of its people practicing Sunni Islam. Kemal Atat rk, Turkey’s first president, aggressively secularized the country with the hope to “raise Turkey to the level of modern civilizations.”

    Turkey is the geographic and symbolic gateway between the Middle East and the West. Today they have a parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, civil law based on European systems, freedom of religion and abolished caliphates, or Muslim leaders claiming to be representatives of God.

    Countries with significant Muslim populations that are ranked by Freedom House as either an electoral democracy or a liberal democracy include: Albania, Bangladesh, Benin, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Georgia, Ghana, Greek Cyprus, Guinea-Bissau, India, Indonesia, Israel, Kenya, Macedonia, Malawi, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Turkey and Zambia.

    Progressive Muslims, including political scientist Ahmad Moussalli, argue that not only is the Quran anti-authoritarianism, but it is pro-democracy. Moussalli points to the concepts of “shura (consultation), ijma’ (consensus), al-hurriyya (freedom) and al-huqquq al-shar’iyya (legitimate rights).”

    Muhammad’s life lends credence to democracy. In 622 A.D. he authored the Medina Constitution that granted equal rights to all Muslims and Jews; “To the Jew who follows us belong help and equality. He shall not be wronged nor shall his enemies be aided.”

    The problem lays with the Arab countries, which have histories and economies that tend towards fundamentalism and Sharia. The Arab world is a snapshot of how the West used to look, with religion dominating society.

    The region, not the religion, has produced terrorists. The problem is not a matter of abstract religious interpretation. Rather, it is more concrete. The problem is caused by poverty, history and geography – things that we know we can overcome given time. Furthermore, Islamic democracy does not necessarily have to be Western-style, just as Japanese and Indonesian democracy looks different than ours.

    Many claim it is Western hubris to believe democracy can be successful in the Muslim world. The opposite is true. It is Western-centric and arrogant to believe that Islamic people are condemned to theocracy, violence and poverty. It is myopic to think that Islam is the world’s only faith that is incapable of democratic governance and social modernity.

    Muslims are fully capable of entering the democratic world, in fact, most of them already have. The innate desire to be free spans cultures and faiths. Democracy is not a Western idea, it is a human idea.

    Billy Joe Mills is a senior in LAS. His columns appear on Mondays. He believes he is God’s chosen messiah of the University. He can be reached at [email protected].