The general elections in Pakistan last week signaled a new era, where the first democratic transition of power took place in a country hindered in the past by frequent military interventions. While most in the country hailed this as a great achievement, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) denounced the process in the harshest terms, and considers the system of democracy as an antagonist to Islamic law and principles.
The Taliban's belief is shared by many in the West itself, who consider Islam to be a totalitarian, fascist ideology and one that is highly restrictive to alternate views. While the Taliban and other dictatorial regimes across the Muslim world certainly might give the impression that Islam is not compatible with democracy, nothing could be further from the truth.
The principles of democracy served as a strong pillar for centuries after the Prophet Muhammad laid the foundations of Islam 1500 years ago. The struggles in Muslim majority nations against dictatorships today reflect the desire of a vast number of Muslims for democratic rule, a system that is not mutually exclusive with their faith.
When advocating democratic principles in Islam, Muslim scholars and academics often refer to the concept of shura (consultation), mentioned in the Koran on several occasions. The 42nd sura (chapter) of Koran, which is titled the Shura, contains the following verse suggesting that shura is praiseworthy:
"Those who hearken to their Lord, and establish regular prayer; who (conduct) their affairs by mutual consultation; who spend out of what We bestow on them for sustenance" [are praised] [42:38].
In another reference, the the Koran commands the prophet to indulge in a discussion rather than a confrontation even with those who have been accused of wrongdoing:
“Thus it is due to mercy from God that you deal with them gently, and had you been rough, hard hearted, they would certainly have dispersed from around you; pardon them therefore and ask pardon for them, and take counsel with them in the affair; so when you have decided, then place your trust in God; surely God loves those who trust” [3:159].
In 2006, an extensive survey was completed by Gallup over a five-year period shortly after 9/11 on issues dealing with Islam and Muslims. The study was conducted in nearly 35 Muslim-majority countries, with thousands of in-person interviews related to how Muslims view women's rights, terrorism, and democracy.
The results strongly suggested that overwhelming Muslim majorities in Islamic countries support democracies in their nations, and strongly assert that democracy and Islam are not mutually exclusive. A large portion of the population in countries such as Lebanon (99%), Egypt (94%), and Iran (91%), believed that the constitution should reflect and protect free speech, a necessity in any democracy.
However, while many in the Muslim world viewed democracy favorably, they rejected a Western-styled secular democracy. Muslims in most Muslim-majority states, except for a few, believed that a democratic structure reflecting the basic principles of Islam was the the best choice for them. This does not suggest that they were advocating a theocracy like Iran. While this amalgamation of religion and democracy might perhaps be problematic amongst some Western critics, it is interesting to note that nearly 33% of Americans would like the U.S. to establish Christianity as a state religion.
The recent elections in Pakistan and the democratic struggle in the Arab world put to rest any notion that Islam and democracy are mutually exclusive — far from it. While democracy may take a different shape in a Muslim nation, the tenets of democracy such as the right to self determination, freedom of expression, and a fair justice system are frequently cited as some of the best features of Western government.
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