The Myth of Islamic Democracy

In the period after the strategic withdrawal of the colonialists, Muslim autocrats were supported by the Soviets, by the United States, and occasionally (if they were very shrewd) by both. In the post Cold War period, America’s willingness to give tacit approval to the suppression of democracy, when presented as a defense against fundamentalism, emboldened dictators in the Muslim world. Worried about their own survival, the dictators jailed and executed democracy activists. This well-proven tactic had the desired effect of encouraging other potential activists to keep a low profile or to emigrate.

However, a great number of potential pro-freedom and pro-democracy activists in the Muslim world turned toward Islam–”not because they wanted to hide behind Islam but to seek implementation of Islam and look for guidance in it. Islamophobes, to the contrary, spread the idea that “Islamists” enjoy a structural advantage over the secularists because they can use mosque as a place for meeting and dissemination of information. In fact, the Western analysts have observed very clearly that the future for the secularists and the few opportunist “moderates” is as bleak as that of the dictators propped up by the United States and its allies.

The Islamophobes have also realized that no matter how much they may demonize Islam and present Muslims living by Islam as evil, their influence is limited to the gullible public in the West. In the Muslim world, dictatorial regimes cannot fully suppress Islam and the mosque, which are too deeply a part of everyday culture and society. Islam, in its various forms, plays a central role in the lives of many people. Furthermore, a large and growing number of Muslims, poor and rich, educated and illiterate, not only respect Islam as a source of personal faith but consider it relevant to government. Keeping these facts in mind, Islamophobes came with the idea of selling their dream of secular transformation of the Muslim world under the title of “Islamic democracy” for the sake of acceptability among Muslim.

Earlier, secular nationalism was used for a long time in the Arab world, in Iran, and even in Indonesia to keep Muslims away from Islam as a source of their unity and social organization. The result is that it failed. Not only secularism’s association with dictatorial nationalism has discredited secularists, but also its rejection of living by Islam in public life alienated many Muslims from its philosophy. Practically it is impossible to compartmentalize life into secular and religious because most of the religious principles demand public action, and most of the individual acts need support of the public institutions in the society. Muslims are gradually realizing this fact. They know that they are strictly advised not to use any other standards for living their individual and collective lives other than what is commanded in the Qur’an and practiced by Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). Unlike secularism, Islam has not been discredited in the realm of politics, despite many attempts by opportunists, such as General Zia ul Haq and numerous religious parties to exploit it for their personal and political gains.

Part of the continuing appeal of Islam is not the result of religious leaders and other individuals having relatively few opportunities in government; in an environment of corrupt politics, which has made it easy for them to remain untried and seem untainted. Those who exploited Islam had many opportunities to rule at different levels for long periods. Their hypocrisy has also been exposed at different times. Yet this does not mean that people should stop believing in Islam and stop deriving guidance and inspiration from the Qur’an.

Islamophobes admit that the enduring appeal of Islam in the political context cannot be dismissed as mere idealism because “Islamists” everywhere enjoy a reputation for sincerity and for opposing unjust governments. Furthermore, they argue that the so-labelled Islamists have repeatedly proven their capacity to mobilize to help the unfortunate–”not just earthquake victims or others in crisis, but those suffering under the quiet, constant pressures of poverty. The point to note is that there are many Muslims who oppose injustice, oppression and dictatorship. They are all sincere as well. Just because they happen to be Muslims does not mean they become “Islamists” by the Islamophobic standards. Similarly, these factors are not sustaining the appeal of Islam at all. In addition, Islam will not lose its appeal in case “Islamists” are somehow integrated in the present governing mechanisms and the over all mechanism is called “Islamic democracy” without being Islamic in true sense.

The Islamophobes further confuse the term Islamic. In their view, when people in the Muslim world criticize their governments as being “un-Islamic,” they are often simply calling those governments unjust, corrupt, and repressive. This is but just part of the reality. An un-Islamic government means a government, which follows and judges by standards other than those revealed in the Qur’an and demonstrated in the words and deeds of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). If a government’s legal and economic system, for instance, are secular and is run on the principles which are contradictory to the principles of Islam, it is an un-Islamic government indeed.

As far the lies about Islamic empire and the myth of un-accountable, repressive theocracy coming to power–”if Muslims are given a chance to self-rule–”are concerned, Islam provides serious principles for criticizing rulers and making government accountable from the standpoint of morality and justice. Unlike Bush administrations’ violation of the U.S. Constitution and Bush’s calling it, “just a goddamned piece of paper,”[1] Muslim scholars, judges, and philosophers have something higher to appeal and refer to. They have long called for justice and righteousness in the name of Islam. One of the great strengths of Islam in the political realm lies in the clarity of its moral vision, which holds rulers accountable to justice and the rule of law. Muslim rulers, in an Islamic entity, cannot come up with new law overnight, such as Bush’s Detainee Treatment Act, which wiped out hundreds of pending court cases by detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who are challenging their confinement.[2] The word Islam, conventionally translated as “submission,” implies no subjugation of one person to any other. The word implies rather a recognition of God’s ultimate sovereignty–”a sovereignty that places all people on equal footing before the divine Majesty, not a cable of extremists at the top with totalitarian designs to dominate the world. To mistreat other human beings not only violates their rights but also offends God.

Therefore, accountability of rulers and the government in Islamic terms possesses greater depth and authority than accountability framed in the contemporary constitutions and other forms of almost non-existent check and balances. Islam captures the universal aspiration to just society and government better than the failed ideologies of socialism, nationalism and now democracy. Ask the pundits and proponents of democracy and they would hardly be able to provide solid principles for making the rulers accountable and ensuring equal rights and opportunities for all. Unlike communism and secularism, Islam is not simply another ideology but a vibrant faith. It can motivate people to act politically while simultaneously transcending politics. A truly Islamic policy is, by implication, not only advantageous but inherently good with compelling incentives of rewards in the hereafter. Similarly, un-Islamic behavior is not merely illegal but sin in the eyes of God with a strong element of accountability attached to it.

In a world where hundreds and thousands have been mercilessly murdered under the banner of establishing secularism and democracy, Islamic form of governance remains the solution–”provided Muslims are ready to struggle for it–”that is not allowed even to be tried as a model in any Muslim state. The Taliban government was not recognized. It was demonized, hounded and blackmailed until it was overthrown only to save the world from seeing an Islamic model established in real sense. Undoubtedly, the Taliban had many shortcomings but their intentions made it possible for the rest of the Muslim world to participate in establishing Islam as per its requirements. Of course, if free and fair democratic elections were held all over the Muslim world, many countries would see sizable turnouts of voters favoring religious groups with solid program for establishing Islam. But that would just be the beginning. The resultant democracy would not be Islamic, nor would a government become Islamic merely by electing religious parties to power. The leftover colonial systems need to be fully scrapped to begin establishing an Islamic model in all spheres of life.

The problem is that centuries of organized efforts under continued colonialism have taken Muslims away from Islam to an extent that Muslims themselves do not all agree about the extent to which Islam should determine how they live. However, this problem is not insurmountable provided Islam is allowed to become mainstream and open discussions and debates are carried out for seriously establishing an alternative to living under the oppressive tyrannies of different types of autocrats, serving their masters abroad. The basic principles, values and beliefs of Islam are neither complex not contested. While its core principles dictate the right way to act in every sphere of human activity, in practice, it leaves great swaths of individual and communal choice free. However, in no way, Islam is limited to the sphere of individual faith alone. It is part of the Islamophobes efforts to undermine Islam to speak of “Islams,” plural, rather than “Islam,” singular.

The diversity of views on minor issues which do not make a Muslim commit shirk and take one out of the fold of Islam does not render Islam unfit for playing a role in governance. The real face of the Islamophobes’ promoted “Islamic democracy” is exposed when its proponents, such as Noah Feldman, argue that Islam “might be the official religion of a state that governed in a basically secular fashion. Islam might provide the basis for family or personal law without infringing on other legal domains. Islam might provide a symbolic basis for general legislation without dictating particular policies.” There is no place for mere symbolism in Islam. Muslims have to practice what they claim to believe. The afore-mentioned views of having multiple legal domains, for example, are signs of expecting Muslims to believe only in parts of the Qur’an, against which God has strongly warned those who come to the fold of Islam.[3] This partial submission to the standards of Allah leads to what the Qur’an calls, Fisq (wickedness and enormous sin), Zulm (injustice and oppression) and Kufr (disbelief).[4] From the Islamic point of view, such a system could be anything but Islamic democracy. Those who insist that the Qur’an and Sunnah are the only sources and standards for legislation and decision-making are not “Islamists” as the Islamophobes are telling the world. They are Muslims, believing in the clear injunctions of the Qur’an, not in the rancid notions of “Islamism” and “moderate Islam.”

How compatible the basic requirement of living by Islam is with democracy will depend in part on the definition of democracy one adopts. Here we must reiterate that democracy is simply used as a fig leaf to conceal the nefarious designs for ruling the Muslim world through de facto colonization. Democracy in itself has nothing to do with compatibility and incompatibility with Islam. When simply put, democracy means that the people rule, whether by referendum or by choosing representatives. This structural definition of democracy fits the democracy of Athens and is still serviceable today. A more modern definition requires a range of basic rights to go along with the right to vote and be elected in free elections: broad freedom of speech and association, practice of religion, equality before the law, due process, and more. The liberal democracy includes the panoply of rights that people in Western democracies enjoy. So everything boils down to the people. The irony is that if they want to go topless, it is perfectly OK. If they want to have same sex relationships, it is considered their basic right. But if they want to wear hijab, it is off bounds in a secular democracy. If they want religious based arbitration, they cannot have it because they have to stick to the same secular standards for all.

When the people proclaim to be Muslims, their faith comes before everything else. Their faith is not merely a statement. They have to accept Islam as a Deen–”a way of life. They have to practice it. Islam actually binds Muslims to live their lives according to what they proclaim to believe: the Qur’an and the Sunnah. They have certain responsibilities and obligations. Similarly, their submitting to the Will of Allah requires them to accept living in a particular way which may or may not synchronize with the panoply of rights that people in the secular democracy enjoy. It does not mean that if Muslims choose to accept those parts of the democratic process and structure, which do not conflict with their Deen, and reject those parts which negate the Qur’an and Sunnah, they become evil and the West has every right to sanction them, bomb them, and occupy their lands until they submit to everything that is acceptable and a norm in the West. Muslims are also the people and they have certain obligations as Muslims. If they fulfill their religious obligations with the acceptable process and structure of democracy, they have every right to do so as human being. No power in the world has absolute right to keep Muslims away from living by Islam. This is where self-rule and exercising their right to self-determination becomes important.

The proponents of “Islamic democracy” also argue that there is a range of options between a true Islamic governance model and secular autocracies. It is not that the so-labeled “Islamists” and the U.S. backed dictators have heavily invested in arguing that the only options are autocracy or an Islamic governance model. This is the result of the experience of more than five decades of the post-“independence” period in which many options were tried and tested. Various isms and mixtures of ideologies were put before Muslims to deviate their attention from following the right course. We have now reached a stage, where the Islamophobes and neo-colonialists have no hybrid model to deceive Muslim masses for keeping them away from Islam. That is why they are now coming up with the concept of “Islamic democracy.”

The autocrats are not lying when they argue that “Islamists” are the only alternative to autocratic rule. Of course, initially they depict this reality to generate sympathies for themselves in the West. However, the more the time passes, the more the true face of the West and associated concepts is exposed on them. The autocrats now realize that the time for depending on brute force for maintaining political strength is over. They cannot continue to rule forever by coercion, supported by elites. Troubles for those Arab rulers are clearly surfacing who have so far used oil resources for maintaining good relations with the champions of so-called democracies in the West. General Musharraf of Pakistan and others, poorer in resources, have to rely on convincing the modern day fascists that they are necessary for containing the tides of Islam and maintaining regional stability.

Either way, autocratic Muslim governments need friends abroad, especially in the West. However, because these governments repress dissent, their best strategy is to take advantage of the potential Islamophobic Western allies. The autocrats are doing everything they can to prove they are better than the alternatives. Thus, opportunism of autocrats and fear of Islamophobes join hands. For the autocrats the Islamophobes’ propaganda about “Islamism” and “Islamists” is a gift from heaven. The West is suspicious of persons working in the name of Islam, because any expression of independence and real freedom becomes anti-Western by default because liberation from the sitting dictators is indirectly liberation from the grip of continued colonialism of the West. It is not that political ideals of religious parties are expressed in anti-Western terms. It is that the world order is set in a way that it cannot survive without the Western domination over former colonies.

The modern day fascists might be proud to have so many sellouts in the Muslim world who are ready to sacrifice interest of their own people for maintaining de facto colonization of the Muslim world. They, however, hardly realize that opportunist Muslim autocrats are keeping the myth of “Islamism” alive to justify their rule, repression and using all means possible to preserve the status quo. The clever autocrats know that they cannot completely eliminate what the fascists have labeled as “Islamist” opposition. There will forever be some opposition to their rule and, of course, there would be calls against the un-Islamic acts, system, provisions of law and other aspects and life. That will forever remain part and parcel of Muslim societies. This, in turn, makes rule of Muslim autocrats eternal, at least, as long as super-fascism rules the world. These opportunist autocrats have confused even the staunch supporters of democracy in the West. In the face of the fear of Islam, promoted by the alliance of Islamophobes in the West and autocrats in the Muslim world, the pro-democracy activists will never feel confident enough in the possibility of secular democracy in the Muslim world to demand or to encourage real democratization.

The optimal strategy for the autocrats is therefore before our eyes. Pakistan is a good case study in sight. General Musharraf is eliminating secular democratic dissent in the form of Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan Peoples’ party and Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan Muslim League. Musharraf backed candidates from the religious parties’ alliance through military intelligence (ISI) in the 2002 elections through various means so as to have them in the government in substantial numbers for ringing alarm bells in the Islamophobic circles abroad. The shrewd military dictator in Islamabad also benefits by telling his own people that there is no alternative but the “Islamists,” because secular-minded Muslims–”of whom there are no small number, especially among elites, corrupt government officials, newly riches and former communists–”might prefer autocracy to an Islamic state that would rule by Islamic principles. Some indoctrinated Muslim feminists might prefer an oppressive secular autocracy to a relatively democratic Islamic state. Thanks to Islamophobes’ dominated Western media, which have given the impression that women are repressed under an Islamic rule. For instance, democratically enacted religious regulations, such as wearing a head covering and Islamic dress for women outside their homes, might be an unpardonable crime compared to the rulings in France and elsewhere, where women were forced to remove Hijab. Islamophobes have, after all, often made women into a central symbolic focus of their anti-Islam efforts, simultaneously demanding amalgamation of the sexes while insisting that a shoulder-to-shoulder, mandatory participation of women in all walks of life will facilitate development of the Muslim world.

Beyond the Islamophobes and the autocrats, some ordinary Muslims cannot yet quite imagine comparatively the mantra of secular democracy in the Muslim world. This is not a short-term problem, which will eventually be resolved. It is naïve to believe that even if “Islamists” come to power, after a few cycles of “Islamist” government many people in the Muslim world would start to look for something more secular. It is wrong to compare the Muslim world with the Iranian experience alone to tell the world that twenty years of government by mullahs has produced some positive changes in the country but also many negative consequences.

Neither is Iranian government a model of Islamic governance, nor is there anything in this world that is without any negative consequence. Pick up any aspect of life in Iran and compare it with the growing tyranny in the United States and you will find that Iran is far better than the United States in many aspects of governance. The U.S. government has grossly violated human rights both at home and abroad. The bloom is off the rose of American democracy, and Americans have, not surprisingly, been thinking about alternatives to the two party dictatorship and a mixture of theocracy and corporatism in the name of democracy. Some would like to see more moderate and accountable government, while others, perhaps a majority, are starting to think that their government has gone beyond the police state phase and a Nazi government is in place, which does not hesitate in killing its own people in 9/11 kind of operations.

“Democracy” in the United States has gone to the extent that under the terms of the new Patriot Act, prosecutors will be able to seek the death penalty in cases where “defendants gave financial support to umbrella organizations without realizing that some of its adherents might eventually commit violence”?[5] So, if someone unknowingly gave money to a charity that was considered to be connected to a so-declared terrorist group, he could be executed.

Under the “democratic” set up in the United States, the Senate Intelligence Committee is fine-tuning the details of a bill that will allow the FBI to secretly procure any personal records of any citizen without “probable cause” or a court order giving them “unchecked authority to pry into personal and business matters”?[6] On June 29, 2005, President Bush put “a broad swath of the FBI” under his direct control by creating the National Security Service (also known as; the “New SS”)? This is the first time we have had a “secret police” in 200 year history. It will be run exclusively by the president and beyond the range of congressional oversight.

On October 27, 2005, President Bush created the National Clandestine Service, which is headed by CIA Director and “expand reporting of information and intelligence value from state, local and tribal law enforcement entities and private sector stakeholders”? This executive order gives the CIA the power to carry out covert operations, spying, propaganda, and “dirty tricks” within the United States and on the American public.[7] Another sign of democratic fascism is that Pentagon intelligence operatives are now permitted to collect information from U.S. citizens without revealing their status as government spies?[8]

The tall claims of freedom and liberty under “democracy” can be assessed from the fact that within 2 years, every American license and passport will be made according to federal uniform standards including microchips (with biometric information) that will allow the government to trace every movement of its citizens?

According to a recent rulings, the DC District Court unanimously decided in two different cases that foreign prisoners have no rights under international law to challenge their indefinite imprisonment by the United States and, (in Rumsfeld vs. Padilla) that the president can lock up an American citizen “without charges” if he believes he may be an “enemy combatant”? Both verdicts overturn the fundamental principles of “inalienable rights”, habeas corpus, and the presumption of innocence; replacing them with the arbitrary authority of the executive. So much for “democracy” and “freedom.”

The American people have no idea of the amount of energy that has been devoted to stripping them of their constitutional protections and how stealthily that plan has been carried out. It has required the concerted efforts of the political establishment, the corporate elite, and the embedded media to consummate this kind of fascism through a “boiling the frog” approach. For all practical purposes, the “democratic” government is no longer constrained in its conduct towards its citizens; it can do as it pleases like earlier fascist regimes.

The campaign to dismantle the Bill of Rights, which has focused primarily on the key amendments: the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th and 14th. These are the cornerstones of American liberty and they encompass everything from due process to equal protection to free speech to a ban on the “cruel and unusual” treatment of prisoners. Freedom has little tangible meaning apart from the safety provided by these amendments.

At present, there is no reason for the U.S. administration to assert its new powers. That would only dispel the widely held illusion of personal freedom. But, the existing climate of “well being” will not last forever. The poisonous effects of war, tax cuts, burgeoning budget deficits, and inflation indicate that darker days lie ahead. The middle class is stretched paper-thin and disaster could be as close as a hike in interest rates. The new repressive legislations anticipate the massive political unrest that naturally follows a tenuous and volatile economic situation.

The members of America’s ruling elite carefully follow the shifting of policy in Washington. They have the power to access the “mainstream” media and dispute the changes in the law that they oppose. Regrettably, there has been no sign of protest from the bastions of the corporate, financial and political oligarchy; just an ominous silence. Does this mean that American elite have abandoned their support for personal liberty and the rights of ordinary people, or they are the one’s helping consolidate the creeping fascism.

Americans still seem blissfully unaware of the fundamental changes to the political system. The cloak of disinformation and diversion has successfully obscured the perils of our present course. Freedom is no longer guaranteed in Bush’s America nor is liberty everyman’s birthright. The rickety scaffolding that supports the rule of law has been replaced with the unbridled authority of the royal presidency. The country is slipping inexorably towards the Orwellian nightmare; a fascist state that history has never seen.

Externally, there is no problem of government in the Muslim world. The problem lies in the continued American and its allies’ interference in the Muslim world. Keeping the American or any other Western experience of democracy in mind, one can easily conclude that every few years changing faces of dictators at the top does not mean democracy and freedom for people. Almost certainly, democratizing the Muslim world in that sense would never produce real gains for the oppressed masses; neither in the short, nor in medium term. Islamic movements are gradually taking shape. Its leaders, untainted by hypocrisy and corruption, and steadfast in challenging autocracy and continued colonialism, speak the language of the people. They are not perceived as elitist, and they draw on powerful ideals of justice and authenticity. In a truly democratic system, there is no way that they would not get a chance to govern particularly if they set the priorities right and clarify their mission to include Muslim self-determination and self-rule as the primary objectives. However, that is the point where the Western democracy’s feet of clay are exposed, just as we witnessed in the case of Hamas win in the occupied Palestine. Democracy in occupied Palestine would have been accepted to the Western allies, if candidate of the U.S. choice had won the elections. However, they hardly care about people’s will in the case of their electing a party that calls a spade a spade and refused to bow down to the Western supported, 58 years old tyranny and oppression under Israeli occupation.

Most Palestinians today are asking simple questions, if the past government was, and it was, corrupt–”financially, politically and administratively–”and the Palestinians voted them out of power, why can’t the U.S. see this as a positive development? Why does the U.S. want to bring back a proven corrupt government that made a mockery of international aid, including U.S. funds? Also, if Israel has blocked every attempt for Palestinians to solve their issues at the negotiating table, can the United States not understand that voting Hamas in office was a simple non-violent way to tell the world, end this occupation or take some of your own medicine?

In the occupied Palestine, we clearly see that none of the elements of Islamophobes’ propaganda about Islam at stake. No one argues that Hamas government might be undemocratic, oppressive, and anti-Western. No one argues that Hamas governments might call off democratic elections, or leave elections in place but pass laws that oppress women or non-Muslims or political opponents. None of these “dangerous possibilities” is presented as we witnessed in the case of Algeria, yet Hamas win is not acceptable irrespective of the democratic way in which it has come to power.

To the contrary, the alternative to real democracy in the Muslim world is acceptable to the United States and its allies in many places in the form of autocracy. If there is to be any way out of the impasse, it will have to come from imagining giving Muslims their right to self-determination and self-governance rather than deceiving them in the name of “Islamic democracy.” Strong proponents of “Islamic democracy” make a fool of their own selves when they argue that it is a democracy of Muslims with Islamic content but not governed exclusively by Islamic law. How can anything be called Islamic when Islamic standards for living life are declared out of law?


[1]. Dough Thompson, “Bush on the Constitution: ‘It’s just a goddamned piece of paper’,” Capital Hill Blue, December 09, 2005.

[2]. Capital Hill Blue report: “Bush claims he can violate detainee rights at Gitmo,” May 17, 2006.

[3]. “Do you believe in part of the book and reject part of it? And what is the reward of those who do so save ignominy in the life of the world, and on the Day of Resurrection they will be consigned to the most grievous doom” (Qur’an, 2:85).

[4]. ” …. And whoever fails to judge on the basis of that which Allah revealed has committed Kufr (disbelief).” ” …. And whoever fails to judge on the basis of that which Allah revealed has committed Dhulm (injustice and oppression).” ” …. And whoever fails to judge on the basis of that which Allah has revealed, has committed Fisq (wickedness and enormous sin).” (Qur’an, 5:44 – 47).

[5]. The NewYork Times, editorial, October 30, 2005.

[6]. The New York Times, “Republicans seek to widen FBI Powers”, October 19, 2005.

[7]. See: “The new National Intelligence Strategy of the United States” by Larry Chin, GlobalResearch.

[8]. Greg Miller, Times Staff writer, “Bill would give Cover to Pentagon Spies”, The Nation.


The above is an excerpt from Abid Ullah Jan’s latest book, "After Fascism: Muslims and the Struggle for Self-determination." Avaliable at:

Also see: "The ICSSA"