Islam and Democracy

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The revolutions towards Western liberalism and true democracy took the continent of Europe hundreds of years. What we are currently witnessing in Egypt and throughout the Middle East might not be the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. We should be prepared to fasten our seat belts. We are in for a long ride.

This is something very difficult for Americans to wrap our heads around. We are a people that pride ourselves on our ingenuity and our know-how. We like to solve our problems. And we like to solve them instantly. We are a nation of very limited patience and of a very short attention span.

We, in America, would like to believe that an election is equivalent to democracy. An election is just one, and perhaps the most superficial, factor of a democracy. It is simply the process. The content of democracy means a separation of powers, a free and independent judiciary, a free and independent press, free speech, the rights for minorities and the rule of law. It means respect—a real respect for pluralism, for the voice of dissent. When we assume office we understand that it is for a limited time, and that there will eventually be new elections.

In the Middle East, the ballot box had been substituted, for a while, for the bullet. An electoral victory means, in the eyes of the victors, “We have the power and we will crush you.”

What is equally difficult for Americans to be able to wrap their heads around is what a totally comprehensive religion Islam is. I can understand and appreciate this, because I am an Observant Jew. Judaism and Islam share certain similarities that diverge from Christianity. In Judaism, we are governed by a system of laws, referred to as halacha, which essentially means the way to walk, not so dis-similar from Islam, which is governed by sharia, which means the path.

Both religions feel that one can create an ideal society by having the word of God mediate their conduct, and intervene into every aspect of their daily life. In Orthodox Judaism, every act, from thanking God when one starts the day, to saying a prayer thanking God when one emerges from the bathroom, to how one dresses, is mediated by a theological prescription. Not one area of conduct in one’s life is devoid of an awareness of God and how one should conduct oneself in the eyes of God.

The origins of early Christianity stemming from the Gospels had deviated from this emphasis on “sweating the small stuff”. That departure gave the intellectual distance from a theocratic-centered life which enabled the Greco-Roman foundations of democracy. (The word itself is from the Greek, from the word “demos” or “ people, and “kratos” meaning “rule”.)

This distance provided the fertile ground for the great liberal philosophers of Immanuel Kant,  David Hume, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke, to dig our intellectual foundations,  deeper in the West, of an ethical and moral life that is distinct and separate from theology.  They discovered that man, himself can be a source of ethics and morality, devoid of Divine intervention.

It must be stated that Judaism diverges from Islam in a few very basic ways. Most essentially, no where in Judaism is there an attempt to establish a world wide caliphate. In practically every synagogue throughout the world there is a prayer for the welfare of the government, as well as prayer for the state of Israel. Judaism is not a religion of conquest. There is not even a sense of missionizing within Judaism. Jews, throughout the world, just want to establish their little communities where they can live in peace, when their host countries allow them to,( a rare occurrence in our people’s history).

Our nation has been founded upon religious freedom. My people have found very welcoming fertile ground on this soil. That is why it is so difficult for many of us, both as Jews and as Americans, to be able to wrap our minds around the fact that within Islam, a religion, there is a hegemonic desire. It is a religion of conquest that views itself at war with the West.

The Islamists despise our freedoms and feel that we are a licentious and immoral civilization, whose conduct needs to be mediated by God, and not just any God, but by Allah.

Many, but not all, Muslims in the world believe that they would like to establish a global world-wide caliphate.  There are many other ways that Judaism diverges radically from Islam. Muslims are taught that if their daughters or wives have been raped or have had sexual encounters outside of a Muslim marriage they have brought dishonor to the family and should be murdered. They are taught that thieves should have their hands amputated. And they are taught that apostates, or those who have converted to Christianity, should be executed.

Although there may be some individual Muslims who have distanced themselves from these teachings, this is, in fact, what Islam teaches. Those courageous, few who have publicly distanced themselves, have been sentenced to fatwas, death penalties by the ruling clerics in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The question is: Can this be compatible with democracy?

The fact is that Egypt is a highly divided nation of 90 million people. We are witnessing the beginning of a series of convulsions and counter-convulsions. Globalization has given the sweet taste of Western style democracy and freedoms to a percentage of Egyptians.

The question remains: What percentage? An April 30, 2013 Pew Poll of Muslims around the globe indicates that “most adherents of the world’s second-largest religion are deeply committed to their faith and want its teachings to shape not only their personal lives but their politics. In all but a handful of the 39 countries surveyed, a majority of Muslims say that Islam is the one true faith leading to eternal life in heaven and that belief in God is necessary to be a moral person. Many believe that religious leaders should also have at least some influence over political matters. And many express a desire for sharia-traditional Islamic law-to be recognized as the official law of the country.”

In Egypt, 74 per cent favor making Sharia the official law of the land.

Within the past year, we have witnessed a revolution and a counter-revolution Earlier this month, we witnessed millions of Egyptians taking to the streets against the suffocating grip of Mohammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Since Morsi was deposed, the streets of Cairo have been dripping with blood, at least   51 pro-Morsi supporters were killed in one week, alone. Tens of thousands of pro-Morsi supporters have packed the square around Cairo’s Raaba al-Adaweya Mosque and vowed not to leave until Morsi is reinstated. Those in the center were dancing around the song, “Egypt is Islamic”.

The Muslim Brotherhood might be temporarily down, but they are not out.

Fasten your seat belts. It is going to be a long and rocky ride.

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About the Author

Sarah Stern
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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