The statistics on this issue are decidely discouraging. Of the 50-plus countries where Muslims represent a majority of the population only four currently enjoy political liberty as defined by Freedom House. Indonesia, and Mali have established democracy internally. Turkey depended enormously on Kemel Ataturk for its evolution from theocracy to limited democracy. Iraq has had an uneasy democracy imposed upon it at the point of the American bayonet. Turkey and Iraq lie within the heartland of Islam. Indonesia and Mali are located on its periphery. No Wahhabist Muslim nation is anywhere close to endorsing democracy.
Since many Muslims express a high regard for democracy in clandestine opinion polls, why do they have so little of it? Nathanael Smith and I addressed that question in an essay published in Public Choice in 2009*. Following detailed empirical testing of alternative hypotheses, we concluded that the decisive obstacle was a generalized unwillingness to allow religious freedom and a reluctance to accept the primacy of secular law over Sharia law. These are decisive obstacles to true democracy.
Some Muslims – especially the extremists who support al Qaeda – view a global Caliphate that combines religious with political authority and that holds sway over the entire Muslim world, as the ideal form of governance. The fact that there is no prospect whatsoever of recreating those first four caliphs who followed the Prophet, makes no difference to the madmen who hear Mohammad’s voice in the twenty-first century air. But they are a miniscule minority of the world’s Muslims.
Much more important is Muslim reluctance to embrace any Western notion of the rule of law. Islam is the only major religion to include specific injunctions about crime, punishment and family law. These Sharia law commands are illiberal, indeed barbaric, in terms of twenty-first century philosophy. The Koran mandates flogging for unlawful sex, requires that adultresses (woman only of course) should be stoned to death, and that petty thieves should suffer amputation of their limbs. With respect to inheritance, a daughter is entitled only to have half as much as a son.
Many Muslims refuse to acknowledge that rules of punishment passed down by an illiterate Prophet during the Dark Ages should be ameliorated in response to the Enlightenment and the subsequent history of Western Civilization. To this extent, many Muslims remain locked into the unlightened past.
Finally, the issue of religious dominance cannot be ignored. Democracy is a system where individuals vote their preferences, either directly or through elected representatives. If such voters are constrained by the Supreme Power, they are not free to establish their majority preferences, where such preferences challenge Islam. Apostasize and die – that is the Saudi Arabian creed. If God alone – as interpreted by one acknowledged Prophet – can adjudicate on what is right and what is wrong, human reason cannot prevail and democracy is doomed.
Even Turkey – the world’s most advanced Islamic democracy -is testing those limits at the present time. Given that Kemel Ataturk’s secular constraints are now severely loosened, the democracies must wait nervously to see whether the Koran or the People will determine that country’s fate.
*Charles K. Rowley and Nathanael Smith, ‘Islam’s democracy paradox: Muslims claim to like democracy, so why do they have so little of it?’ Public Choice, June 2009, 273-299