Why the encounter of Islam and Democracy appears impossible from outside, and why it is instead possible from within


If we took a picture of the Middle East today, what would it look like?

In the background, inevitable and ever-present since 1948, is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In an ever-changing region, where the flow of events always brings with it reversals of scenario that all of a sudden upset the cards, the game and the rules, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the unchanged element of the picture. All the rest changes, in a more or less radical way, but in Palestine nothing has been solved yet.

There are pictures in which it looks more violent, others in which it is faint, blurred or put in a corner by other events; but, at least for now, it doesn’t seem disposed to leave its place.

It is there. There to remind us of all the mistakes made. There to remind us that some things have the power (in this case tragic) of being eternal.

If we leave behind the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and focus on the rest, we can observe a dynamicity, destructive and at the same time auto-reproductive, that in no other region is as strong as in the Middle East. We could take a picture every year and we would always find something that over that year has changed, and that will inevitably bring about, sooner or later, other changes.

The tragedy inherent in the Middle East, though, is that change is almost always violent: it doesn’t emerge from the evolution of a project but from the destruction of something – and this something is always someone.

It’s thus a picture in many aspects gloomy and dispiriting, made of wars, violations of human rights and abuses (if not in all the region’s countries, undoubtedly in most of them), terrorism, humanitarian emergencies, quests for freedom and democracy often suffocated in blood or in wretched prisons.

In front of this scenario the perception in the West has often been that “In such a chaos of course our efforts to bring democracy were deemed to fail!” This is partially true: those efforts were indeed deemed to fail; but for our misreading of the Middle East’s reality, not for the Middle East’s hopelessness.

In order to have in future a more positive and stable picture we should in fact start by fully understanding the current one.

We should abandon the idea that Middle East and democracy are irreconcilable, that the Middle East is fated to be excluded from the third wave of democracy and “deemed” to more or less strong forms of authoritarianism.

It is true that in the Islamic world we haven’t traditionally seen the development of the rule of law as we saw it in Europe after 1648, but this doesn’t mean in any way that democracy can’t find a space for itself in that world too. It rather means that we cannot impose on the region the Western State model of complete separation between State and Religion, as this model was the result of a specific event (the Thirty-year war), of a specific time (the XVII century), of a specific region (Europe).

In order to realize a new but coherent model of State-Religion, the Islamic world needs an approach to the relationship between religious authority and secular authority based on its own cultural and social peculiarities.

For this unique and authentic model to emerge it is necessary to reconcile State and Sharia in a way that reflects the characteristics inherent in the normative model of Islamic countries, that takes into account how Islam is not only Religion, but also State and Civil Society.

The starting point should be the use of Islam as a cultural unifying means that can contribute to create a society based on the respect of human rights. And these cannot but be meant as rights recognized to any human being as such, and not only on the basis of one’s belonging to the Islamic religious community (as the Cairo Declaration of 1990 and the Arab Chart of 1994 portray).

Once realized the cohesion Islam-human rights (whose respect lies at the core of any democratic society) it would be possible to devote efforts to the main challenge: the cohesion of Sharia and Democracy. The modification of a relationship between State and Religion that is currently extreme, should be aimed at proposing a solution in which Sharia is neither the primary and only source of the judicial system (as it now is), nor the only source of the Constitutional values (as it now is). It is necessary a new model based on the fusion between the religious legal source, that is traditionally at the core of the Islamic society, and the secular legal source, that the Islamic world needs to embrace modernity and full development (and with it economic and social growth).

Thus, Democracy and Islam are not irreconcilable realities, but they look like if the attempt is that of imposing, in a more or less direct way, the West’s State model.

If any, the contribution the West can make, once understood the peculiarities of the Islamic culture as expressed in Middle Eastern States, should be limited to a judicial support. And this can be successful only if support is given to those political elites who, supported by their respective peoples, emerge as capable and willing of putting forward the reconciliation between State and Sharia.

It is up to Islamic countries, and only to them, to find their internal balance between tradition and modernity. It is up to them to address a millennial relationship that requires to be adapted to new internal and regional dynamics. It is up to them to respond to the challenges and changes that time, inevitably, has brought and continues to bring.

In no other way but by accepting this reality, can we avoid future misunderstandings of the kind of the Arab Spring.

It is, therefore, all about an internal evolution based on the distinction between traditional religious authority and laic authority, without one excluding or overpassing the other but supporting each other. An evolution of this kind would bring about the coexistence of Sharia and rule of law that the Middle East desperately needs to get out of its darkness and embrace the future.

A future that can be bright only abandoning the archaic models of the past through an aware and authentically Islamic process of self-renovation.


Hello world!

Hi! My name is Marta Furlan. I am from Italy and was born in Milan in 1993. I speak five languages, my main areas of interest are the Middle East and Islamist terrorism and my great passion is traveling. I’m majoring in Foreign Languages for International Relations at the Catholic University. Last year I attended a summer course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on the role of Israel in the Middle East, and have recently had been working in South Africa at the Chamber of Commerce in Johannesburg. I am currently completing my thesis on the development of jihadist terrorism by Al Qaeda in ISIS.

Follow my blog if you have a strong interest in International Relations, especially Middle East.