Is Political Islam Compatible with Democracy?


The past 10 to 15 years have been characterized by the rise of Islamic radicalism and extremism. An abundance of information about terrifying terrorist attacks committed by Muslims can be found across the media. Another popular narrative is the spread of dictatorships around the world. Most authoritarian or totalitarian regimes are reported as being frequent in countries where the majority of the population is Muslim. Libya (until 2011), Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran are particularly convincing examples of this statement. In his famous article ‘The Clash of Civilizations’, Samuel Huntington writes about a conflict between Western and Islamic civilizations that has existed for  some 1,300 years. [1] He notes that along with direct clashes, such as terrorist attacks or hostile rhetoric, attempts by Western countries to strengthen democracy in the Arab world brought about ‘some openings’ [2] in Arab political systems that explicitly let anti-Western movements become powerful and influential. Therefore, Huntington concludes that Western and Islamic systems are completely different, even hostile, and those they will only become more so in the future. [3]

 This perception of Islam as being violent and inherently undemocratic has caused fear among Europeans and Americans after the so-called ‘Arab spring.’

Huntington presents relations between Western democracy and Islam in a purely antagonistic way. We can confidently say that this perception of Islam as being violent and inherently undemocratic has caused fear among Europeans and Americans after the so-called ‘Arab spring’, when groups advocating the incorporation of Muslim values into politics (adherents of ‘political Islam’) gained power in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. These election results were labelled the ‘Islamist winter’ and if not completely damaging, were dangerous for democracy. [4]  Those who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood were characterized as not yet ready for a democratic regime. [5]

But were these worries justifiable? Or were they simply prompted by existing bias? Is Islam really incompatible with democratic norms and traditions? Is it doomed to produce dictatorships under which human rights are violated and dignity is humiliated? This article  attempts to answer these questions. First, the notion of ‘political Islam’ is introduced, its meaning explained and a brief history of its development provided. It is then argued that Islam and democracy are not as contradictory as they seem through an in-depth exploration of the norms of Islam, as well as an analysis of bias about the religion and Arab countries in general, which provokes negative opinions. A successful example  of a combination of religion and democracy will be discussed, namely Indonesia. The arguments that corroborate the opposing point of view will then be addressed, before an overall conclusion is drawn.

Political Islam has emerged as an ‘alternative to the perceived failure of secular ideologies such as nationalism, capitalism and socialism.’

According to Mohammed Ayoob, ‘adherents of political Islam (or Islamism) believe that Islam as a body of faith has something important to say about how politics and society should be ordered in the contemporary Muslim world and implemented in some fashion.’ [6] John Esposito adds that political Islam has emerged as an ‘alternative to the perceived failure of secular ideologies such as nationalism, capitalism and socialism.’ [7]  This seems to be particularly true with Egypt. The years following the 1967 war with Israel were characterized by the decline of Nasser’s ‘pan-Arab’ and socialist ideology. Following this, the number of religious ideas and movements that presented Egypt’s loss as a result of society’s existing sins increased dramatically. [8] This failure of secular ideology is considered by Robin Wright to be the first phase of the development of political Islam. [9]  The second stage started in 1980 with the rise of religious extremism and suicide bombers; a phase during which it seemed that a lot of important political goals could be achieved with violence. [10] In the 1990s, fully fledged political Islamist parties started forming. [11]  But the agenda of most was still closely associated with the ideas of jihad and martyrdom. This was the third phase in the development of political Islamism. Finally, the fourth stage started after 9/11. [12] As Wright notes, this event was a real shock, not only for the Western world but also for Muslims. [13] The reaction was a kind of ‘counter jihad’, [14]  that is to say, a rejection of extremist tactics for the achievement of political goals. Accordingly, in opposition to the common view in the Western world, political Islam is a ‘very dynamic phenomenon, not a static ideology’ [15] stuck with the same ideas of several centuries ago.

The above perception of Islamist ideas might be one of the biases that prevents the general public and some scholars from seeing Islam and democracy as being compatible. Yet the perception it is not entirely correct.

The second bias comprises a vision of the Arab world as unified and homogeneous. [16] But this is not so due to the absence of one prevailing political system or level of economic development. [17] It is therefore very important to look at the context of political Islam, its variations and its rules, which are absent of one universal and ‘correct’ Islam. This bias helps groups such as ISIS to create an image of Islam as a very aggressive religion.

This statement can be supported by the following concrete example, namely that of Islamic rules concerning a woman’s dress or appearance. Islam is believed to regulate this issue very strictly and impose the obligation to wear the hijab. However, if we look at what the Qur’an says about this aspect of a woman’s life, no direct order to wear the hijab can be found. The Qur’an presents two tenets regarding this aspect:

  • ‘O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them (when they go out or are among men).’ [18]
  • ‘Say to the believing man that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them; and Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands.’ [19]

As we can see, these two rules do not contain strict and precise regulations about a woman’s dress. What does it mean ‘not to display beauty’? Or what does it mean to ‘guard modesty’? These formulations could be understood quite broadly. Moreover, the term ‘hijab’ is not used in the Qur’an at all. The only additional source that is believed to regulate the way a woman dresses is a hadith, one of the prophetic traditions, which states: ‘Aisha said, “Asma, daughter of Abu Bakr (that is, Aisha’s sister), entered upon the Apostle of God (pbuh) wearing thin clothes. The Apostle of God turned his attention from her and said, “O Asma, when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her except that she displays parts of her body except this and this”, and he pointed to her face and hands.’

Again, it is not clear what exactly is meant by thus. The hadith points out that a woman should not wear thin clothes, but does not explicitly say that she should cover her head or wear the hijab. Some Muslim researchers claim that the question of a woman’s appearance rests more in the field of the personal interpretation of holy texts by clergy than in traditions existing during Mohammed’s lifetime. [20] Bayat writes that ‘Muslim societies are never monolithic and never religious by definition,’ [21]  before going further to say that, ‘Sacred injunctions are matters of a struggle of competing readings.’ [22]

Islam as a religion and as a political ideology is diverse and comprises various branches.

The third problem derives from the aforementioned second bias and is that of the generalization of the term ‘Islam’. In day-to-day use it usually comprises everything, from IS to the Muslim Brotherhood, without any distinction being made; yet these two groups are almost on opposite ends of the radicalism scale. Islam as a religion and as a political ideology is diverse and comprises various branches.

For example, Ali R. Abootalebi places particular emphasis on the need to differentiate between Islam and what he refers to as fundamentalism. [23] While fundamentalists (or ‘traditionalists’) argue for the necessity to maintain Shari’a traditions and claim a ‘historical monopoly over the right to interpret Islam,’ [24] they are usually more focused on prompting change within a family or an individual, rather than within a society. Participation in day-to-day political life is often perceived as sinful. Moreover, among fundamentalists there is still further division. Some are adherents to old Islamic traditions, while others are accused of interpreting Sharia law and the Qur’an in the most strict and severe of ways. [25] These violent sectarianists (Iraqi militias), classic and global jihadists (Al Qaeda), [26] and the new jihadi-salaffism, all emerged after the ‘Arab spring’ (al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb) and combined ‘social activism and proselytism with a new enthusiasm for violence worldwide.’ [27] In contrast, Islamists are generally aimed at participation in politics. Among them there is also a division between violent forms, such as Islamic socio-revolutionary activism (GIA) and non-violent forms. [28] The latter do believe in the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and argue that values such as human rights and freedoms are as peculiar to Islam as they are to Christianity. [29] The ‘Muslim democrats’, as Peter Mandaville points out, view politics ‘with a pragmatic eye’ and do not seek to change life according to religious principles; [30] rather, they use Islam as an ideological and uniting basis for themselves and their electorate.

According to ‘Muslim democrats’, some Islamic principles are considered key to ‘Islamic democracy’. [31]  John Esposito names and explores two. The first is shura or mutual consultation. This means that it is obligatory for Muslims to engage in consultations with each other and between ulema (the intelligentsia) and the community regarding the issues of political and public affairs. [32] The second concept is that of the ‘caliph’. Esposito notes that this term has been changed artificially and is usually used to mean a ‘ruler’ whose power is not limited by anything. In reality and according to the Qur’an, this concept has an absolutely different meaning of ‘steward’ or ‘trustee’. As the first human, Adam is considered to be God’s steward on earth and the first ‘caliph’. [33] Mohammed, as a prophet, should have reminded the people that they are all ‘caliphs’, that is, the stewards of God. [34] In relation to democracy, this concept is considered to be equal to the principle of the equality of all people.

Fethullah Gulen continues this debate by exploring the question of Islamic tenets and their compatibility with democracy. In one of his papers, he conducts a comparative analysis of both concepts. He first enumerates the principles that democracy is based on: freedom, respect for human rights, dignity, a private life, tolerance, and the rule of law. [35] Democracy is a system in which people ‘govern by themselves’ and are not governed by someone. [36] Gulen then names the core principles of Islam as follows:

  1. Power lies in truth, a repudiation of the common idea that truth relies upon power.
  2. Justice and the rule of law are essential.
  3. Freedom of belief and the rights to life, personal property, reproduction, and health (both mental and physical) cannot be violated.
  4. The privacy and immunity of individual life must be maintained.
  5. No one can be convicted of a crime without evidence, or accused of and punished for someone else’s crime.
  6. An advisory system of administration is essential. [37]

Western democracies could even borrow some ideas from the Qur’an, such as the concept of a ‘virtuous society.’

Gulen concludes that Western democracies could even borrow some ideas from the Qur’an, such as the concept of a ‘virtuous society’, which emerges as an ideal society when all Islamic rules are obeyed. [38] Mohammad Ayoob argues that Islamist parties actually ‘contributed substantially to the development of a democratic ethos in recent years.’ [39]

Finally, we can argue that the world contains quite successful examples of a combination of Islam and democracy. One of them is Indonesia. An Islamic country, it is in the process of developing into a perfect democracy, having successfully overcome its authoritarian past. [42] Here Islamist parties comprise approximately 30% of the parliament and peacefully coexist with each other and with other parties. [43]  The majority is shared between the secular-nationalist Democratic Party and the Golkar and Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle groups. [44]  Paul Carnagy, who has studied this case, concludes that the main issue for establishing a democracy in an Islamic country is not religion but simply the people’s choice, just as in any other country in the world. [45]

There are many more examples of the hallmarks of democracy, even in Islamic countries that are seen as totally authoritarian. For example, in Iran the institution of presidential elections does exist, as does a legislative assembly; in Iraq the Great Ayatollah Sistani is recorded as having called upon Iraqi citizens to hold ‘free and democratic elections based on the principle of “one person – one vote”.’ [46] Even Osama bin Laden did not oppose democracy as a concept and in his letter to the American people he characterized the elections in Algeria that were won by an Islamist party as ‘free and just’. [47] Therefore, he did not deny the compatibility of this Western concept with Islamic norms.

One of the main problems for the  development of Islam-Democracy tandem is the fact that widespread prejudice that these two concepts contradict one anther.

Mariana Malinova points out that one of the main problems for the  development of Islam-Democracy tandem is the fact that widespread prejudice that these two concepts contradict one anther still exists in the Arab world itself. [52] This prejudice is believed to have been created by two Islamic theologists, Sayyid Qutb and Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, who succeeded in presenting democracy as evil and placing this idea in heads of many of Muslims. [53] It will thus be extremely difficult to make people in Muslim countries forget or at least change these biases.

It seems, however, that the events of the ‘Arab spring’ of 2011 disproved the idea that Muslims have an established prejudice against democratic rule. Katerina Dalacoura notes that the main demands of the protesters were political and social, such as overthrowing dictators and giving the people adequate conditions for living. [54] People in the streets used democratic discourse, for example, saying that they wanted freedom, respect and observance of their rights, respect for human dignity, and so on. Is this not proof that democratic ideas are not alien to Muslims? Furthermore, the fact that at first, in the post-revolution elections, Islamist parties came to power in Egypt or Tunisia could actually be perceived as a sign that this is how a lot of Muslims imagine democracy: a freely and openly elected political party based on Islamic values.

There is no such notion as the compatibility of a certain religion with democracy.

Generally, most scholars agree that there is no such notion as the compatibility of a certain religion with democracy. Professor Schirrmacher states that, quite similarly, centuries ago Christianity was not considered compatible with democracy. [55] Here we might recall the inquisition, for example, when people were killed because they contradicted the Church’s point of view. It took time for Christianity and democracy to form a link that we now consider to be natural. The same is needed for Islam. It will take time to get rid of stereotypes about the religion and learn to distinguish between its different forms and interpretations. But when it happens, nothing else will prevent it from a harmonic coexistence with a democratic political system, even if it might look or sound different from the Western model.


[1] S. P. Huntington, ‘The Clash of Civilisations?,’ Foreign Affairs 72(3): 31.

[2] Ibid., 32.

[3] Ibid.

[4] T. C. Wittes, ‘Learning to Live with the Islamist Winter,’ Foreign Policy, 19 July 2012, accessed 23 January 2015,

[5] L. Del Pino, ‘L’islam est-il compatible avec la démocratie ?’ Contrepoints, 6 September 2013, accessed 23 January 2015,

[6] M. Ayoob, ‘The Future of Political Islam, the Importance of External Variables,’ International Affairs 81(5): 952.

[7] J. L. Esposito, ‘Political Islam and the West,’ Joint Force Quarterly Spring 2000: 51.

[8] F. A. Gerges, ‘The Transformation of Arab Politics: Disentangling Myth from Reality,’ in: The 1967 Arab-Israeli War: Origins and Consequences, Wm. R. L. Louis and A. Shlaim (eds.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 303.

[9] R. Wright (ed.), Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are (Washington: The Wilson Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace, 2012), 6.

[10] Ibid., 7.

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Sh. Akbarzadeh, ‘The Paradox of Political Islam,’ in: The Routledge Handbook of Political Islam (London; New York: Routledge, 2012), 3.

[16] A. Ehteshami, ‘Islam as a Political Force in International Relations,’ in: N. Lahoud and A. Johns (eds.), Islam in World Politics (London: Routledge,  2005), 45.

[17] Ibid., 46-50.

[18]Noble Qur’an, 33:59, accessed 23 January 2015, d.

[19] Ibid., 24:30-31.

[20] Muslim Women’s League, ‘An Islamic Perspective on Women’s Dress,’ December 1997, accessed 27 January 2015,

[21] A. Bayat, ‘Islam and Democracy: The Perverse Charm of an Irrelevant Question,’ in: Making Islam Democratic. Social Movements in the Post-Islamist Turn (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007),3.

[22] Ibid., 4.

[23]A. R. Abootalebi, ‘Islamists and Democracy,’ MERIA 3(1): 14.

[24] Abootalebi, ‘Islamists and Democracy,’ 15.

[25] N. Provencher, ‘Is Islam Compatible with Democracy:
A Critical Reexamination of Existing Theory to Establish Renewed Potential,’ Georgia Political Science Association Annual Conference (Savannah: 11 November 2011), 18.

[26] T. Hegghammer, ‘Jihadi Salafis or Revolutionaries? On Religion and Politics in the Study of Militant Islamism,’ in: Roel Meijer (ed.), Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 245.

[27] H. Malka and W. Lawrence, Jihadi-Salafism’s Next Generation, CSIS, October 2013.

[28] Hegghammer, ‘Jihadi Salafis or Revolutionaries?’ 245.

[29] Ibid.

[30] P. Mandaville, ‘Islam in the System: The Evolution of Islamism as Political Strategy,’ in Global Political Islam (London: Routledge, 2007), 105.

[31] J. L. Esposito and J. O.Voll, ‘Islam and Democracy,’ Humanities, Nov/Dec 2001, accessed 23 January 2015,

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] F. Gulen, ‘A Comparative Approach to Islam and Democracy,’ SAIS Review 21(2): 134.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 135.

[38] Ibid., 137.

[39] M. Ayoob, The Many Faces of Political Islam, Religion and Politics in the Muslim World (Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 2008), 99.

[40] P. J. Carnegie, ‘Can an Indonesian Model Work in the Middle East?’ Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2013, accessed 27 January 2015,

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Carnegie, ‘Can an Indonesian Model Work in the Middle East?’

[44] Canadian Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies, ‘L’islam et la démocratie,’ The Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Ottawa: Carleton University (2006), 5.

[45] Ibid.

[46] G. E. Fuller, ‘The Future of Political Islam,’ Foreign Affairs, March/April 2002, accessed 27 January 2015,

[47] Ibid.

[48] K. Dalacoura, ‘The 2011 Uprisings in the Arab Middle East: Political Change and Geopolitical Implications,’ International Affairs 88(1): 2.

[49] C. Schirrmacher, ‘Islam und Demokratie – ein Gegensatz?’, accessed 27 January 2015,

About the Author

Anna Kruglova holds M.Sc. in Security Studies from UCL and is completing M.A. in International Conflict Studies at King’s College. She worked at MEC International, The Bow Group and Integrity UK.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email