Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Sharia Law and Liberal Democracy

The results of Egypt’s first round of elections have demonstrated strong results for Muslimists—Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood—both of which advocate recognizing Sharia Law as the source of legislation.

For many Westerners, this brings to bear a question posed by a Westminster Parliamentary roundtable session: is Sharia Law compatible with Western-style democracy?

I would contend that the question is ill-phrased.  It pits the quintessence of Middle Eastern rule of law against a nebulous catchphrase, and likely intends a predetermined answer: of course not.  Western legal traditions are different and therefore incompatible with Eastern legal traditions.

Yet if we parse the question down into less pre-determined queries, the answers similarly become less pre-determined.

First, is Sharia Law compatible with democracy?  Here, if “democracy” means regular elections, then I would answer in the affirmative.  In my current reading of the Qur’an and Middle Eastern law primers (Chibli Mallat and Noah Feldman are illuminating), there seems to be several aspects of Sharia Law that would be supportive of tendencies—consultation, social justice, the “division” of powers between the law scholars and political leaders, and the notion generally that Sharia Law stands as a “rule” of law that will afford better equity than sheer force. 

Second, is Sharia Law compatible with Western philosophy, or "classical liberalism" (defined as limited government that recognizes political rights such as freedom of association, press, speech, and religion).  Here I would probably say no.  Freedom of association would certainly be recognized, as those amassed in the streets are unlikely to go home unless violently repressed.  Yet Sharia law requires punishment of blasphemy, or criticizing of the government.  If religion, particularly the religion of the state, cannot be criticized, what of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion?  

This begs the final question: Can a democracy by illiberal? Here, based on history, I am compelled to say yes.  The two western states which maintain reputations as the first modern bastions of democracy, England and the United States, did not have completely liberal societies even as recently as 200 years ago.  One had (and still has) an established church, the other established churches.  Speech and the press were infamously repressed (anyone remember the Alien and Sedition acts?). 

There is yet another instance where “western democracy” or “liberal democracy” was not applied in its classical form, and yet democracy soldiered on and adjusted to changed circumstances (some would say in the current economic crisis that these modifications were failures, yet that elections are still being held must be considered a success).  Enter Eastern Europe, circa 1989.  Instead of replacing their socialist regimes with wholesale Western liberal democracies, these states merged the two in constructing what we now call “social liberalism.” 

It would be difficult to say that these governments are not improvements, and that they are yet improving themselves.  Democracy in any form is better than none, liberal or not.


  1. I believe Ambrose Bierce was speaking of the Arab world when he said “democracy is four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”