Islam, Democracy & Secularism

About two weeks ago the Washington Post ran an article about the Barelvis. This is the dominant version of Islam in Pakistan, which is frequently described as moderate. But Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated Punjab governor Salman Taseer because of his outspoken defense of those accused of blasphemy, was a devout Barelvi. As the article points out, Barelvi Islami itself includes many factions with many interpretations. But violent opposition to blasphemy is a fundamental value. But different sects put different priors on these values. Unfortunately, as Deobandi and Ahl Hadith groups have gained “religious market share” by emphasizing jihad, anti-blasphemy, and other more violent interpretation the Barelvis are forced to compete. This has major implications for Pakistan’s future and for U.S. policy. Pakistanis are usually described as “moderate Muslims,” but this may not be completely true.

But there was an interesting quote from Mohammed Ziaul Haq, a spokesman for the Sunni Itehad Council

But killing in response to blasphemy is another matter, he said, making it “totally different from terrorism.” The government had done nothing to silence Taseer’s criticism of the blasphemy ban, he said, or his support for a Christian woman sentenced to death for the law, which he said had made Taseer an “indirect” blasphemer himself. “Ninety percent of people in Pakistan think Mumtaz Qadri is a hero,” Ziaul Haq said. “If it’s a democracy, the government should think about that.”

This gets to the crux of it. If democracy is only “rule of the people” in the strictest sense then it is really just mob rule. A major theme of The Federalist Papers is how the new Constitution would prevent the fledgling US from descending into the civil strife that dominated the democracies of antiquity.

The people are fickle, and essential to building democracies is protecting minority and individual rights. This has resonance, not only for Pakistan but for the entire world and particularly Egypt which may be embarking on a democratic experiment very soon. While reports frequently emphasize that the protesters are secular and just want democracy two questions must be asked. The first is whether the reporters observations reflect the reality. Some polls are encouraging, showing minimal support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the institution of Sharia as a low priority.

Others are not, according to a Pew poll 82% of Egyptian Muslims said they want adulterers punished with stoning, 77 percent want robbers to be whipped and have their hands amputated, while 84 percent favor the death penalty for any Muslim who changes his religion.

A related question, is the Muslim definition of secular. Nonie Darwish (who’s book Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror I reviewed for Policy Review) remembers growing up in Nasser’s secular Egypt. As children they chanted for jihad (holy war!) against Israel. When we met later, Nonie explained to me that “Islam is a big room which you can wonder at will, but you can’t leave the room.” Many Muslims, while ostensibly secular still have a deeply embedded Muslim identity. It was no accident that reportedly secular Baathist regimes such as Saddam’s Iraq and Assad’s Syria turned to Islamic rhetoric when under pressure.

All of that being said, it would be a terrific thing for Egypt and the entire world if it could become the place where Islam and modernity came to terms with one another and the tragic cycle of history were broken.

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