Chris’ topic: “What is Sharia law and how is it used in Islamic countries?” How timely can it get! With Bin Laden’s death (yeah!) it’s a great time to talk about the future of democracy in the Islamic world. [UPDATE: Chris can’t make it. I’ll do it, but help me out by reading this for background.]
(I hope we can largely ignore one domestic aspect of this subject: The hysterical and comical fear among many American conservatives about “creeping sharia law” in the United States. Here and here explain how foreign laws are applied in this country and how overblown those fears are. I think dwelling on it though would distract us from discussing the more weighty matters, below.)
I’m looking forward to Chris’ take on Sharia law and the larger issues, but to me the relationship between Islam and democracy is crucial for several reasons. First, whether we like it or not, the Muslim world will evolve politically on its own terms — not ours. Grandiose dreams of us imposing democracy lie in ashes. The West can:
- Supply general support for the growth of civil society in these nations and the growth of their political institutions;
- Provide legal and human rights frameworks that set examples and bind governments to their ideals and covenants; and even maybe
- Intervene at the margins and at key moments to keep the ships on course.
Luckily, “Islamic democracy” is not as oxymoronic as people think. Or at least it doesn’t have to be, anymore than European Christian Democratic political parties formed after WWII were doomed to be undemocratic. What the future holds will depend on the same factors we talk about all the time and on their complex interplay: Culture, economics, leadership and governance, and events and chance. Not just religion.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Sharia law codes can be brutal and anathema to human rights and democracy as we understand them. Religion and democracy often mix poorly, especially in the presence of mass poverty, ethnic and sectarian (say, Shia/Sunni) strife, wars, and a long history of dictatorships. In many Islamic countries, radical Islamist political organizations have had a huge head star, especially where dictators banned or brutalized normal politics. Also, their publics are very pious and very in need of basic security –which is a big part of the appeal of harsher versions of Sharia. So, Islamic societies are likely to be shaped by different versions of Sharia for decades, if not longer.
Discussion Questions —
- What is Sharia law? What are its variations, both moderate and extreme?
- How persistent will Islamically-based law be in these countries?
- Is religiously-based law inherently incompatible with democracy? Is it any different depending on the particular religion?
- What, if anything, can we do to help?
- What effect will the killing of Osama Bin Laden (yeah!) have on this process? How will the “Arab Spring” end? How will it spread?
Links — Note: This is a vast field, & I’m no expert. Here are a few good links.
- [UPDATE:] Just read this first and this second: What is Sharia law and how is it used to govern countries? (Council on Foreign Relations)
- How to engage Islamist parties.
- The future of “political Islam.”
- Islamic democracy – an example.
- The huge barrier of illiteracy and poor education.
- What we can do to help.