Debate: Islam and Democracy
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, many individuals have come to the conclusion that the lack of democracy in some Muslim countries has contributed to the spread of Islamic extremism and poses a continued threat to global stability.
With the United States actively attempting to establish democracy in a Muslim nation -- Iraq -- we invited two scholars to discuss several issues related to the compatibility of Islam and democracy.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Director of International Studies at Adrian College in Michigan. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He is the author of AMERICAN MUSLIMS: BRIDGING FAITH AND FREEDOM (Amana, 2002) and JIHAD FOR JERUSALEM: IDENTITY AND STRATEGY IN INTERNATIONAL POLITICS (forthcoming from Praeger, 2004).
He is a fellow of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and the Vice President of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists.
He earned his Ph.D. in international relations, political philosophy, and Islamic political thought from Georgetown University in May 2000.
Dr. Khan's column has appeared in: THE WASHINGTON POST, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, NEWSWEEK (Arabic), THE GLOBALIST, NEW YORK POST, NEWSDAY, ARIZONA TRIBUNE, DULUTH NEWS TRIBUNE, THE DAILY TELEGRAPH (London), THE SUN (UK), AL AHRAM (EGYPT), AL JAZEERAH, DAWN (PAKISTAN), JAKARTA POST, JORDAN TIMES, MANILA TIMES, OUTLOOK INDIA, PALESTINE TIMES, CALGARY HERALD, THE DAILY TELEGRAM (MI), SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, DETROIT FREE PRESS, DETROIT NEWS, WASHINGTON REPORT ON MIDDLE EAST AFFAIRS, MUSLIM DEMOCRAT, Iviews.com, THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY, ISLAMIC HORIZONS, THE MESSAGE, ptimes.com, Progressive.org, Theglobalist.com, fpif.org, Freerepublic.com, MiddleEast Online, Beliefnet.com, ARABIES TRENDS, AL-MUSTAQBAL, SAUDI GAZETTE, and many other periodicals worldwide.
Dr. Daniel Pipes
Daniel Pipes is Director of the Middle East Forum and a prize-winning columnist for the NEW YORK POST and the JERUSALEM POST. His latest book is MILITANT ISLAM REACHES AMERICA, published by W. W. Norton in late 2002. His Web site, DanielPipes.org, offers an archive and a chance to sign up to receive his new materials as they appear.
He received his A.B. (1971) and Ph.D. (1978) from Harvard University, both in history. He spent six years studying abroad, including three years in Egypt. Mr. Pipes speaks French and reads Arabic and German. He has taught at the University of Chicago, Harvard University, and the U.S. Naval War College. He has served in various capacities at the Departments of State and Defense, including vice chairman of the presidentially appointed Fulbright Board of Foreign Scholarships.
Mr. Pipes frequently discusses current issues on television, appearing on such U.S. programs as ABC WORLD NEWS, CBS REPORTS, CROSSFIRE, GOOD MORNING AMERICA, NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER, NIGHTLINE, O'REILLY FACTOR, and THE TODAY SHOW. He has appeared on leading television networks around the globe, including the BBC and Al-Jazeera.
Mr. Pipes has published in such magazines as the ATLANTIC MONTHLY, COMMENTARY, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, HARPER'S, NATIONAL REVIEW, NEW REPUBLIC, and THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Many newspapers carry his articles, including the LOS ANGELES TIMES, THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL,WASHINGTON POST, and another 90 dailies, plus hundreds of Web sites. His writings have been translated into 18 languages, and he has lectured in 25 countries.
Islam and Democracy
The lack of democracy in many Muslim nations around the world gained greater public attention in the West following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As a result, some individuals have come to the conclusion that Islam and democracy are essentially incompatible. What is your view?
Dr. Muqtedar Khan's Response: The debate about the compatibility of Islam and democracy is much older. We established the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in 1998 for the explicit purpose of showing the compatibility of Islam and democracy. According to recent Pew Research studies and a survey by Pippa Norris (Harvard) and Ron Inglehart (University of Michigan), an overwhelming majority of Muslims everywhere would like to have democracy. Today, many Muslim countries are in various stages of democratization, for example, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. Nearly 800 million out of 1.4 billion Muslims live in democracies, and unlike the U.S., four Muslim nations have or had women heads of government. Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan have elected women to power, and Iran has a woman vice president. I am convinced that it is just a matter of time before the entire Muslim world democratizes.
Dr. Daniel Pipes's Rebuttal: Unfortunately, Professor Khan has ducked the question, which is whether Islam and democracy are essentially incompatible, not whether Muslims prefer democracy.
Dr. Daniel Pipes's Response: History is full of surprises. As late as 1892, the German was described as an "obscure and impractical dreamer." As late as the 1960s, it was said that "Jews do not fight." Confucianism was long thought to be inimical to economic growth. In other words, just because something seems obvious today does not mean it will be true tomorrow. Muslims today groan under dictatorships, but one day could be model democrats. Further, Islam can be interpreted many ways, and there is nothing about it that immutably contradicts democracy. That said, deep and extensive changes will have to precede such changes.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan's Rebuttal: I agree there will have to be deep and extensive changes within the Muslim world and in U.S. relations with the Muslim world. What we can do to hasten this process is to ensure that our government stops supporting, financing, and legitimizing dictatorships and monarchies in the Muslim world. We will also have to recognize that democracy in the Muslim world will mean that we will have to contend with Muslim public opinion more seriously. Democracratization will probably mean that Muslim governments will be more interested in advancing the wishes of their own people (as in the case of Turkey and its reluctance to support the U.S. in the war against Iraq), but we should be ready to accept this as a necessary consequence of democracy. As we know, the alternative is extremely undesirable to all.
In Muslim nations advocates for the implementation of Sharia (Islamic) law believe it will establish a more just society, where crime would be nonexistent given the harsh punishments that the law imposes, including flogging, amputation, and stoning. Is it possible to give primacy to Sharia law and still have a democratic society?
Dr. Muqtedar Khan's Response: Most non-Muslim critics and often ignorant Muslim advocates of the Sharia (the Islamic Way) equate the Sharia to Hudud laws, the stringent punishments for fornication (flogging), theft (amputation), and adultery (stoning). The maqasid (objectives) of the Sharia is to establish social justice, equality, tolerance, and freedom of religion in societies. The Hudud laws are a tiny part of the Sharia. Some of these laws are not even Qur'anic; they are taken from the Old Testament, such as stoning the adulterer (Deuteronomy 22:24). Yes, I believe that when the Sharia is interpreted and implemented by educated, enlightened, and compassionate people it will establish social justice and coexist harmoniously with a democratic polity. But if uneducated, angry, and bigoted people take the law in their hands and presume to speak on behalf of God, then tyranny is the most likely outcome.
Dr. Daniel Pipes's Rebuttal: Professor Khan confidently tells us that the Sharia as he understands it will "establish social justice and coexist harmoniously with a democratic polity." But this is argument by assertion. He has not provided any basis for this optimism. So far, the record in countries where the Sharia is applied -- Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan, Afghanistan -- is less than encouraging.
In this and several other answers, Professor Khan forwards the reformist interpretation of Islam that once was ascendant but now [is] little heard from. I wrote at length about this and the other two main interpretations (secularist, Islamist) in my book, IN THE PATH OF GOD: ISLAM AND POLITICAL POWER. Here is a brief description of reformist Islam, from a 2000 article of mine:
"Whereas secularism forthrightly calls for learning from the West, reformism selectively appropriates from it. The reformist says, 'Look, Islam is basically compatible with Western ways. It's just that we lost track of our own achievements, which the West exploited. We must now go back to our own ways by adopting those of the West.' To reach this conclusion, reformers reread the Islamic scriptures in a Western light. ...
"In case after case, and with varying degrees of credibility, reformists appropriate Western ways under the guise of drawing on their own heritage. The aim of the reformists, then, is to imitate the West without acknowledging as much. Though intellectually bankrupt, reformism functions well as a political strategy."
Dr. Daniel Pipes's Response: No: the Sharia harks back to a decidedly antidemocratic sensibility in everything from its emphasis on God's will (not popular sovereignty) to its privileging of Muslims over non-Muslims. For Muslims to develop functioning democracies requires that they put aside the Sharia or transmute it into something quite different from what it is understood to be today.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan's Rebuttal: Dr. Pipes seems to contradict himself. First he says that there is nothing in Islam that contradicts democracy and then insists that Sharia is antidemocratic. Sharia is the essence of Islam. The Sharia is decidedly democratic. The reason for Islam's great record of tolerance and pluralism in the past is the correct understanding and application of the Sharia. Unfortunately, the recent examples set by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Taliban, and others are against the letter and the spirit of the Sharia and have given it a bad name. The Sharia is elicited from the Qur'an and the Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The Qur'an advocates consultative governance and the practice of the Prophet, as enshrined in the Compact of Medina, treats minorities equally, and he governed by consent and consultation. Unfortunately, the underdevelopment of the Muslim world also includes a widespread ignorance of Islam -- even among those who claim to speak for it -- and this severing of Muslims from Islam is partially a result of colonialism. The key really is who, the ignorant or the knowledgeable, defines and interprets the Sharia.
Secular or Religious State?
In the United States the separation of church and state is one of the nation's founding principles set forth in the Constitution. Can democracy only succeed in a nation where there is a separation of religion and state?
Dr. Muqtedar Khan's Response: Secularism may be a desirable, but not a necessary precondition in order to foster state neutrality in a multireligious society. Consider the U.K., which is formally a theocratic democracy. The monarch is head of the church as well as head of the government. Changes in the doctrines of the Church of England are a matter for the British Parliament. While England is a theocratic democracy, India is a secular democracy; in England the government remains neutral, whereas in India government takes sides in communal violence. Recently, in Gujarat in March 2002, the Hindu ruling party, BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party], was implicated in the massacre of Muslims. According to Human Rights Watch, the Gujarat government had ordered the police not to protect minorities. The key issue is whether states realize religious freedom and religious equality and not constitutional secularity.
Dr. Daniel Pipes's Rebuttal: We generally agree on this one.
Dr. Daniel Pipes's Response: The United States is the most secular and the most democratic society, suggesting a correlation between the two; but there are plenty of examples of countries with established religions, starting with the United Kingdom and ending with Israel, that also have fully functioning democracies. So, no, secularism is not a prerequisite.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan's Rebuttal: I am not sure whether the U.S. is more secular than, say, France and Canada or even Iraq under Saddam; after all, we have a president who believes in "faith-based initiatives" and has Bible sessions in the White House. We have also had Christian mullahs running for president (Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson). The federal government employs thousands of chaplains and actually provides religious services. America is a very religious state, and the Christian Right is a major political force and Christian values (on, say, abortion, gay unions) do shape the political landscape. American politics is not entirely secular. But yes, there are constitutional limits imposed by a Jeffersonian reading of the First Amendment on the fraternity of state and religion. Having said that, I agree with Dr. Pipes that secularism is not a necessary condition for democracy.
In a western democracy such as the United States, government is instituted in order to protect individual rights. Does Islam support values and structures that are incompatible with safeguarding individual rights?
Dr. Muqtedar Khan's Response: Islamic legal systems were articulated in the Middle Ages before the advent of the all-powerful centralized state, which necessitates constitutional protection of rights from state power. Modern Islamic law can derive individual rights (see the Universal Declaration of Islamic Human Rights) from Islamic sources. For example, the Qur'anic verse "there is no compulsion in religion" (2:256) can function as the Islamic equivalent of the American First Amendment. M. H. Kamali, in two brilliant books, FREEDOM, EQUALITY AND JUSTICE IN ISLAM (ITS, 2002) and THE DIGNITY OF MAN: AN ISLAMIC PERSPECTIVE (ITS, 2002) demonstrates how individual rights inhere in Islamic sources. The focus of the Sharia is on social justice, and Muslim thinkers need to advance contemporary understanding of social justice that includes individual rights and guarantees equality, including gender parity.
Dr. Daniel Pipes's Rebuttal: Professor Khan says that the Universal Declaration of Islamic Human Rights can be derived from Islamic sources, but in fact they deeply and extensively contradict each other -- for details, see Ann Elizabeth Mayer, ISLAM AND HUMAN RIGHTS: TRADITION AND POLITICS (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991). The Qur'anic verse "there is no compulsion in religion" has nothing in common with the First Amendment: to take just one point, the Qur'an imposes the death penalty on apostates from Islam, something, last I checked, the U.S. Constitution does not do. This is the reformist apologetic for Islam (saying that it's just the same as what the West believes in) and it is unconvincing as it is intellectually fraudulent.
Dr. Daniel Pipes's Response: The question assumes that Islam is an unchanging entity; but it has been evolving for fourteen centuries and will continue to do so. Islam as understood today tends not to be compatible with safeguarding individual rights, but that can change if Muslims are willing and able to rethink some premises of their religion.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan's Rebuttal: I agree. It is problematic to treat Islam as a nondynamic concept and also to treat its civilizational manifestations as monolithic. Islamic law itself is very diverse and Islamic practices are kaleidoscopic. Nothing, including the understanding of what constitutes the Sharia, is frozen or static. Today, the Muslim world suffers from a deep sense of insecurity, largely from the West, which it rightly or wrongly sees as a force determined to separate Muslims from Islam. We have seen how insecurity can immediately undermine the protection of rights. Even the U.S., when insecure, severely limits individual rights. The passage of the Patriot Act in the U.S. -- the most powerful and the most democratic state -- undermines many rights guaranteed under the Bill of Rights. When Muslim societies will feel safer and will be assured that the West is not seeking to recolonize them or destroy their faith, I am confident they too will become more democratic and protective of individual rights. Recent Pew studies confirm that Muslims deeply fear the U.S., and this fear is heightened by the Bush doctrine of preemptive strike. When more secure, Muslim understanding of their faith becomes more liberal, as in Islamic Spain, and when insecure, Muslim interpretation of their faith becomes more conservative, as in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Although the government of the United States helps to promote democracy throughout the world, it has also continued to support repressive and undemocratic regimes in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Has this support hindered democracy from taking root in these Muslim nations?
Dr. Muqtedar Khan's Response: There are internal as well as external barriers to democracy in some parts of the Muslim world. Much of the Muslim world was under colonial occupation. It has yet to recover from the debilitating impact of exploitative foreign occupation. However, a large part of the Muslim world is democratizing now except for most of the Middle East. This region has become politically authoritarian and will need systematic reforms to trigger democratization. Muslim democrats must work towards reform and elimination of internal barriers. Until now the U.S. was a major external barrier to democracy in the Middle East. For example, in 1953 a CIA coup transformed a democratic Iran into an oppressive monarchy that resulted in the revolution of 1979. The U.S. has also supported monarchs and dictators, including Saddam Hussein, in the name of stability and freedom of access to oil. Yes, the U.S. has obstructed the flowering of freedom in the Muslim world.
Dr. Daniel Pipes's Rebuttal: Ah, the familiar colonialism-made-me-do-it gambit. Professor Khan states that the Muslim world has "yet to recover from the debilitating impact of exploitative foreign occupation," but Nigeria won its independence 43 years ago, Morocco 47 years ago, Egypt 51 years ago, Pakistan 56 years ago, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia never experienced imperial control from Europe. For how much longer will the colonialism excuse be played? And then there's the Saddam Hussein canard: perhaps the good professor confuses the United States with France, Germany, and Russia? Their governments, not the American one, sold weapons to Baghdad. Professor Khan's reply, in brief, is laced with apologetics and inaccuracy.
Dr. Daniel Pipes's Response: This raises the matter of so-called Middle Eastern exceptionalism. I believe the key difference here is an American one. Unlike other regions of the world -- Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, East Asia come to mind -- successive U.S. governments have been leery about promoting democracy in the Middle East, fearful of a hostile vox populi. The deposing of Saddam Hussein could initiate a new era in which Washington approaches the Middle East more in synchrony with its policies elsewhere.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan's Rebuttal: Dr. Pipes is completely correct, and I appreciate his candor in acknowledging partial U.S. responsibility for the absence of democracy in the Muslim world. I am also hopeful that if Iraq were to be reconstructed, and if Iraq quickly established an indigenous and democratic government, even an Islamic democracy, it would trigger a strong impulse for democratization in the region. Already countries like Qatar and Bahrain are moving towards political liberalization, and even key members of the House of Saud have made appropriate noises about reform. Washington must not fail Iraq. A failure in Iraq will jeopardize the prospects of democracy and will increase anti-Americanism and further radicalize and destabilize the region. An Islamic democracy in Iraq will signal to the Muslim world that the U.S. is pro-democracy without being anti-Islam.
Islam and Modernity
Some scholars have argued that Christianity and Judaism have essentially come to terms with modernity, as represented by western pluralistic societies such as the United States, and don't view modernity as a threat. Is Islam opposed to modernity?
Dr. Muqtedar Khan's Response: This is a dubious claim. Do these scholars include Orthodox Jewish practices in Israel and the role of religion in Israeli laws such as citizenship when they make this claim? Do these scholars also show how the beliefs of the coming Armageddon and creationism are compatible with modernity? Modernity had repressed Christianity and to some extent Judaism through reformation, but Christianity is experiencing resurgence in the Americas and Africa. Modernity helped Europe colonize the Muslim world, but it did not defeat or repress Islam, and therein lies the difference. I believe that Islam is incompatible with modernity, inasmuch as modernity is opposed to religion. However, Islam has a built-in tradition of Ijtihad (independent thinking), which facilitates reform and reinterpretation. If encouraged, Ijtihad can help modernize and revitalize Islamic societies. Let us not assume that everything about modernity is good; the Holocaust, the two world wars, nuclear weapons, and environmental degradation are some of the consequences of modernity. Terrorism too is a modern phenomenon.
Dr. Daniel Pipes's Rebuttal: That Professor Khan denies that Christianity and Judaism have come to terms with modernity, while Islam has not, again bespeaks that reformist apologetic. One striking difference in the religions concerns the "higher criticism" that Christianity and Judaism had to contend with in the late 19th century; this was a no-holds-barred scholarly inquiry into their origins, history, and sacred texts. As I have written elsewhere, "those two faiths survived the experience -- though they changed profoundly in the process"; in contrast, as a similar inquiry into Islam gains steam, the main Muslim strategy until now has been "one of neglect -- hoping that revisionism, like a toothache, will just go away." It won't.
Dr. Daniel Pipes's Response: No, Islam is not opposed to modernity. Rather, it has not yet (with rare exceptions, such as the Daudi Bohras) begun the process of modernization. Here's how I put it in a recent article: "Five hundred years ago, Jews, Christians and Muslims agreed that owning slaves was acceptable but paying interest on money was not. After bitter, protracted debates, Jews and Christians changed their minds. Today, no Jewish or Christian body endorses slavery or has religious qualms about paying reasonable interest.
Muslims, in contrast, still think the old way. Slavery still exists in a host of majority-Muslim countries (especially Sudan and Mauritania, also Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) and it is a taboo subject. To enable pious Muslims to avoid interest, an Islamic financial industry worth an estimated $150 billion has developed.
The challenge ahead is clear: Muslims must emulate their fellow monotheists by modernizing their religion with regard to slavery, interest and much else. No more fighting jihad to impose Muslim rule. No more endorsement of suicide terrorism. No more second-class citizenship for non-Muslims. No more death penalty for adultery or 'honor' killings of women. No more death sentences for blasphemy or apostasy."
Dr. Muqtedar Khan's Rebuttal: I think Dr. Pipes's conception of what "modernity" means is a bit unusual. First of all, slavery, as was practiced in America as an industry and as an economic strategy, was a modern phenomenon. Sweatshops and sex slavery, both are modern forms of slavery, and still benefit western consumers. Yes, slavery is terrible, but it is not just a traditional institution, it is also a modern one. Also, the allegation that slavery is practiced in many Muslim countries is an overgeneralization of a vestigial practice in remote and backward regions of the world. Most Muslims do recognize that the Muslim world has not fully modernized. As far as interest is concerned, many western economists also maintain that interest-free economies can be extremely salutary. Interest-free banking is an experiment in Islamic modernization and not antimodernism. The fact that Islamic banks are now worth $150 billion attests to their modern viability. I do not think that just because some Jews and Christians are abandoning their faith for material gains, so should Muslims.
The use of terrorism by some is abhorrent, but struggling for freedom in Chechnya, Kashmir, Palestine, and fighting against genocide in Bosnia is, I think, a good thing. Dr. Pipes seems to suggest that Muslims should give up the struggle for justice and the Wilsonian ideals of self-determination.
Modern Islamic Society
In a discussion about Islam presented on the PBS series NOW WITH BILL MOYERS, author Fareed Zakaria noted that religious texts cannot be used as "blueprints for organizing modern society." Would you agree or disagree? Within a modern Islamic society, can religious texts be used selectively?
Dr. Muqtedar Khan's Response: I agree with Fareed Zakaria. Religious texts are not blueprints for any society; they are essentially answers to existential questions and articulate general universal principles of ethics. Unlike some contemporary Islamists who insist that the Qur'an is the constitution of the Islamic state, the Prophet Muhammad himself governed Medina by a social contract called the Compact of Medina. The compact did reflect Islamic as well as Judeo-Christian principles. Indeed, Islam is itself a Judeo-Christian tradition. The U.S. Constitution is an embodiment of Judeo-Christian values and the U.S. has eventually evolved into a secular, multicultural, and pluralistic society in 220 years, without doing much violence to that tradition. Can we have an Islamic society where barbaric punishments are not enforced? Most certainly. Stable and secure Muslim societies will not feel the need for identity politics -- demands for Hudud implementation is an exercise in identity manifestation -- and will work towards public good, and for that we need democracy in the Muslim world as soon as possible.
Dr. Daniel Pipes's Rebuttal: I am impressed with this answer and especially with the statement that "Islam is itself a Judeo-Christian tradition," which is quite at variance with the Qur'anic assertion that Islam preceded all other religions, and that Judaism and Christianity are distorted versions of that ur-religion. I also endorse the condemnation of hudud punishments and the appreciation of the United States.
Dr. Daniel Pipes's Response: I agree with Zakaria that religious texts can inspire, counsel, and guide on a personal level, but they cannot provide the specifics for figuring out how to modernize. Further, those texts that reduce the rights of women and non-Muslims can be reinterpreted. For example, as I explained in 1983, one group, the Republican Brothers of the Sudan, "distinguished between those passages of the Qur'an that Muhammad received before he became a political leader (the Meccan verses) and those that followed his ascent to power (the Medinan verses). In this group's view, the former defined the eternally valid principles of Islam whereas the latter were intended only for Muhammad's own instruction and therefore do not serve as a model for subsequent Muslim life. As nearly all the Qur'an's precepts are contained in the Medinan verses, this reasoning virtually eliminates the Qur'an as a source of commands."
Dr. Muqtedar Khan's Rebuttal: While I agree that religious texts are not blueprints for building societies, they are the fountainheads of values and principles and not structures and processes. Before we start doctoring texts, we must understand what we are talking about. The Qur'an, for Muslims, is the revealed word of God. If we believe that the entire Qur'an is a revelation, one cannot follow it piecemeal. Islam is a profound form of worship through submission of the human self to the will of God. Submission by definition is not selective or conditional. Islam brought equality and dignity to all, including women, and that is undisputed. The problems are the current postcolonial hodgepodge of Muslim practices guided by widespread ignorance of Islamic principles in an environment of insecurity. The solution is Islamic educational reform, not deformation of Islam. Nevertheless, American Muslims have shown that Islam and modernity, Islam and democracy, Islam and pluralism are completely compatible. Yes, Muslims need to reform their understanding of their faith, but out of fidelity to Islam and not because Islam itself is anachronistic.
Status of Women
In the West, the image of the veiled Muslim woman has come to symbolize Islam's oppression of women. Do women hold an inferior position in Muslim society? Can equality for women only be fostered in societies governed by secular laws as opposed to Islamic law?
Dr. Muqtedar Khan's Response: In some Muslim societies, women's liberation is associated with sexual promiscuity and hence rejected. These societies have used the veil, specially the chador in Iran after the revolution, to reject modernity, assert Islam, and defend the traditional notion of family and family values. In the process, Muslim women have been deprived of the opportunities that women enjoy in most places. Islam came as a liberating force and women in early Islam had more rights than ever before. But evolving patriarchic structures have eroded the influence of Islam, and today women in many Muslim societies suffer as a result. But we must be careful not to generalize; Muslim women are indeed playing a prominent role in Pakistan, in the West, in Iran and Turkey, and in South and East Asia. Women continue to fight glass ceilings even in secular societies, and in that sense, the struggle for women's emancipation is a universal project.
Dr. Daniel Pipes's Rebuttal: Whether or not women's liberation is desirable; whether or not Islam liberated women in 17th-century Arabia; the symbolic role of the chador in Iran -- however interesting these topics, they are unrelated to the question at hand, which is whether or not women hold an inferior position vis-à-vis men in Muslim society. Professor Khan would seem to lard his answer with such irrelevancies as a tactic to avoid having to acknowledge what is only too plain to see, namely that women do hold an inferior position in Muslim society.
Dr. Daniel Pipes's Response: Of course, women hold an inferior position in Muslim society, as indicated by their lesser legal status, the power of males to make key decisions in their lives (whom to marry, permission to travel, etc.), their humiliating wearing of face and body covers, and much else. Two reflections: as with the democracy and individual rights questions, this can change. And there is a fascinating sort of Stockholm syndrome at work here, whereby Islamist women against all evidence insist that their religion empowers them more than their western counterparts.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan's Rebuttal: Yes, women in Muslim societies are suffering from the patriarchic structures of traditional cultures. But it might be erroneous to blame Islam for this sorry state. Patriarchy is a universal phenomenon; millions of Hindu women in India live under similar conditions as Muslim women do. Until a few years ago, women in the West too were living under similar conditions. The present backward state of Muslim women is commensurate with the general underdevelopment of Muslim societies. Where Muslims live in a developed environment -- Malaysia, India, Europe, and America -- Muslim women do much better than their sisters in the Muslim heartland. Democracy in the Muslim world will ensure that along with political tyrants, theological tyrants too will not have the power to impose their narrow views on Muslim men and women.
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