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The skyline of Riyadh. (PHOTO: BROADARROW/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

A Lesson in Democracy From Driving Down the ‘Arab Street’

• November 14, 2013 • 8:16 PM

The skyline of Riyadh. (PHOTO: BROADARROW/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Reconciling democracy and shari’a is certainly do-able, but the results may not enthrall the West.

The image of women driving in Saudi Arabia has captured imaginations in the West, with potent messages of equality, democracy, and modernity in the feudal theocracy. But while the liberal democracies cheer on the drivers, how do Arab Muslims themselves feel about the nexus of traditional values and individual freedoms?

Sabri Ciftci, a political scientist at Kansas State University, writes in the new issue of the Political Research Quarterly that some combination of Islamic-based values and democratic tendencies may be the most modernizers should hope for at present from any Arab springs or color revolutions in the Islamic sphere.  In short, while the West may want to see a new Turkey or Indonesia in Libya, Egypt, or Syria, it should be pleased if it doesn’t get a new Iran or Saudi Arabia.

He draws that conclusion after looking at early results from a scholarly public opinion study, the Arab Barometer Survey, that asked, among other things, about Islamic values, shari’a law, and democracy. In particular in reviewing responses from Jordan, Palestine, Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Yemen, Ciftci wanted to determine how traditional Islamic law, or shari’a, contested with democracy.

“[I]nstead of launching campaigns to change the driving laws in the kingdom, the west should first ask Saudi women if they really want this or not, and western countries should accept the result, even if it’s not to their liking.”

The word shari’a means “the path to water” or “the path to God” and Ciftci explains it represents both a “moral compass of a Muslim’s personal and public life” and “a system of ethical injunctions as much as ‘law’ in modern sense.”

Most Islamic-majority countries cite shari’a’s influence in their own jurisprudence, and many nations are looking to make that more explicit. Libya is reportedly examining how to bring its legal system into line with shari’a precepts by having a commission delve into the process. At the other end of the scale, violent extremists Boko Haram (“Western education is sinful”), who want to impose shari’a on Nigeria, have just been branded a terrorist group by the U.S.

In the West, shari’a often is depicted as something to be feared, that it’s a fast track to public amputations and stonings. And that can be the case—the Sultan of Brunei announced in October that his country will impose shari’a on the two-thirds of the population that’s officially Muslim within six months, and media reports suggest he means it to include the strict penal offerings of renown.

(And as far as women driving, there’s no shari’a prohibition on it, and in fact some Saudi’s have used tenets of shari’a in a Talmudic-style attack on the ban.)

In Western countries themselves, there’s a cottage industry of alarmists suggesting the camel’s nose of shari’a is lurking at the corners of America’s big tent. As commentator Arsalan Iftikhar wrote for us two years ago in “Fear of a Sharia Planet,” that’s next to impossible—even in Dearborn.

Still, the West isn’t immune to shari’a’s reach, no more than it is to the culturally more comfortable Ten Commandments or Jewish halacha. Britain has made waves with sharia’a-compliant government bonds. These financial instruments not only don’t pay traditional interest—interest, or ribâ, is forbidden—but also don’t invest in companies involved in gambling or  alcohol. (If anything, Her Majesty’s Government is late to the game.)

As all these data points suggest, shari’a versus secularism has often been conflated with shari’a versus democracy. Ciftci notes that while there is a “democracy gap” in, say, Gulf states with shari’a-based political systems, the now-famous “Arab street” is in favor of both concepts, democracy and shari’a. It may be at times an uneasy marriage, he suggests, but it’s not an impossible one—“Muslims have reconciled their attitudes.”

There is some squaring of the circle going on, of course, based on where final authority derives from. In his The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, Noah Feldman wrote, “Depending on one’s perspective, the prospect of democratized shari’a, supervised by the process of Islamic judicial review, will appear as either the most promising development in Islamic law since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, or else as a disaster waiting to happen.”

That Islamic countries often fall into authoritarian regimes, whether theocratic or not, is more of an historical accident than a theological precept, Ciftci argues. “During the Middle Ages, Muslims accepted the rule of the despots only to avoid fitna (i.e., anarchy) and as long as shari’a served as a legal principle limiting the power of the ruler.” When Western overlords came on the scene, their foreign legal principles proved acceptable because those laws “left the shari’a-based institutions untouched.”

That new forms of fusion unspoken of in the Prophet Muhammad’s day—much like the new forms of Islamic banking—may arise. In practice, Ciftci notes, those who accept Islamic banking are among those best able to simultaneously hold onto ideas of shari’a and democracy.)

Who supports what?

• Shari’a is broadly supported by the religious, those who oppose secularism and who favor Islamic values. People who support gender equality are much less likely to support shari’a, certainly not a stunner given the cultural atrocities committed in shari’a’s name.

• Democracy is supported by those who favor gender equality, those with higher income, and people who trust political institutions (no guarantee on that in a region beset with dictators).

Keep in mind that these responses are not mutually exclusive. “Arab citizens holding Islamic values may be more supportive of shari’a, but this does not automatically translate to less support for democracy.” In country terms, Jordan, Palestine, Yemen, and Algeria had the highest percentage of respondents favoring shari’a but not democracy, and yet they had similar numbers of respondents who favored both. Lebanon was a lonely outlier with 51 percent of respondents favoring neither democracy nor shari’a, while 67 percent of Moroccans favored both.

Back to the Saudi drivers—what do women want? Don’t let what we’ve learned about partisans of gender equality influence your answer. On average, Ciftci reports, a woman is more likely to support shari’a and less likely to back democracy than men. These were, in fact, the strongest impacts Ciftci derived from the data.

If you’re actually from the region, perhaps these results aren’t that shocking. Ahmed Abdel-Raheem, writing in The Guardian, reports that some of the greatest opposition to lifting the driving ban comes from women themselves. “People in Saudi Arabia have their own moral views and needs. What works in other societies may not fit in Saudi, and the reverse. In short, instead of launching campaigns to change the driving laws in the kingdom, the west should first ask Saudi women if they really want this or not, and western countries should accept the result, even if it’s not to their liking.”

“Past studies,” Ciftci writes, “argued that the lack of democracy in the Muslim world is related to the status of women,” Any notion of quickly seeing Western-style democracies sprout in the region should recall democracy involves the consent of the governed, and not of their neighbors. Just ask Israel….

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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