Throughout much of their early mutual histories, Islamic civilization represented a relatively tolerant society when compared with the Christian West. It provided refuge to the Jews expelled from Catholic Spain; it sheltered the Classical and Byzantine cultural heritage; and it generally contributed to the development of Western thought.1 Nevertheless, Islamic fundamentalism in its various modern forms poses a challenge to international human rights norms. Many voices have been raised in recent years asserting that human rights concepts are Western and, therefore, do not apply to Islamic countries. The Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister stated, after the 1993 Human Rights conference in Vienna, that "human rights has come to mean Western culture and that human rights is a tool [for Western powers] to whitewash their intervention and aggression against the weaker countries."2 Similar comments were made by the Saudi Arabian Minister of the Interior just before the Conference. He stated:


The democratic system that is predominant in the world is not a suitable system for the peoples of our region. Our people's make-up and unique qualities are different from those of the rest of the world. We cannot import the methods used by people in other countries and apply them to our people. We have our Islamic beliefs that constitute a complete and fully-integrated system. . . . In my view, Western democracies may be suitable in their own countries but they do not suit other countries.3


In fact, the debate has often been cast in terms of a major confrontation between Islam and the Western world. After receiving criticism from Amnesty International concerning the Saudi Arabian government's human rights record, a news report from Jeddah included the following:


Amnesty officials are secularists and atheists. They could not infiltrate into the Kingdom to spread their venomous ideas. Now they wanted to tarnish the image of Shariah. The enemies of Islam are using Amnesty in their worldwide anti-Islam campaign . . . They say at international forums that they respect Islam and Muslims but hide their hatred and vengeance against Islam and Muslims. We have to take precautions against these enemies. And all Muslim countries should implement Shariah. Let the enemies of Islam die of rage.


          While discussing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Josiah A.M. Cobbah stated in 1987, "[t]here is no doubt that the Declaration was a product of Western liberal ideology."5 Cobbah raises the following question, "Can we really expect non-Western peoples to embrace the international human rights instruments which are by and large Western in character?"6 This is essentially the argument which is now often made in reference to Islam. This paper will attempt to address Cobbah's question by, first of all, challenging its core assumption, that the instruments are "Western in character" and, secondly, by examining the compatibility of Islam with the norms embodied in these instruments.

          The focus of this paper is exclusively on civil and political rights, and, therefore, it does not address economic, social or cultural rights.7 This paper begins by accepting Cobbah's assertion that civil and political rights, as embodied in the instruments, embrace liberalism and democracy. While accepting the fact that liberalism and democracy developed first in the West, this paper considers the possibility that the conditions leading to this development may be largely independent of cultural considerations and may have more to do with economic changes and human nature. It will go on to assert that the ideas of liberalism and democracy are finding fertile soil in the Islamic world since they seem to be required by modern conditions.8  

          It is important to note that liberalism and democracy are two separate concepts.9 This paper adopts a very narrow definition of liberalism which is similar to, though not necessarily identical with, Francis Fukuyama's. He defines liberalism as "a rule of law that recognizes certain individual rights or freedoms from government control."10 These are the rights which fall within the classical view of liberalism. In the Anglo-American world they would most commonly be referred to as “civil liberties.” This paper assumes that civil liberties can be divided into two basic categories. The first category is that of liberty of conscience and expression. It includes such liberties as the freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly, association, etc. The second category contains due process protections in the event that the state threatens an individual's life, liberty or property. It includes the right to a fair trial, protections against unreasonable searches or seizures, just compensation for the taking of property, etc. This paper will generally use Fukuyama's definition of “democracy.” He views a country as democratic "if it grants its people the right to choose their own government through periodic, secret-ballot, multi-party elections, on the basis of universal and equal adult suffrage."11

          Furthermore, since the human rights instruments almost exclusively list individual rights, one cannot accept them without embracing some form of individualism. Nevertheless, it should be noted that this does not presuppose a radical or egoistic form of individualism. Similar to the minimalist version of liberalism embraced by this paper, only a minimalist version of individualism is required to accept the necessity for maintaining certain basic protections for the individual against the state. For example, Charles Taylor, in his The Ethics of Authenticity, attempts to describe a form of individualism where the individual is not expected to find the fundamental meaning of his existence within himself, but rather in something greater than himself.12

          The assertion that the ideas of liberalism and democracy are Western in character is premised, first of all, on the assumption that all human beings belong to a culture, and, therefore, ideas are always the product of a particular culture. Since no ideas can stand outside of a cultural context, we must find the cultural context in which the ideas of liberalism and democracy make sense. This leads one to the connection between these ideas and Western culture. Therefore, to challenge this view, one has to take the position that there is something like a human nature at work, which causes all of us to act similarly under similar conditions, regardless of the culture in which we find ourselves.     This paper will entertain the view that human nature seems to be particularly well suited to liberalism and democracy. Therefore, it will explore the compatibility of the latter with Islam.

          Among universalists there are a variety of different philosophies. The most famous expression of this idea is found in the “UNESCO Statement by Experts on Race Problems.” It was written by a group of social scientists in 1950 and starts with the science of biology and, therefore, claims to look at man outside of any cultural context. This leads the authors to conclude with an endorsement of a type of political universalism:


All normal human beings are capable of learning to share in a common life, to understand the nature of mutual service and reciprocity, and to respect social obligations and contracts. . . . Lastly, biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood; for man is born with drives toward cooperation, and unless those drives are satisfied, men and nations alike fall ill.13


          One can identify at least two main currents of universalist thought. One current views political science as largely independent of other fields of knowledge and analyzes political events in this context. This view was expressed by The Federalist and has most recently been eloquently restated by James W. Ceaser in his Reconstructing America. While in principle this view allows for liberal democracy to be applied in any culture, it sees no historical inevitability.14 In this regard Ceaser states:


          The Federalist's position: in rejecting the category of biological varieties as the starting point in the study of human differentiation, The Federalist makes free use of the concepts of mankind, the human race, human nature, human reason, and the constitution of man. Its universalism also supports the argument, rejected by proponents of the idea of human varieties, that the peoples of any race on any continent possess the potential to develop free governments."15


The second current is the Hegelian view which assumes that one can find progress in human history and that this progress culminates in a particular political system, such as liberal democracy. Francis Fukuyama has recently breathed new life into this idea.16 A recent alternative Hegelian view might be that of Charles Taylor, concerning a series of hyper-goods which supersede prior, less adequate views.17

          The cultural relativists obviously come in various shades, but they can be roughly divided into two groups. First of all, there are those who talk of the “right” cultures having to choose their own values. Ceaser notes that for this group "a recognition of different cultures in their particularity constitutes the highest value or standard — a kind of philosophical and ethical absolute — leading to the commandment that all cultural differences should be respected."18 However, this position has an obvious weakness since it embraces the value of tolerance, a liberal idea. Therefore, the viewpoint represented by other cultural relativists declines to make any value judgments outside of cultural contexts, so it, also, does not prescribe any ethics of tolerance of different cultures and, therefore, is not in any position to arbitrate cultural disputes. Samuel Huntington is a representative of this view.19 This paper will attempt to examine Islam in light of both alternatives.


The Problem As Seen from within Islam


          To truly evaluate whether liberalism and democracy are incompatible with Islamic culture as a whole will require a more careful analysis. First of all, we need to appreciate the perspective of a devout Muslim. According to Joseph Schacht, "Islamic law is the epitome of Islamic thought, the most typical manifestation of the Islamic way of life, the core and kernel of Islam itself."20 If this is true, then it presents a difficulty in setting aside the dictates of Islamic law in favor of secular law. The early Christians separated the realm of God from the realm of the Emperor. While Islam began largely as a legal code. Furthermore, the Islamic world lacks the experience of the Protestant Reformation and the resulting religious wars, which forced Western civilization to make the distinction between religious and secular law. David Westbrook presents the dilemma in the following manner: "Islamic scholars, who locate legal authority with God, cannot so easily separate law and belief. The public international law solution of order without shared belief is not available to Islamic scholars, insofar as their work is informed by Islam."21 As a result, for the Islamic scholar, Westbrook continues, "international law is a continual attempt to reconcile Islamic authority and Western category. . . . The arguments they make within Western categories are not authoritative to a Muslim. The arguments they make from Islamic authority do not confront the political organization of the contemporary world."22  

          However, as Westbrook points out, "[T]he Qur'an does not constitute a legal code."23 Therefore, we need to look beyond the Qur'an in our search for authentic Islamic law. Again, Westbrook writes: "The text of the Qur'an is supplemented by reports (ahadith) of the speech and actions of the Prophet and his companions. Collectively these reports form the second body of revelation and the second source of Islamic law, the sunna."24 However, this is exactly where the confusion begins. As Westbrook writes: "Unfortunately, the opinions of scholars vary regarding both the authenticity and the meaning of individual hadith. Moreover, subtleties of meaning abound, as do questions of application."25 As a result there is a tremendous opportunity to find in Islamic law what one is looking for, often motivated by reasons totally unrelated to Islamic culture.


An Analysis Based on Political Science


          Therefore, one may begin from the perspective of political science and look for political motivations behind certain assertions of incompatibility. Ann Mayer begins with such a standpoint. She argues that the formulation of so-called Islamic human rights schemes, such as the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam in 1990, "are products of the political context in which they emerged. Their Islamic pedigrees are dubious."26 Mayer further indicts the authors of the Islamization policies by arguing that these policies may be "no more than a strategy adopted by beleaguered elites in an attempt to trump growing Muslim demands for democratization and human rights."27 For instance, Mayer notes that "[t]he most extensive conflicts between past interpretations of Islamic requirements and international human rights norms lie in the area of women's rights." Muslim feminists support her position when they argue "that it is actually patriarchal attitudes and misreadings of Islamic sources, not Islamic tenets, that inspire the patterns of discrimination against women."28 Clearly, it is difficult to accept the proposition that the women who participated in the demonstrations for the right to vote in Kuwait believed that for them to vote would violate God's law.29

          Mayer raises the issue that the two regimes -- Iran and Saudi Arabia, that have been the loudest proponents of the view that Islamic values are inconsistent with international human rights norms -- refuse to recognize each other as legitimate voices of Islamic government. She writes: "Neither Iran's clerics nor the Saudi royal family recognize each other's claims to constitute an Islamic government, even though each regime is by self-proclamation Islamic; indeed, Iran's and Saudi Arabia's rulers routinely anathematize each other in the name of their respective Islams."30

          Due to the growing influence of international human rights norms, those states in the Islamic world who were opposed to such norms felt a need to respond to them since it was impossible to ignore them. Therefore, there were several attempts to develop alternative human rights schemes which were not objectionable to those concerned. The most prominent is the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam in 1990, described by Mayer as follows:


          The central feature of the Cairo Declaration is its implicit conception of international human rights in the civil and political arena as excessive -- with the concomitant need for Islamic criteria to restrict and reduce them. After asserting that "fundamental rights and universal freedoms in Islam are an integral part of the Islamic religion," the authors proceed to enumerate rights and freedoms on which "Islamic" qualifications have been imposed, indicating that in reality the authors saw in Islam justifications for restricting or denying rights and freedoms. Article 24 provides that: "All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari'ah" -- without any attempt at defining what limits the Shari'ah would entail. No added clarity is provided by Article 25, which states: "The Islamic Shari'ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration," because there is, as previously noted, no settled jurisprudence on the question of how reference to overriding Islamic criteria should affect modern rights norms.31


          Mayer then proceeds to critique these schemes as follows:


          Such Islamic versions of human rights have tended in most respects to fall far below the standard of protections for civil and political rights guaranteed under the International Bill of Human Rights. Protections of religious freedoms and guarantees of full equality and equal protection of the law for women and religious minorities have been notably absent.32


While Mayer acknowledges that, concerning religious freedom and equal rights for non-Muslims and women, these schemes are consistent with "principles found in traditional interpretations of Islamic requirements,"33 she notes that some of the provisions have highly questionable Islamic roots. She states that these provisions "have either a tenuous or nonexistent connection to the Islamic sources or Islamic tradition." She points out that in areas where modern human rights provisions address issues "not prefigured in the Islamic legal legacy, these schemes may resort to outright borrowing from selected international human rights provisions -- but with a distinctive twist. They subordinate the borrowed international human rights provisions to newly fashioned Islamic derogation clauses, circumscribing them by subjecting them to `Islamic' conditions."34 In probably the most devastating critique of the so-called Islamic human rights schemes, Mayer notes that:


          because the permissible scope of the Islamic qualifications was left undefined by the authors of the new Islamic human rights schemes and because there were no settled historical guidelines for how to integrate Islamic conditions with modern human rights norms, the Islamic qualifications in practice left governments free to determine the scope of the rights provided and potentially to nullify the rights involved.35


She then questions "why granting the government of a modern nation state, an institution borrowed from the West and unknown in Islamic tradition, such great latitude in defining the grounds for denying and restricting rights should be deemed appropriate in a system based on Islam."36

          At the second World Conference on Human Rights, in Vienna in June 1993, there were various challenges to the universality of human rights by Asian and Middle Eastern states. Samuel Huntington argued in a subsequent article that his paradigm of a “clash of civilizations” was substantiated by the confrontation at the conference between “the West” and “a coalition of Islamic and Confucian States rejecting Western universalism.”37 U.S. Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, asserted that "we cannot let cultural relativism become the last refuge of repression."38 Another major advocate at the Conference for the Universality of Human Rights was U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian Copt.39 The countries allied in opposition to the universality of human rights all had problematic human rights records. The countries included Iran, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Syria, Indonesia, Pakistan and Yemen.40 One could, of course, argue, as Mayer does,41 that all of these governments had political reasons to take the positions they took, independent of their native cultures.

          At this stage we should return to Mayer, who argues that both Iran and Saudi Arabia represented particular forms of Islam and could not be said to speak for all of Islam. Furthermore, China, in Mayer's view, was not well-qualified to speak on behalf of traditional Asian culture or religion due to its extensive record of suppressing the same. Therefore, Mayer argues that it is more appropriate to see the confrontation as representing oppressive states, attempting to find cover for their human rights abuses rather than as a clash of civilizations.42 Mayer also points out that "the Dalai Lama, one of the most eminent Asian Buddhist leaders, emerged as one of the most forceful spokespersons for universality."43 

          Mayer's point that these regimes seem to be using cultural relativism as a cover to preserve their autocratic forms of government obviously casts considerable suspicion on the sincerity of these regimes. Therefore, considering the probable motivations of the advocates of cultural relativism in this instance, the Islamic-Confucian connection looks much less like a confirmation of Huntington's thesis.

          Nevertheless, we cannot stop with the assumption that Islamic opposition to the international human rights norms is exclusively originated by state leaders who wish to preserve their political position. There is clearly an Islamic popular movement well outside the confines of established Islamic regimes. The assertion of an Islamic identity seems to continue to challenge the notions of a secular democratic state in much of the Islamic world. The Civil War in Algeria, which began with the cancellation of the 1992 elections when the Islamic Salvation Front appeared likely to win, seems likely to continue.44 Islamic fundamentalists led a democratically elected coalition government in Turkey for a time, beginning what may be a fierce struggle for the soul of the Turkish state between the fundamentalists and the followers of the secular vision of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk with periodic interference by the military.45 Islamic fundamentalists continue attacks on Westerners in their attempt to destabilize the Egyptian regime. Therefore, it would be difficult to argue that the only advocates of Islamic fundamentalism are the rulers of autocratic states.


Who Speaks for Islam?


          We need to further explore Mayer's point that "there is no real consensus on the part of Muslims that their religion mandates a culturally distinctive approach to rights or that it precludes the adoption of international human rights norms."46 Without such a consensus it is difficult to make the argument that the conflict over human rights is between the West and Islam, it appears more reasonable to assume that the conflict is within Islam itself.

          There is considerable evidence that pressures for liberal democracy have been appearing in much of the Islamic world alongside of the Islamic movements. While the elections that have taken place throughout this geographic region, with various degrees of fairness, are examples of the continuing influence of democratic ideas, the elections in Kuwait (October 1992) and Yemen (April 1993) represent something of a turning point.47 These elections seem to have, at least, been partially responsible for the forming of a human rights committee in Saudi Arabia, called the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, by conservative elements of society on May 3, 1993.48 While the Committee indicated that it intended to realize "the difference between human rights as decreed in Islam and human rights in other countries,” indicating a relativist position on human rights, nevertheless, it called for human rights, democracy, the right of both men and women to vote and change in the judicial system and labor laws.49 The Committee claimed that its actions were inspired by Islamic law, which indicates further dissent in Islamic ranks. Despite the fact (probably because of the fact) that more than 10,000 Saudis had signed a petition supporting the Committee, it was banned after 13 days, and about 400 supporters were arrested.50 It is interesting to note, that while the Saudi government secured a ruling from the Council of Senior Religious Scholars to support the banning, these scholars offered no evidence to support their finding in favor of the ban.51

          The Kuwaiti elections of 1996 have helped to cement the foundations of democratic values in that country. However, the stipulation that only Kuwaiti men born to Kuwaiti fathers are eligible to vote clearly shows that we are not dealing with universal adult suffrage. Also, the limited power of the parliament indicates that this is something short of popular rule. John Lancaster of The Washington Post sums up the limitations of Kuwaiti democracy as follows:


          By Western standards, democracy still has a long way to go in a country where women cannot vote, political parties are banned, broadcast media are run by the government, and criticism of the emir, who appoints the cabinet and under the constitution shares legislative authority with the parliament, is forbidden. And the parliament, which is heavily influenced by Islamic fundamentalists, has little to show for its efforts, with its internal disunity keeping it from mounting a united challenge to the ruling family.52


Nevertheless, Lancaster argues that freedom of expression in Kuwait is in marked contrast to other states of the region. He cites an example of how a National Assembly candidate in the 1996 elections "delivered a scorching attack on government officials, including members of the royal family, charging corruption and other misdeeds."53 He then describes the even more surprising response from the audience.


                    Afterward, a man stood up and proposed, "We should get them and beat them with sticks." Applause rippled through the audience.

                    Almost anywhere else in the Arab world, such open disdain for the government would be an invitation to arrest, or worse. But it hardly raises an eyebrow in Kuwait, where freedom of expression is among the most striking aspects of a fledgling democracy that is sowing envy  and, some say alarm  among its autocratic neighbors.54


          Lancaster then cites the case of Lubna Abbas, who, in an effort to protest the lack of voting rights for women, organized a day-long work stoppage. Abbas works as an advertising executive for the state television network and is a graduate of American University in Washington, DC. According to Abbas: "If we had been in any other country in the Middle East, we would have lost our jobs like that."55 Clearly, given time, these democratic developments will have a dynamic of their own and will multiply just as they have in countless other places.

          In fact, Kuwait is already spreading democratic ideas beyond its borders. Lancaster writes: "To the irritation of its neighbors, Kuwait likes to trumpet its relatively democratic system: Earlier this year, for example, a group of Kuwaiti legislators infuriated Bahrain by calling on its leadership to refrain from human rights abuses."56 Another indication that democracy may be having an impact in the Gulf states is that Qatar may be moving toward elections.57 

          Yemen is another good example of democratic evolution on the Arabian Peninsula. Its civil war a few years ago appeared to have spoiled this promise. However, its elections in 1997 seemed to have brought it back on track. Its broad franchise clearly is a contrast to the more limited electoral process in Kuwait.58 Further evidence of dissent within the conservative Gulf states is the existence of the Gulf National Forum, a movement set up in 1992 to promote democracy and freedom of expression in the Gulf region. Members representing states from all over the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, have met in Kuwait.59

          A significant dissenting voice has come from within the Iranian Islamic revolutionary movement. Mehdi Bazargan, was the first Prime Minister of Iran after the 1979 revolution. Bazargan was one of the founders of the Liberation Movement of Iran (LMI), which advocated human rights and democracy using Islamic references. However, Iran's clerical regime refused to grant the organization legal recognition and persecuted its members. Bazargan then complained of the silencing of dissenting voices, the elimination of all opposition, the lack of freedom of assembly and association, asserting that the Islamic revolution had been betrayed by Iran's clerics.60

          The Iranian presidential election of 1997 again reinforced the notion of a seemingly organic process which pushes societies in a more democratic direction in all parts of the globe, including within the Islamic world. The council of guardians did approve of the candidacy of Mohammad Khatami, but it may not have realized that he would be able to overcome the lead of the heir-apparent, the speaker of the parliament, Nateq-Noori. Nevertheless, by campaigning for more personal freedom, Khatami managed to galvanize women and teenaged voters and win the election.61 While Khatami's hands are still largely tied by Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his election clearly represented a popular endorsement of greater personal freedom.

          Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous state and its largest Islamic state -- after a period of sustained economic growth -- is now experiencing the effects of a popular democratic revolution.62 Forces which have nothing to do with Islam are still attempting to subvert the popular will.63 Furthermore, it seems that these democratic forces have a resonance in the Islamic world alongside the Islamic resurgence.

          Turkey clearly represents a society where democratic forces, Islamic forces and a military committed to upholding the secular state through draconian suppression of Islamic elements have all been competing to determine the destiny of the country. Significant elements of society, notably women, have showed consistently that they do not approve of any radical curtailment of individual rights justified by reference to Islam.64 While religious forces have campaigned largely for greater freedom to express their Islamic beliefs, the military has curtailed democracy largely to prevent Islamic fundamentalists from gaining the upper hand.65 However, democratic forces in Turkey, including business groups, have argued for full democracy.66 This turmoil in this predominantly Moslem country shows that there is still significant debate within Islam about its proper role in government.

          A similar battle is playing itself out in Pakistan, where there is tremendous resistance to the move to amend the Constitution by giving blanket powers to the government to institute its interpretation of Islam. The provision would override "anything contained in the constitution, any law or judgment of any court."67 While there is clearly public support for embracing the moral teachings of Islam, it is not clear that this should take a form inconsistent with liberal democracy.


Which Culture Has A Right to Its Own Values?


          The Taliban takeover of Kabul in September 1996 is another graphic example of a fundamental problem for those advocates of cultural relativism who claim that all cultures have a “right” to determine their own value system. The Taliban, an Afghan rebel group formed in Pakistan, imposed a strict form of Islamic law in the areas which they controlled. Their seizure of the Afghan capital was to prove no exception in this regard.

          The Taliban have forbidden all women and girls to go to work or to school. This included nearly all of the 30,000 widows of Kabul, who often were the sole support for their families.68 Women have been required to wear traditional clothing concealing their entire bodies, with even their eyes covered by mesh cloth. Men have been forced to wear turbans and to grow beards. The Taliban have also carried out criminal punishments such as amputations and executions.69 In one instance, Taliban fighters threatened to hang any Afghan women whom they found working at a Red Cross compound.70 The Taliban have also forced people to attend mosque at gunpoint.71 Music,72 photography, video recorders, white socks, soccer and kite-flying have all been banned.73 Women have been banned from public baths,74 and windows of the bath buildings have to be painted black to a height of six feet.75 

          However, they were imposing their own values on people who had been living a quite different life. According to Kenneth Cooper, of The Washington Post, prior to the Taliban takeover of Kabul, women made up "70 percent of the teachers, half of all civilian government workers and 40 percent of physicians."76 Furthermore, in most relief agencies, such as the U.N. refugee agency, about half of the work force was female.77 The economic and basic humanitarian consequences of the ban on allowing women to work are problematic; moreover it is not an instance of “Western Values” being imposed on a native culture. In this case the urban society of Kabul, with its recognition of some basic rights for women, represents an established culture, while the introduction of the cultural values of the Taliban represents the imposition of a foreign, or external, set of values. This view is reinforced by the rejection of the changes by the population, evidenced by the mass exodus following the Taliban takeover.78 The Taliban will, of course, counter by arguing that traditional Islamic culture in the capital had been corrupted by “Western Values,” and all they were doing was reintroducing what had been lost. However, this view ignores the reality that cultures are continually changing, even as urbanization changed parts of Afghanistan.


Islam's Compatibility with Human Rights


          Arguments can clearly be made that some of the reasons for opposing liberal democracy can be traced to motivations by autocratic political forces which desire to cling to power. Furthermore, if one casts the argument in terms of the rights of cultures to have their own values, one finds a difficulty in determining exactly which culture has this right. However, we still have not addressed the issue of the compatibility of liberal democracy with Islam. In the beginning, we noted that an Islamic scholar would have difficulty accepting a legal system, international or otherwise, unless it is consistent with Islam itself. Therefore, an appeal to a secular legal system which would provide room for different religions is not an option. As a consequence, we still need to examine Islam itself to determine its compatibility with liberal democracy.

          Mayer states that "[t]he principles of freedom of religion -- notably the right to convert from Islam to another faith -- and equality for all, regardless of religion or sex, seemed to pose particular problems for many Muslims, and in these areas they could point to Islamic authority, albeit contested authority, for their resistance to international standards."79 Mayer then notes that "[i]n the past, Islamic sources have been construed as barring conversions from Islam, requiring apostates to repent and return to the fold or face the death penalty, for males, or imprisonment, for females." However, she counters this, stating that "[c]ontemporary Muslims have questioned such interpretations, pointing out that there are principles in the sources that also ban compulsion in religion."80 

          Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im is a figure worthy of inclusion in any review of Islamic culture. He cannot be described as either an Islamic modernist or an Islamic fundamentalist. Unlike the modernists, he is not trying to integrate Western and traditional Islamic thought, and, unlike the fundamentalists, he is not trying to return to pristine principles. An-Na'im appears to be attempting to change our understanding of the foundations of Islamic law.81 An-Na'im notes that Shari'ah does not represent the whole of Islam, but rather an interpretation of its fundamental sources, which must be understood in their historical context. He allows for the possibility of an Islamic Reformation since, in his view, Shari'ah was simply constructed by its founding jurists, which would permit certain aspects of Shari'ah to be restructured. He recharacterizes Shari'ah in terms of a social system similar to Western positivist ideas of law as a juristic structure.82 He further asserts that the power politics of the Medinan tradition of Islam should be abandoned in favor of the Meccan tradition of Islam, as a model for a humane international polity.83 

          Another figure, who is attempting to work from within Islam within the same general framework, is Abdol Karim Soroush, a lecturer at Tehran University. Soroush argues that there is "no authoritative" interpretation of Islam and claims that "all believers are entitled to their understanding of Islam."84 This comes reminiscent of the ideas of the Protestant Reformation. However, this comes from a scholar who is working within the Iranian academic world and "was an ideologue of the Islamic regime in the 1980s."85 Soroush makes the significant point that "[s]uch issues as democracy and human rights did not exist in early Islamic society."86 He goes on to argue that "today, they are popular ideas that are compatible with Islam, . . ."87 Saroush notes that "the language of religion is the language of obligation, . . ."88 He attempts to make the transition by asserting that "we need a paradigm shift . . . a shift that makes a synthesis from obligations to rights."89 

          There is even considerable evidence that individualism is not as alien to Islam as is sometimes asserted. According to Kamal Abu al-Magd, an Egyptian law professor:


          [I]n Islam there is of course the general principle of individual responsibility before God and before the community. . . .  And there are injunctions in the same direction by some of the best known Islamic reformers. For example, Muhammad Iqbal argues that Islam doesn't ask people to deny themselves, but to strengthen their egos by being strong, working hard, undertaking difficult tasks. In one of his books he particularly focused on strengthening the individual ego and the collective ego.90 


He attributes the submissiveness of the people in some Arab Muslim countries, not to Islam, but to a history of colonialism and autocratic rulers.91 He also finds support in the Qur'an for freedom of speech, as he quotes a passage from the chapter called "The Cow": "No witness or writer should be made to suffer because of his testimony."92 Clearly it would be difficult to find such a clear endorsement of freedom of speech and press in Christianity as this.




          We have seen that liberal democracy and human rights are not necessarily inconsistent with Islam. In fact, interpretations of Islam compatible with liberal democracy are increasingly being advanced. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that, as industrialization takes hold in Islamic countries, they will be immune to the effects on culture that this development has had and is having elsewhere. How long this movement will have to struggle to bring democratic changes is uncertain, but it appears that democratic values have taken hold of the imagination of much of the Islamic world.

          In any case, the strong centralized state, which is a reality in most Islamic countries, must be addressed. Traditional Islamic culture did not have to deal with such an entity. The so-called Islamic human rights schemes fail to provide any realistic check on its power. Therefore, a reexamination of Islam, to reassess its compatibility with liberal democracy, may be the only realistic answer.




          1. Karl E. Meyer, "The West's Debt to Byzantium," The New York Times, March 30, 1997.

          2. Ann E. Mayer, "Universal Versus Islamic Human Rights: A Clash of Cultures or a Clash with a Construct?," 15 Michigan Journal International Law 307, pp. 318-319 (1994).

          3. Ibid., pp. 319-320.

          4. Ibid., p. 320.

          5. Josiah A.M. Cobbah, "African Values and the Human Rights Debate: An African Perspective," 9 Human Rights Quarterly, pp. 309, 316 (1987).

          6. Ibid., p. 309.

          7. Liberalism and democracy are, of course, represented by the instruments concerned with civil and political rights, rather than by those instruments which are concerned with the so-called second and third generation rights [economic, social and cultural rights].

          8. See generally Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (1992).

          9. Ibid., p. 42.

          10. Ibid.

          11. Ibid., p. 43.

          12. Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (1991).

          13. "UNESCO Statement by Experts on Race Problems" printed in Ashley Montagu, Race, Science, and Humanity 172 (1963).

          14. James W. Ceaser, Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought (1997).

          15. Ibid., p. 61.

          16. Fukuyama, op. cit., note 8.

          17. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, pp. 62-75 (1989).

          18. James W. Ceaser, op cit., note 14, p. 34.

          19. Samuel Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations," Foreign Affairs, pp.22, 33 (Summer 1993); Huntington expanded on his essay in a book: see Samuel Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order" (1996).

          20. Joseph Schacht, An Introduction to Islamic Law 1 (1964).

          21. David A. Westbrook, "Islamic International Law and Public International Law: Separate Expressions of World Order," 33 Virginia Journal International Law, pp. 819, 829 (1993).

          22. Ibid.

          23. Ibid., p. 825.

          24. Ibid.

          25. Ibid.

          26. Ann E. Mayer, Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics, 207 (1991)

          27. Ibid., p. 31.

          28. Ibid., p. 323.

          29. Inal Ersan, “Kuwait Women Stage Rare Demonstration for Vote,” Reuters World Service, March 12, 1996; see also John Lancaster, "Hot Winds of Democracy Rustle the Gulf: Kuwaitis Campaign Raucously to Elect On-Again, Off-Again, All-Male Parliament," The Washington Post, October 4, 1996, p. A25.

          30. Mayer, op. cit. p. 320.

          31. Ibid., pp. 328-329.

          32. Ibid., p. 324.

          33. Ibid., p. 325.

          34. Ibid.

          35. Ibid.

          36. Ibid.

          37. Samuel P. Huntington, "If Not Civilizations, What? Paradigms of the Post-Cold War World," Foreign Affairs, Nov.-Dec. 1993, p. 188.

          38. Mayer, op. cit., p. 372.

          39. Ibid.

          40. Ibid., p. 373.

          41. Ibid.

          42. Mayer, op. cit., p. 373.

          43. Ibid.

          44. Jonathan C. Randal, "Algeria's War Refuses to Die," The Washington Post, July 2, 1996, p. A10; however, voters in Algeria overwhelmingly approved the countries fourth constitution in November 1996, thereby approving the banning of Islam-based political parties, see Charles Trueheart, "Referendum Results Strengthen Algeria's Army-Backed Regime," The Washington Post, November 29, 1996, p. A41.

          45. Kelly Couturier, "New Turkish Leader's Islamic Vision Clouded by Political Reality," The Washington Post, July 25, 1996, p. A23.

          46. Mayer, op. cit., p. 309.

          47. Ibid., p. 368.

          48. Ibid., p. 365.

          49. Ibid., p. 367.

          50. Ibid., p. 365.

          51. Ibid., p. 366.

          52. Lancaster, op. cit. p. A25.

          53. Ibid.

          54. Ibid.

          55. Ibid., p. A27.

          56. Ibid.

          57. Nora Boustany, "On a Mission From Qatar," The Washington Post, November 13, 1996, p. A18.

          58. "Final Campaigning in Full Force in Yemen," The San Antonio Express News, April 27, 1997, p. 9A.

          59. Mayer, op. cit. p. 365.

          60. Ibid., p. 369.

          61. Elaine Sciolino, "Guess Who's Giving the Voters a Choice," The New York Times, March 22, 1997.

          62. Ron Moreau and Tom Emerson, "A Test of `People Power': Can Sukarno's daughter lead her country to democracy?," Newsweek, August 26, 1996, p. 41.

          63. Michael Richardson, "Indonesia Braces for Vote on Reforms, The International Herald Tribune, November 9, 1998, p. 4.

          64. "Turkish Women Protest against Islamic Code," The Washington Post, February 16, 1997, p. A39.

          65. Kelly Couturier, "With Premier in Mecca, Secularists Issue Plan to Rid Turkey of Radical Islam," The Washington Post, April 20, 1997, p. A24.

          66. Stephen Kinzer, "Business Press a Reluctant Turkey on Democracy Issues," The New York Times, March 23, 1997.

          67. "Pakistan Deputies Back Islamic Law," The International Herald Tribune, October 10-11, 1998, p. 4.

          68. Christopher Thomas, "Taliban Outlaws Women and White Socks," The London Times, April 4, 1997.

          69. Kathy Gannon, "Taliban Rebels Take Hold As Streets of Kabul Revive," The Washington Post, September 28, 1996, p. A19; see also Kenneth J. Cooper, "Conquered Afghan City Takes Good with Bad: Harsh Militia Rule Restores Order," The Washington Post, October 3, 1996, p. A1; see also Kenneth Cooper, "Kabul Tests Islamic Limits: Stringent New Taliban Rule Is Rebuffed Even by Iran," The Washington Post, October 6, 1996, p. A27; see also Kenneth Cooper, "Kabul Women under Virtual House Arrest: Afghan Radicals Bar Access to Jobs, School," The Washington Post, October 7, 1996, p. A1; see also Rod Nordland and Tony Clifton, "Afghanistan: The Islamic Nightmare: Zealots Take Over, Veiling Women and Scaring Neighbors More Than Natives," Newsweek, October 14, 1996, p. 51.

          70. Associated Press, "Taliban Fighters Threaten to Hang Female Workers," San Antonio Express-News, November 4, 1996, p. 4A.

          71. Associated Press, "Afghan Talibans Blasted for Forcing Mosque Attendance," San Antonio Express-News, November 3, 1996, p. 6A.

          72. Michael A. Lev, "Kabul's Music Dies under New Rulers: Radical Islamic Movement Imposes Strict Ban on Popular Culture," The Washington Post, December 6, 1996, p. A42.

          73. Thomas, op. cit., p. 4.

          74. Ibid.

          75. Christopher Thomas, "Kabul Enters Dark Age As Windows Are Painted over to Hide `Corrupting Women'," The London Times, March 20, 1997.

          76. Cooper, op. cit. The Washington Post, October 7, 1996, p. A1.

          77. Ibid., A16.

          78. An estimated 250,000 residents fled Kabul following the takeover: see Kenneth Cooper, "Taliban's Takeover of Kabul Spurs Educated Afghans to Flee," The Washington Post, October 8, 1996, p. A15.

          79. Mayer, op. cit. p. 322.

          80. Ibid., p. 324.

          81. Westbrook, op. cit., p. 848.

          82. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Toward an Islamic Reformation xiv (1990); see also Westbrook, op. cit., p. 849.

          83. An-Na'im, op. cit., note 315, pp. 143-144; see also Westbrook, op. cit., note 19, p. 854. It should be noted that Abdulaziz Sachedina disputes this distinction between the Meccan and Medinan traditions, by pointing out that one of the progressive strands of Islamic thought (e.g., "there is no compulsion in religion") is actually of Medinan origin, see Westbrook, op. cit., p. 855, footnote 97, see also Abdulaziz Sachedina, "Review of Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law," 25 International Journal Middle East Studies, pp. 155-156 (1993).

          84 "Iranian Intellectual Says Islam and Human Rights Must Go Together," The Boston Globe, March 31, 1997.

          85. Ibid.

          86. Ibid.

          87. Ibid.

          88. "A New Iranian Era?" The Washington Post, April 2, 1997, p. A14.

          89. Ibid.

          90. Kevin Dwyer, "Arab Voices: The Human Rights Debate in the Middle East," p. 89 (1991).

          91. Ibid.

          92. Ibid.