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February 17, 2010

Human Rights, Democracy and Islam - Part IV

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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On my trips to Muslim countries, I have yet to meet a person who doesn't recognize the need for more democratic reform across the Muslim world. However, I have yet to meet a person who thinks the West can serve as a useful model.

The vast majority of people I meet—presidents, prime ministers, academics, professionals, media and political analysts, intellectuals, university students, and informed taxi drivers—have profound doubts about the sincerity of the West’s call for reform, and for good reason.

For one thing, Western nations repeatedly encourage secondary steps (for example given women senior government jobs) toward reform while ignoring the fundamentals (for example youth participation) upon which any robust democratic system depends.

For another, these nations exploit existing undemocratic practices of Muslim governments for their won ends. At the end of the day if people elect freely a government which opposes the West’s policies of domination, that government is isolated and the people are punished. A case in point is the election of a Hamas’s government in Gaza.

Third, the attitude of Western countries, especially the U.S., toward democratic reform is blatantly biased and hypocritical.  Typical is the “not-invented-here” mentality. Even though British democracy is different from American democracy, each is widely accepted as a valid; when it comes to the Muslim world, non-Western democratic practices are not considered acceptable.

Fahmy Huwaidi of Egypt, one of the Muslim world’s top columnists—his readers number in the millions—once told me: “The West took more than 100 years to reach a decent level of democracy. Why then do they expect us to attain democracy overnight? Give us a break!”

The Muslim world has had its democratic successes, but they are not widely praised in the West. Malaysia’s successful democratic system, for example, has not only achieved an exemplary level of political reform in only two decades, but has done so alongside unprecedented economic reform and development, combined with full commitment to multiculturalism and the upholding of minority rights.

In stark contrast, consider the post-9/11 regression of human rights in virtually every major Western country, especially those that have incessantly pressured Muslim countries to abandon the levels of human rights awareness they may already have achieved.

The U.S. leads the international pack human rights violators, and routinely detains citizens of foreign countries for years without laying charges or allowing them access to legal counsel. France has passed legislation to ban the wearing of religious attire in public, particularly the hijab, or headscarf, worn by many Muslim women. Banning the building of mosques with minarets will be soon part of Swiss law.

In Holland, the charismatic and ultra-conservative political hopeful Pim Fortuyn called for the closing of his country’s borders to all Muslims, whose religion he described as achterlijk (backward).  A young animal rights activist killed Fortuyn because the declared Fortuyn’s ideas to be a menace to society. He is now serving 18 years in prison.

Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz (a Zionist Jew) says democratic Western governments should consider using “non-lethal torture” for interrogating resistant suspects. Insisting that he, himself, does not advocate torture, Dershowitz told law students at Canada’s Université de Montréal that senior judges could be empowered to issue limited-use “torture warrants” in cases of imminent national danger. He predicted that countries such as Canada, the U.S. and France might be among the first to do so.

Is this the kind of behaviour we should expect from Western nations that’ve always prided themselves on being champions of liberal democracy?! Many Western-educated liberals in the Muslim world cannot find adequate words to describe and respond to these indefensible actions.

Will there soon be a complete ban on mosques? Will Muslims be forced to change their names, as happened to European Jews in the early 20th-century? Will they be barred from certain security-sensitive jobs? Many Muslim liberals fear it is now just a matter of time. All this must sound confusing and dangerous to those in Muslim countries where potential models for democracy are crumbling around them.


When it comes to fundamental democratic reform, perhaps the Muslim world would do better to emulate Western democratic ideals of a century ago, not the hypocritical brand being practised today.

Muslim reformist political leaders and thinkers affirm that Islamic and Western worldviews are broadly compatible. Through free and liberal interpretation of Islamic Law and values, they seek to introduce Western concepts into the social and political life of Muslims for the common good. The only important question concerns how this should be done from an Islamic point of view.

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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