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Democracy Versus Sharia

by John Spritzler

September 20, 2012

[Dear reader: You may want to read the shorter and simpler version of this article located here. The version below is a bit complicated because it grapples with the confusing fact that the commonly attributed meanings of the words "democratic" and "secular" are very misleading and prevent clear thinking.]

Right wing pundits, responding to the violent Muslim protests against the recent notorious film trailer, are asserting that the fundamental conflict in the world is between democracy and Sharia (Muslim religious law).

These pundits have help from some Muslims. A NYT article about the Muslim group, Ansar al-Sharia, believed to have carried out the attack on the U.S. embassy in Lybia, reports:

They gave the BBC a statement of their philosophy on paper bearing the symbols of the Koran and a Kalashnikov. “Democracy is a human condition where laws are made by people,” it said. “Only God has the authority to make law and that is why Islam and Sharia are incompatible with democracy.”

The right wingers want Americans to think that Sharia is a well-defined set of laws for a nation, and that Muslims want these laws to replace the laws that are legislated by politicians. This wrong notion is pretty thoroughly demolished by this article, which has useful and relevant facts even if presented in a framework uncritical of the American ruling elite.

Right Wing Pundits Rest their Case on Some Widespread Misunderstandings

The ability of right wingers to portray devout Muslims as enemies--enemies of democracy and its associated principle of separation of church and state--requires first that their audience undersands the meaning of "democracy" and "secularism" (i.e., separation of church and state) in a way that, while being the most commonly understood way, is nonetheless very wrong because it obscures important truths.

Before diving into a discussion of how wrong understandings of these key words make it possible for the right wingers to cast all devout Muslims as our enemy, I need to say a bit about these words themselves.

In this article I am going to distinguish between democracy as wrongly understood versus as correctly understood by using the quoted "democracy" to refer to the former and the unquoted democracy to refer to the latter sense of the word. Ditto for "secular" versus secular.

Here I will briefly explain the difference between "democracy" and democracy and between "secular" and secular, but for a fuller discussion of these points please see A Misunderstanding about Democracy and Worshipping a Strange God.

"Democracy" is commonly but wrongly understood to mean a system in which all of the citizens of a nation (rich and poor, regardless of whether they have conflicting fundamental values and disagree about whether society should be equal or unequal or whether there should or should not be slavery, etc.) peaceably make decisions about how their society will be and peaceably resolve their fundamental conflicts, in a manner that gives every adult citizen an equal say in the decision-making process. Thus the Constitution of the United States is held up as an example of how a society can be "democratic."

The problem with this understanding of "democracy" is that people with fundamentally conflicting values never resolve their differences peaceably. When the conflict is fundamental, say equality versus inequality or abolition of slavery versus slavery, then the side that brings to bear the greatest force, including violence or the credible threat of violence, prevails over the other side. There is no constitution or "democratic" procedure, no voting system or any other system that can override this truth. The U.S. Constitution did not, and neither could any other "democratic" constitution, prevent a violent Civil War from settling the issue of slavery in the United States. There never has been and never could be a "democracy" that truly does what this wrong understanding of democracy says it does. What exists in the United States today, a society riven by class conflict over fundamental values such as equality versus inequality, is not a "democracy"; it is a fake "democracy" whose purpose is to give some undeserved legitimacy to what is in truth a dictatorship of the rich.

Democracy, on the other hand (without the quotes, the proper meaning), is a system in which all of those citizens of a nation who share fundamental values peaceably make decisions about how their society will be and peaceably resolve conflicts (non-fundamental conflicts, like what side of the road to drive on), in a manner that gives every adult citizen an equal say in the decision-making process. As we shall see below, this is what most Americans actually have in mind when they say they want things to be more democratic.

"Secularism" is commonly but wrongly understood to mean the principle that the government recognizes no religious authority (such as God or a god or religious leaders who claim to represent sacred authorities) as more authoritative than the will of the people who are governed. The problem with this understanding is that it conceives of only a narrow class of overtly religious authorities as the ones that secularism requires not be higher than the will of the people. If one wrongly thinks the United States is a "democracy" instead of a dictatorship of the rich, and if one sees that no overtly religious authority is higher than the authority of the elected government, then one would conclude that the United States is a secular society. But the United States is not a secular society in the proper sense of the word, meaning a society in which there is no higher authority than the will of the people. There is in the United States a higher authority than the will of the people who are governed. That authority is the strange god of Economic Productivity and Profit that is worshipped by the capitalist class. Their strange god determines what they tell their obedient politicians to do, no less than any theocratic Supreme Leader is supposedly informed by Allah what to command his subservient politicians to do.

In a true democracy, the shared fundamental values are the highest authority. Those who reject these values are not considered members of the democracy, and if they somehow win a vote it doesn't trump the shared values with which it conflicts. In a genuine democracy, therefore, people want their shared values to be the highest authority and in this sense people want their society not to be secular. But even in a fake democracy like the United States, where people say it is a "democracy"--even then most people, as we will see below, do not want it to be secular because they think that there are some things that nobody should be allowed to do no matter how people may vote.


Most Americans, Like Muslims, Also Reject "Democracy" and "Secularism"

Let's see how these ideas relate to real life. The Green Party in Massachusetts rejected "democracy" and "secularism" when it opposed letting people in Massachusetts vote on whether same-sex marriage should be legal or not. The Green Party declared that, "It's wrong to let people vote on rights." This "wrong to vote on rights" phrase is actually one that I agree with. My only disagreement with the Green Party's use of the phrase is with their claim that it is a "right" for any two single adults who wish to marry to do so. Nobody, not even members of the Green Party, actually believes this. Nobody argues, for example, that siblings or a father and his adult daughter have this "right."* The Green Party invoked this phrase as a clever rhetorical device. But what made this rhetorical device so effective is that it refers to a concept that most people agree with, the idea that there is a higher moral authority than any election result. When the two conflict, the higher moral authority trumps an election.

It's not only the Green Party that rejects "democracy" and "secularism"; most Americans also do. For example, the Ten Commandments say "Thou Shalt Not Kill." This is interpreted by most people to mean, for example, that while a soldier may kill an enemy in combat and the government may execute a person convicted of a capital crime, you can't kill your neighbor just because you don't like him--that's murder. How many Americans would say that the voters have a right to make murder legal? Wouldn't most say that there is a higher moral authority than the voters on a question like this, and people have no right to decide on the legality of murder, no matter how democratically they do so? Most Americans thus oppose "democracy" and "secularism."

When Americans in the years before the Civil War opposed slavery, it wasn't because they didn't think slavery was enacted "democratically" in the slave states; it was because they didn't think people had a right to enact slavery, no matter how "democratically" they did it.

No matter what one believes is the highest moral authority (and here it is worth noting that many believe it is God, and it's the same God for Islam and Christianity and Judaism), one can hardly condemn Muslims for being more opposed to "democracy" and "secularism" than non-Muslim Americans. The Muslims are no different from non-Muslims in saying that it's wrong to vote on rights, that people have no right to make murder legal, and no right to vote in slavery.

Whether people defend these views opposing "democracy" and "secularism" by invoking Jesus or God or Allah or Common Decency or anything else is far less important than the fact that they agree about important shared fundamental values, such as equality and concern for one another.


* The merits of legalizing same-sex marriage should be discussed in terms of whether it would or would not put the children it might produce with third party gamete donation at too great a risk of emotional pain due to not knowing and being known by one of their biological parents, not in terms of an abstract "right" of any two consenting adults to marry. See Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage: What is at Stake? for discussion of this.

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