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Democracy Versus Sharia*

by John Spritzler

September 20, 2012

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). According to these pundits, devout Muslims are enemies of democracy and its associated principle of separation of church and state.

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.

But let's think about the deeper question: Is there anything wrong with the notion that there is a higher moral authority than the will of the people? This notion is the basis for the belief, by some Muslims, that Sharia should trump any law that a democratically elected legislature may enact.

Does a democratically elected government have a moral right to enact a law that makes some people slaves? Does it have a moral right to enact a law that makes murder (not just the killing of an enemy soldier in combat, or the execution of a person convicted of a capital crime, but plain old selfish murder, such as killing one's neighbor just because one doesn't like him) legal? The Green Party of Massachusetts said that "It's wrong to vote on rights." Were they wrong to say so?

Most Americans, and myself included, would say that the answers to the above questions are all "No." In this regard, then, most Americans are in agreement with Muslims in believing that there is indeed a higher moral authority than the authority of a majority vote.

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.

If by "democracy" one means simply that there is no moral authority greater than than a majority vote, then most people--Muslim or not--oppose "democracy." (A much more reasonable meaning for democracy is required, one that expresses what most people actually want when they say they are for democracy. This meaning is discussed in my A Misunderstanding about Democracy .)

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" 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" 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.


* There is another version of this article here that grapples with the confusing fact that the commonly attributed meanings of the words "democratic" and "secular" are very misleading and prevent clear thinking.

Postscript Oct. 21, 2014: Look at the place that the Ten Commandments has in the laws of the United States: The State of Texas erected a monument to the Ten Commandments on the Capitol grounds and the Supreme Court ruled it was indeed constitutional. Go here and read about the central role of the Ten Commandments (i.e., "laws given to Moses on the Mount") in U.S. laws; for example:

"The fundamental basis of this nation's laws was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don't think we emphasize that enough these days." - Harry S Truman, Feb. 15, 1950, Attorney General's Conference.

Now compare the role of the Ten Commandments in the United States with the role of Sharia in Muslim nations (described here) and one will see there is very little difference.

Furthermore, as shown here, the Koran and the Bible are quite similar with respect to the Ten Commandments; some of the differences, however, are quite interesting, such as the fact that:

"the Bible punishes to death anyone who (1) Profanes the Holy and Divine Name of GOD Almighty; (2) who breaks the Sabbath; (3) Who curses his any of his parents:

"And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.  (Leviticus 24:16)"

"Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.  (Exodus 31:14)"

"And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.  (Exodus 21:17)"

While Islam doesn't have Punishments of execution for the violations above, but the Noble Quran does make it quite clear that these violations, and many others, are grave sins, with the exception of the Sabbath, because we don't really have a Sabbath."

All of this suggests that the hysterical fear of Sharia by some people is quite unfounded unless they are equally hysterically afraid of the Ten Commandments.


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