Authors see Islamic compatibility as key to acceptance of democracy

New Civic Education Book Links Democracy to Islamic Principles: Authors see Islamic compatibility as key to acceptance of democracy

 Democracy can take root in the Muslim world only if the average citizen sees it as compatible with Islam, according to the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and StreetLaw Inc., two groups that seek to plant the seeds for democratic development in the Middle East and North Africa.

Everybody in the Muslim world, if given a choice between Islam and anything else, will always choose Islam,” says CSID’s founder and executive director Radwan Masmoudi. “And the problem is that democracy was presented to them in many cases as something alien and something that is not really compatible with Islam, and they have to choose between the two.”

“This is a false choice, this is not a choice that they have to make, and we have to convince them of that,” he says. “We have to present to them democracy and tie it with Islamic concepts that they are accustomed to,” such as the principle of shura, or consultative decision-making.

To achieve this goal, CSID and StreetLaw recruited eight authors — two each from Egypt, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco — to develop an Arabic-language workbook intertwining democratic concepts with Islamic principles.

The final product, Islam and Democracy: Toward Effective Citizenship, is based on a book developed more than a decade ago for use in South Africa and other emerging democracies, but the authors reworked the text to make it relevant to a Muslim audience.

The book’s producers plan to present it to community leaders in Muslim countries in hopes that those leaders will convey the message of democracy to their countrymen.

CSID is a Washington-based think tank dedicated to “promoting democratic reforms in the Muslim world, connecting Islamic values with principles of freedom and participation,” and StreetLaw is a Washington-based group that fosters citizen action by providing “practical, participatory education about law, democracy and human rights.”

Masmoudi sees the collaborative effort between CSID and StreetLaw as a natural partnership.  He says he told StreetLaw officials, “You guys know how to teach democracy, we know about Islam and how to teach Islam.  Let’s work together on this project.”

Mary Larkin, StreetLaw’s director of international programs, is equally enthusiastic and sure that education is the most effective way to promote democracy.

“We don’t have to act as … advocates,” she says.  “Given the information about democracy, given the information about the compatibility with Islam, the populous will make the decision that’s best for them.”


The authors of Islam and Democracy include a newly elected member of the Jordanian Senate and members of parliament from Morocco and Algeria, as well as a professor, a journalist, a pair of human rights experts and a citizenship education activist.

Their 129-page book, full of facts, philosophy and workbook exercises, was presented to the public at a November 29 Washington reception.

The book contains chapters on what democracy is, how the state works, corruption and abuse of power, human rights, elections and citizen participation.

The preface states, “The book takes no religious or political position concerning Islam or democracy and strives to present materials that are neutral and balanced. We aim to promote discussion, promote tolerance and support citizen participation.” 

Larkin says the workbook exercises are based on experiences and situations that might be familiar to the book’s audiences.  An exercise on the legitimacy of power presents a situation in which street protests turn into looting after a legitimately elected government fails to quell an economic crisis.  A group of army officers seizes power and imposes its own solutions.

“Which of these two parties,” the text asks, “has the legitimate power and the right to rule in this case: the elected government or the military government?”

Another exercise exploring the accountability of high officials before the law presents the case of a bank manager, summoned for investigation in a corruption case, who testifies that he acted on orders of a high government official.

It asks readers to consider, “What are the bank manager’s arguments? Should the high official be summoned? Why? What are the prosecutor’s arguments?” and finally, “If you were the judge, what would your judgment be?”


Larkin, Masmoudi and a pair of colleagues begin a 10-day tour of Morocco and Algeria December 4 to present the book to civic, religious and education leaders and officials of nongovernmental organizations, and teach them how to use the texts in their own communities.

“Through them, we have a goal of reaching over 2,000 ordinary citizens in each country. We’ll supply them with the materials,” Larkin says. “We’re committed to bringing a discussion of democracy out of academia and out of the ivory tower because democracy happens when the everyday people want it.”

The group plans a similar visit to Egypt and Jordan in January, and if these four pilot programs are successful, the sponsors hope to take it to other countries.

Masmoudi has “huge expectations” for the book and its potential impact across the Muslim world in explaining the concepts of democracy in simple language.

“CSID has run probably hundreds of conferences on the subject of Islam and democracy,” he says, “but after a while we noticed that we were basically getting the same crowd — the intellectual leaders, the political and religious leaders of the country — and they don’t need these conferences.

“The challenge is, how do we convince the millions of other people … in the Arab world,” Masmoudi says.  With democracy on the rise elsewhere in the world, he asks, “When are we going to have in the Arab world people going out in peaceful demonstrations asking for freedom and democracy?”

One of the book’s authors, Emad Shahin, a professor at the American University in Cairo, termed their product “a practical book (which) … also instills certain values.

“It’s not a superficial manual for how to teach democracy in a crash course in five minutes,” he says. “I think it’s really profound because it tries to reflect values in a simple way, not simplistic but very simple, very straightforward way that can make it accessible to everyone.”

Aly Abuzaakuk, CSID’s program manager for the Middle East and North Africa, expressed confidence the StreetLaw-CSID effort could advance an emerging wave of reform in human rights, accountability and transparency in many Arab countries. Recent experience has shown that “pressures from inside, the civil society organizations, coupled with some leverage from outside will produce results,” he said.