Islam, Democracy and American Muslims
Mohamed Nimer, August 15, 2005

In an age of senseless violence and terror, coupled with rising Islamophobia and anti-Americanism, one of the best things mainstream American Muslims can do is to help isolate extremists, whatever their faith.

At the core of the American Muslim experience is a desire to create and promote a real-life model synthesizing Islam and democracy, despite the fact that Islamophobes in America and their anti-American counterparts in the Muslim world may view this task as unachievable or even undesirable.

Islam favors public structures based on shura, or popular participation and consultation. In the Quran, Islam's revealed text, God promises a spiritual reward for those who "conduct their affairs by mutual consultation." (Quran, 4:38)

The Quran acknowledges differences between people and values diversity. All those who strive to lead a moral, productive life are given special honor in the Quran when it states: "Those who believe (in the Quran), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), the Sabians, and the Christians - any who believe in God and the Last Day and work righteousness - on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve." (Quran, 5:69)

Furthermore, freedom of religion is enshrined in the Quranic verse that states, "Let there be no compulsion in religion." (Quran, 2:256) Establishing justice and opposing oppression are also pillars of good governance in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad said: "The best (jihad) in the path of God is (to speak) a word of justice to an oppressive ruler.

In the understanding of mainstream Islam today, these values are universal and apply to Muslims and people of other faiths alike.

Islamic scholars in North America have ruled that it is a religious duty to support equal citizenship rights for all people and all segments of society.

Muslim scholars consider the principles of freedom and justice outlined in America's foundational documents as compatible with Islam.

A prevalent misconception in the West is that Islam prohibits its adherents from following man-made laws. However, much of the Islamic legal tradition flowing from Islamic scripture is man-made and resulted from an intellectual effort called "ijtihad," or reaching an opinion through an examination of religious texts, precedents and the facts of a given situation.

Long ago, Muslim scholars observed that continuous study is necessary to find better ways in which Muslims can live in conformity with their faith, while at the same time meeting the demands of an ever-changing world.

In America's interconnected civil society, Muslims can be part of any universal reform agenda that benefits all segments of our nation. In America's diverse Muslim community, democratic practices are making their way into the establishment of Islamic institutions, as evident in the formalization of membership and election procedures.

American Muslim community institutions can build on these important gains by: (1) devoting more resources to the delivery of tangible community services; (2) formalizing democratic leadership selection processes based on mutual consultation; (3) developing transparent management practices; and (4) including women in leadership positions.

This final point is important because no community can reach its maximum potential without the enthusiastic participation of 50 percent of it members.

These steps could give rise to an American Muslim form of institutional governance, which would demonstrate clearly and in practical terms that (1) Islam and democracy are compatible; and (2) Muslims are accepted as part of the fabric of American society.

A functioning democratic American Muslim polity will help marginalize the extremist vision of a civilizational war between Islam and the West.


Mohamed Nimer, Ph.D., is research director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group.