Columnists > Voices

Structural problems

Does Islam have the foundations for a free society? Does America?

Issue: "Iraq: Unity in adversity," Feb. 12, 2005

Jihadist opponents of the elections in Iraq used not only bombs but theology to discourage Iraqis from voting. Democracy, the radical clerics said, is un-Islamic. Democracy is rule by man, the argument goes, but Muslims are to be ruled by God through the law of the Quran.

According to the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the democratic principles of majority rule and pluralism "allow infidelity and wrong practices to spread." "Democracy is also based on the right to choose your religion," he said, and this is "against the rule of God."

Democracy certainly violates everything the terrorists believe. The millions of Iraqis who poured out to vote, despite the threats from al-Zarqawi and company, demonstrate that Muslims too can yearn for democracy and freedom.

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Still, if political systems grow out of worldviews, does Islam provide a worldview that can sustain a politically free society?

America's free democratic republic grew out of a biblically informed worldview, whose presuppositions are spelled out in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

The foundation for American liberties is the Creator who is the source of a transcendent moral law. The Creator "endowed" certain rights that are "unalienable"; that is, they cannot be taken away legitimately. They are part of a moral order that transcends the state. This opens up an important space for freedom, since individuals have access to a moral standard by which they can judge their leaders and their culture, and change them when necessary.

In underscoring these "self-evident truths," the Founders were building from a worldview. But they were not establishing a religion. Believing in a Creator and a moral order that transcends the state is a very minimal creed. It says nothing of sin and gives no way of salvation. But both Protestants and Catholics could agree on this much, as could such non-Christians as Jews and Deists, including Thomas Jefferson, who penned the words.

To determine if Islam is capable of building a similar political system, we might ask whether Muslims agree with those presuppositions?

Certainly, Muslims believe in a creator and in a transcendent moral law. This is the bedrock for a free society. These are convictions Iraqis can build on.

Equality might be a challenge. Under Islam only Muslims-not followers of other religions-can have full rights. The jihadists, who boast that "we love death the way [Americans] love life," do not believe in the right to life, but most Muslims do.

Islam tends to have a problem with "liberty." In Islam, the law is externalized. Morality depends on coercion, or of trying to make sin impossible (such as requiring women to be fully covered to prevent men from feeling lust). Islam does not allow for freedom of religion. The goal is to establish a divinized state, through the imposition of quranic law.

Christians believe that Christ's kingdom is not of this world, so that God can work through many kinds of government. But freedom grew up in Christian circles because the gospel breaks the bondage of sin and internalizes the moral law. As the Founders said, those who act morally of their own free will do not need a coercive state to keep them in line.

Perhaps the Iraqis' taste of freedom could lead them to changes in Islamic theology, to freedom of religion, and perhaps an openness to a religion that offers genuine freedom.

But as Iraqis begin their democracy, we Americans should check the cracks in our own foundation. Belief in a Creator and in a transcendent moral order are no longer deemed "self-evident," and many Americans do not believe in them at all. Our legal system acts as if rights were bestowed by the state, which can therefore create new rights and take away the old ones.

Muslims at least have a start in believing in a creator and in a transcendent moral order. Ironically, that is more than many Americans have these days. The question is not just whether Muslims have the foundations for a democracy. Do we?

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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