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Egypt elections: Sharia can support democracy

In Egypt elections for president today, the role of Islam in government is a big question. But a freedom-based interpretation of sharia can support democracy in the Arab world. Such a form of sharia in the early stages of the Iran Revolution set a precedent – before it was snuffed out.

By Mahmood Delkhasteh and Hassan Rezaei / May 23, 2012

Moderate Islamist, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, left, and former foreign minister, Amr Moussa squared off over the role of Islam in government on Egypt's first televised presidential debate in Cairo, Egypt, on May 11. Op-ed writers Mahmood Delkhasteh and Hassan Rezaei comment:'Three Quran-based principles...are particularly relevant for today’s emerging Muslim democracies.'

Mahmoud Khaled, Al Masry Al Youm/AP

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London and Heidelberg, Germany

The role of Islam in government is a big question in today's presidential election in Egypt.The leading candidates are debating it, and so are people struggling for freedom across the Arab world. Can their largely democratic and human rights-oriented demands be met with Islamic sharia?

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The word sharia has at least three meanings with a variety of interpretations. It can refer to the principles of religion – rather than a dictate; the laws expressed by God in the sacred texts of Islam; and the understandings that Muslim legal scholars arrive at through a particular methodology of reasoning (fatwas). Even within these definitions, there are competing interpretations.

Traditionalist readings, which largely reflect the cultural norms and values of patriarchal societies and despotic political systems, dominate in the Muslim Middle East. In countries such as Iran and Saudia Arabia, sharia oppresses women and metes out violent, retributive, medieval justice. This is clearly no option for democratic societies.

Alternative interpretations emphasize the role of law and faith in extending and defending human rights. Such interpretations might offer new possibilities. But what would they look like?

One example is the early process of Islamization of the Iranian government after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 – when freedom-based sharia made a brief appearance, even as it competed with a repressive interpretation.

Still, during the first two years of the revolution, there was a strong showing of sharia based on passages in the Quran that freedom is the essence of all living beings, and that the ultimate purpose of law is to protect both human life and the environment from all forms of despotism and violence.

These views are grounded in three Quran-based principles that are particularly relevant for today’s emerging Muslim democracies.

First, there is to be no compulsion of religious beliefs. While this principle is inspired by the Quran (chapter 2, verse 256), in modern law making it would form the basis for protecting religious freedoms and belief in general, by removing imposition on any type of belief. Or, as the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas has pointed out, there must be freedom of all discourse, including for religious fundamentalists to express themselves.

Second, the guiding principles of “punishment” in the Quran, if read comprehensively, are restoration, mitigation, and forgiveness (Quran, 2:178). In this reading of sharia, capital punishment must be abolished and all forms of cruel, degrading, or inhuman punishment must be replaced with restorative and dignity-based ones.

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