Islam and democracy discussed by panel of FAU professors

Panelists included Dr. Kelly Shannon, Dr. Eric Hanne, Dr. Robert Rabil and Dr. Mehmet Gurses.


Dr. Eric Hanne addresses the audience at the discussion. Contributing Photographer | Julian-Justin Djoum

Victor Lopez, Contributing Writer

Islam and democracy are typically not easy subjects to discuss, especially in today’s geopolitical climate.

Regardless, a panel of four FAU faculty members attempted to tackle just that on Tuesday night at the College of Nursing auditorium. The event was hosted by FAU’s Peace, Justice and Human Rights Initiative.

Panelists took turns speaking on subjects of their expertise. About 30 people came to see the seminar, most of them students. Some were students of panelist Dr. Mehmet Gurses.

“Well, our professor introduced [the event] to us in class and said it would be used as an extra credit opportunity,” said student Alec Cerauolo. “On a side note, it would be good to listen to all the people on the panel to get some different views on some different opinions.”

Dr. Mehmet Gurses, an associate professor of political science and moderator of the event said, “I know we definitely need more than an hour and a half to reach a conclusion on Islam and democracy, but we will do our best to give you an overview.”

Professors on the panel, Dr. Kelly Shannon, Dr. Eric Hanne, Dr. Robert Rabil and Dr. Mehmet Gurses approached the subject from an angle that provided professional opinion and personal reflection.

Islam and politics is a topic of current interest due to recent religiously-fueled conflict, terrorism and authoritarianism that have shaped the Middle East. As a result, the question of whether Islam and democracy can function together within a country is still debated.

Approaches to Islam and Democracy

The first speaker, Dr. Eric Hanne, an associate professor of history whose research focuses on the sociopolitical history of the Medieval Central-Islamic lands, took an approach that Islam and democracy are “actually quite compatible.”

Hanne explained that many people of the West would be “befuddled” by this claim.

“Western thought and Western attitudes towards Islam and democracy are, generally, negative. The idea is that Islam and democracy are inherently incompatible.”

According to Hanne, this is flawed in two ways:

  1. There is a monolithic view of Muslims that they all feel the same way about democracy.

  2. There is a monolithic view of how the rest of the world feels about democracy.

In other words, not all Muslims feel the same way about democracy and not all nations and people of the world practice democracy in the same way.

Hanne points to Gallup polls and data from the Pew Research Center to show that, in fact, beliefs about democracy in the Muslim world are quite complex. He explained there are four major points to the way Muslims feel about democracy:

  • Church and state do not have to be separated for there to be democracy.
  • Islam is akin to democracy.
  • Democracy is a good thing.
  • They disagree with how democracy has manifested itself in in the Western world.

Lastly, Hanne pivoted from the opinion of the Muslim masses to that of two Islamic scholars with work on the subject of Islam and democracy.

The first of these scholars was Abul A’la Maududi, who is closely associated with politics of Pakistan during the mid-20th century. He was the editor of the newspaper al-Jami’ah and founder of the Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami.

The second was Rached Ghannouchi, founder of the Islamic Tendency Movement of Tunisia rooted in non-violent Islam. His leadership in this movement resulted in his arrest on multiple occasions and eventually led to political exile.

Hanne’s point was that these individuals questioned what Islam should represent and both scholars called for a ‘theodemocracy,’ a religiously-based government with elements of democracy.

Dr. Mehmet Gurses presents his view on Islamic democracy. Julian-Justin Djoum | Contributing Photographer

Islam, Women’s Rights, and U.S. Foreign Policy

The second speaker, Dr. Kelly Shannon, an assistant professor of history, connected her fourth upcoming book U.S. Foreign Policy and Muslim Women’s’ Human Rights to the topic of the seminar.

Shannon reiterated Hanne’s point that there has been historical animosity towards Islam in the West, but she emphasized the West’s criticism of the treatment of women in the Muslim countries. Particularly, she noted the U.S. population’s stereotyping of Muslim women, influenced in great part by views shared from Europe, as “Harem girls, belly dancers, and silent veiled slaves.”

Furthermore, she said that there is 18th century evidence of U.S. criticism of the treatment of women in these countries, however, no effort had been made by Americans to help Muslim women claim their rights until after 1979.

“So what changes?” Shannon asked. “What makes Americans believe that women’s rights in Muslim countries are a legitimate target for U.S. action?”

Shannon pointed to several events spanning the latter half of the 20th century to answer this, including:

  • The resurgence of feminism in the United States in the late 1960s and into the 1970s.
  • The rise of the global grassroots human rights movement.
  • The Iranian Revolution of 1979.

The result of these combined events, Shannon explains, is the sustained attention to the issue of Muslim women’s rights from 1979 onward with increasing intensity as time went on.

Most importantly during this era was the emphasis on the issue of women’s rights initiated by the Clinton administration. During this administration, the Secretary of State, First Lady Hillary Clinton and President Bill Clinton were public advocates of the women’s rights movement unlike the previous administrations of George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

Shannon ends her talk with three main takeaways:

  1. You cannot have a true democracy if 50 percent of the female population is considered oppressed.

  2. Pluralism must be the essence of a society for a democracy to work.

  3. Women have been crucial participants in democracy movements.

The Turkish Model: Lessons Learned

The third speaker and moderator, Dr. Mehmet Gurses, took the stage with a more bleak outlook to explain the efforts of Turkey toward a secular society.

Gurses began by explaining one main difference between Islam and Christianity. Unlike Christianity, Islam did not have an institutionalized hierarchy, that is, it began as a governmental religion.

Gurses explained that Muhammad was not only the prophet of Islam, but also served as creator of the first Islamic state and commander-in-chief. Christianity, on the other hand, took about 200 years to be recognized as the official religion of a state. The lack of institutionalized hierarchy gives anyone the opportunity to interpret Islam and the teachings of the Quran.

“Every Muslim has an opportunity to draw his or her own conclusions,” Gurses explained. “The lack of an institutionalized hierarchy gives President Erdoğan of Turkey the same authority as the leader of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to speak on behalf of Islam.”

He argued that this is an advantage because any Muslim could have a voice, but also could be a disadvantage in that, while a moderate, liberal Muslim could voice his or her opinion, so could a radical Muslim.  

Gurses segued into the democratic failings of his home country, Turkey. He explained that Turkey was supposed to be a model for Islam and democratic integration. After spending the latter half of the 20th century experimenting with a democratic multi-party system, there was great hope for secular and democratic rule in Turkey.

“When a candidate came to power in 2002, they were extremely moderate, they were extremely pro-EU membership, they were extremely pro-diversity, they were for democracy, they were for women’s rights, they were for human rights, every single democratic concept you can think of,” Gurser said.

The party completely relinquished these values in 2013 and as Gurser describes it, “went back to the factory settings” where nearly 70 years of effort was reversed.

Gurses stated that if Turkey is any indication of the future, he does not see Islam and Democracy as compatible.

Observations from the Field: The Lebanese Experiment

The last panelist was Dr. Robert Rabil, a professor of political science, who spoke about his home country of Lebanon and its own experimentation with Islam and democracy.

Rabil mentioned that Islam and democracy are different all over the world and each situation must be approached differently.

“Is this what was happening in the Muslim world before when you had the caliph?” Rabil asked. “Does the caliph go and consult even with the shura? No.”

Rabil pointed out that Lebanon is unique and its democracy was under stress after struggling with their national identity. Although the country has gone through great political turmoil, Rabil contended that Lebanon has been somewhat successful in forming a form of democracy, one he calls “imperfect.”

Following Rabil’s discussion, the panelists took questions from the audience.

Victor Lopez is a contributing writer with the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected].