Pro-democracy demonstrators in Tahrir Square
In recent months there has been much discussion about the form of government that will ultimately evolve in the countries that threw off their despotic leaders during the Arab Spring earlier this year – so far only Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. One term which is frequently mentioned is Islamic Democracy. Some western leaders are keen to point out that Islam is not necessarily incompatible with democracy, and frequently cite Turkey as a good example of a secular state in an Islamic country. In November US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even promised that the US would not oppose Islamic political parties which emerge in the new democracies. But then the Obama administration is keen to demonstrate that it is not inherently anti-Islamic, unlike its predecessor.
But is this Islamic democracy necessarily going to be a good thing? Forgetting its impact on western hegemony for the moment, and just considering what happens in the country concerned, let us examine the paragon, Turkey, and see what lessons it has for us. Turkey is at the moment in the process of drafting a new constitution, and some proposals are causing great concern among minority communities. There is the possibility that clauses guaranteeing citizenship to all Turkish-born people may be changed, allowing only Muslims to be citizens.
Although the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is self-consciously promoting human rights and equality in an attempt to join the EU, it is clear that many of the Muslim population have no sympathy for other religions and do not agree with the government policy of promoting equality. Life is far from easy for Turkey’s various minorities, including Greek, Armenian and Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians as well as Kurds, Jewish people and Alevis. As well as routine discrimination they suffer legal restrictions on internal governance, education, places of worship and property rights, although recent legislation has begun to affect the latter. And of course, there are periodic persecutions and lynchings which, though not necessarily state-sponsored, seem neither to be prevented or investigated by the police. Proselytising is not illegal, though people who change their religion may be subject to harassment.
So Turkey is not an example that would inspire confidence in our Christian brothers and sisters in North Africa. How might such Islamic democracy develop there? The question of Sharia law is the principal concern for Christians, since it would introduce a legal system which is clearly prejudicial to minorities. For example, in Iran and Pakistan, which both operate Sharia, it is illegal for a Christian to testify in court against a Muslim. So if only Christians are the witnesses of injustices perpetrated against them by Muslims, they cannot legally defend themselves.
The largest opposition group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, is in favour of introducing Sharia law. The Brotherhood, though not a political party, is a significant political force in most near- and middle-eastern countries, and inspires many of the largest Islamic parties. While in Egypt it has public pretensions to non-violence, in Gaza it is the inspiration behind Hamas. Life is, of course, unbearably hard for Christians under Hamas, and completely impossible for Jews.
Protesters outside St Mark's Cathedral in Cairo
Life is already becoming harder for Egypt’s nine million Christians. In October Christians protesting peacefully against laws which restrict the construction of churches were savagely attacked by the army and police, who then tried to blame the unarmed Christians for attacking them. 26 died and over 300 were injured. There are reports of stones being thrown at women in the street who are not wearing burqas. This is a glimpse of the future should the Muslim Brotherhood win an election and introduce Sharia law.
For the sake of our brothers and sisters in Islamic countries, let us pray that Islamic Democracy does not live up to its worst potential. We should remember that other secular democracies with majority Islamic populations include Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Indonesia, Syria and Azerbaijan. All of these countries are high on Open Doors’ persecution index, and are not good places for Christians to live.