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Democracy and Islam: A Brief Eamination

Updated on March 29, 2015

Democracy and Islam in Saudi Arabia

Democracy and Islam in Saudi Arabia: A brief examination

Saudi Arabia, a highly undemocratic country, offers an excellent glimpse into the prospects for democracy in Islamic countries in the Middle East. Mecca, on the western edge of the Arabian Peninsula is the birthplace of Islam. In 1932 the entire peninsula was organized as Saudi Arabia with Riyadh as its capital. Saudi Arabia is now the custodian of two of Islam’s most sacred and holy sights, the magnificent mosques of Masjid al-Haram and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, in the cities of Mecca and Medina respectively. Masjid al-Haran in Mecca houses the Ka’aba, which dates back to Abrahamic times, to which all Muslims are to face and pray five times each day, a practice known as "facing the qiblah”. Mecca is also the destination of the Hajj, the once-in–a-lifetime pilgrimage for all Muslims.

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, ruled by the family of Saud. Social, legal and religious life is governed by Sharia law, a legal system based on the Quran that oversees virtually every aspect of social and religious life. That system, from the outside at least, appears to be completely inflexible, rigid and (to many Westerners) backward, resistant to any change. And, while it is in many respects fairly rigid, it is not immune to revision and change. As a result, Saudi rulers face the daunting challenge of maintaining its role as the custodian of traditional Islam while at the same time promoting modernization and social change.

Saudi Arabia and Democracy

Some have questioned whether or not the United States should push for more democratic processes in Saudi Arabia? Winston Churchill once quipped, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism, democracy was victorious, what Francis Fukuyama optimistically referred to as “the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy” leaving democracy as the ultimate form of government and society. But it is not just democracy as a concept but Western Democracy in particular. It is an American-style democracy based on Western values and ideals (particularly free markets, individual rights and secular society) that has been championed, exported and, in a number of cases, implanted, throughout the world. But, far from being the end of history (with regards to political development) democracy in many places, including the United States, has been suffering from a symptom that some refer to as a demoralizing cycle of elect and regret. The recent U.S. midterm elections in which Republicans scored huge victories displayed this pattern dramatically. This “out-with-the-old” action occurred in spite of strong economic indicators suggesting that the current administration’s policies were improving the country’s outlook.

A Failure in Democracy?

Even when democracy has prevailed, as it did in Egypt in 2012, the U.S. and other democracies have not necessarily abided by the will of the people. Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s history, served barely a year before he was overthrown in a military coup. None of the democracies of the world came to Morsi’s aid or defense. Why? Presumably because he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that has close ties with al Qaida and, like al Qaida, has been labeled as a terrorist group. As the Washington Post observed, “As military personnel carriers rolled down Cairo’s streets Wednesday afternoon, American officials remained strikingly circumspect, doing little to dispel what became a widespread assumption: Washington was acquiescing to a coup against Egypt’s first freely elected president”.

Promoting Democracy From Within

The promotion of democracy is fundamentally an attempt to institute political and social reform. However, in many countries, particularly in the Middle East, any reform based on Western values and ideals may be strongly resisted. Traditional societies, like Saudi Arabia’s, have strong cultural, social and religious institutions that are significantly different than those of the West. While a number of authoritarian regimes have been open to some democratic political reforms (China and Egypt, for example), if those reforms require an acceptance of liberal Western ideals, such efforts not only fail to garner government support, they often generate strong public opposition.

This raises some significant questions. Is Western liberal democracy the only form of democracy? Is it possible for authoritarian regimes to implement democratic reforms and still maintain autocratic control? Is it possible for societies to be at various levels of democratization, that is, can (and do) democracies evolve gradually, incrementally, over time? And, more to the point, are Islam and democracy even compatible?

This question has caused some, like author L. Ali Khan, to propose a more adaptable notion of democracy, what Khan refers to as universal democracy. Essentially universal democracy involves a recognition that there are different notions and levels of democracy that must be considered, especially for non-Western societies. If countries are allowed to “customize” their model of democracy, inroads can be made, even into the most conservative societies. Take universal suffrage for example. It took America nearly 150 years to finally guarantee women the right to vote. If democracy is perceived to demand the right for women to vote as a fundamental condition, and if such a move would tear at the fabric of a society, democracy must be rejected. If, on the other hand, reforms regarding individual rights (including women’s rights) were implemented through an evolving process of incremental expansion, democratic reform could be possible even in the more conservative societies.

Driving Change

Back to Saudi Arabia. It is widely known that in Saudi Arabia women have very limited rights, including one of the most fundamental Western rights, the right to drive. As a result of not being allowed to drive a car, many families must hire drivers to transport women. In families where, economically, it is not possible to hire a driver, male relatives must provide transportation or the women are unable travel. Enter Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman who finally was overcome with the frustrations and hassles of trying to get home from work. One day in 2011 as she was venting to a colleague he simply said, “There is no law banning you from driving.” He was right. It was forbidden by religious and social custom but it was not unlawful according to the Quran. So what did Manal do? She drove. She was arrested and severely punished but she brought the issue to light. She then organized a day, June 17, 2012, for other women to get behind the wheel and drive. On that day 300 Saudi women climbed into their cars and drove. Not one was arrested, paving the way for a fundamental shift in Saudi society. As a result of the efforts of Manal al-Sharif and other Saudi women (and to some extent men) a seismic shift is occurring. According to a report filed by journalist Sneha Shankar, “An advisory council to the Saudi king has recommended that the government allow women over the age of 30 to drive for part of the day, in a reversal of a long-standing refusal of authorities in the ultra-conservative kingdom to consider any modification to its strict laws around the rights of female citizens”. What Western powers could not do, determined Saudi women accomplished.

Other Saudi leaders are also advancing social change, but always within the structure of the Quran. The King has appointed 30 women to sit on the Shura Council, his advisory body. To some, including women as members of Shura Council contradicts custom and law. But, as Prince Alwaleed bin Talal points out, sometimes religious and social customs have, incorrectly, assumed the same level of authority as the Quran. Realigning social reform with the Quran has, as with women drivers, met with resistance. But the Prince is convinced that a broader, more accurate interpretation of the law can bring about necessary changes in Saudi society. In pursuing this approach the Prince hopes that society will become more modern, more democratic, while maintaining its traditional Islamic nature.

Evolution, not revolution

That is the motto of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family. And they are skillfully maneuvering through a potential social, religious and political mine field, balancing a seemingly incompatible set of goals. They are maintaining conservative Islam and manifesting modernity.

Even though Saudi Arabia has felt ripples from the Arab Spring they have been able, on the whole, to prevent the popular uprisings that overthrew authoritarian regimes in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. This has been accomplished primarily through the calculated sharing of wealth, or more precisely, through a system of wealth distribution, what Jaafar al-Shayeb calls a “rentier society”. Essentially, the state provides for its citizens “free education at home and opportunities to study abroad, health care, land grants, interest-free housing loans” among other incentives. In fact, in 2011 investment in human resource development amounted to 27% of the total budget.

While democratic change is often resisted, sometimes quite forcefully, Saudi Arabia, like China, is demonstrating that political reform that balances democratic values of free markets and individual rights can occur within an authoritarian system whether it is a monarchy or a one-party system. The United States, and Western democracies in general, need to develop a much broader notion of democracy, one that acknowledges and accommodates social, religious and political realities and then develop policies and strategies that help promote change from within and abandon the notion that Western-style democracy is the only style of democracy. Western liberal democracy is not, as Francis Fukuyama predicted, the end of political evolutionary history.


al-Dosari, Hala “Saudi women drivers take the wheel on June 17”, Al Jazeera, web,16 June 2011,

al-Shayeb, Jaafar “Saudi Royals Thrive on Religion, Tribal Allies and All That Oil” Al Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East, 28 September 2012. Web, 8 November, 2014

Fukuyama, Francis, “The End of History?”

Held, Culbert, Cummings, John, Middle East Patterns,

Saudi Solutions - documentary about women in Saudi Arabia,

Shankar, Sneha, “Saudi Women Driving: Advisory Council Secretly Recommends Allowing Female Motorists Limited Right To Drive”, International Business Times, 8 November, 2014, web, 8 Nov 2014

Washington Post, “Obama: U.S. ‘deeply concerned’ about Egyptian military’s ouster of president”, Ernesto Londoño, July 3, 2013

Winston Churchill

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal


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