Democracy Versus Theocracy

by Ibn Warraq (July 2008)

shall begin with a joke; and it is essential that you laugh, you will see why in a minute.

The time: 1950s (which is important). Place: The Holy Land. Two archaeologists are working on a site they believe is the true location of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Golgotha or Calvary just outside ancient Jerusalem. After months of careful digging they come across two skeletons six feet apart, and thinking perhaps these were the bones of the thieves crucified at the same time as Jesus, they shifted their attention to a spot where Jesus himself would have been crucified. Sure enough they find some bones, and the remains of a cross, and after weeks of further digging, and carbon-dating analysis conclude that these remains were of Jesus, and on the whole, the archaeological details were consistent with the account of the crucifixion as found in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). They looked at each other as they realized the implications of their findings, particularly for the Resurrection. This discovery is too important to release to the public, they thought, we must discuss it with some eminent theologians. They immediately thought of Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), the German theologian, and founder of “form-criticism”. Bultmann’s Gospel of John (1941) is now considered a classic in the field of research into the historical Jesus. Our archaeologists phoned him, and explained in breathless tones their discovery and its consequences. Bultmann listened patiently, and then there was a twenty second silence, and he said finally in a thick German accent, “You mean he really existed!”

Your laughter is the difference between a democracy that guarantees freedom of expression and a theocracy that stifles discussion of religion, and every other subject it considers taboo.

Let us stay with Bultmann a little longer. Bultmann was a fiercely independent scholar of the New Testament; he was convinced that the Gospel narratives of the life of Jesus were not be taken literally, they were not meant as history but rather as theology in story form, religious homilies in the accessible language of myth, a view summarized in his 1941 lecture, New Testament and Mythology: The Problem of Demythologizing the New Testament Message.

Bultmann and his rationalistic look at the fundamental texts of Christianity was

the culmination of centuries of Biblical Criticism whose beginnings are often dated to Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (A Theologico-Political Treatise) of 1670, but we find instances of it in 12th Century Christian writers such as William of Conches. Many believe that Biblical Criticism eventually led to the secularization of Western civilization and certainly without the exercise of freedom of expression and inquiry wherever it may lead there would not have been real progress in Biblical Studies, or tolerance for dissident views. As a Dominican priest once said to me, “The Catholic Church has received many slaps in the face, and it has done us a world of good.”

By contrast, the Islamic countries in recent months, nay recent weeks, have tried to, and succeeded in, stifling criticisms of Islam at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. Human Rights begin with freedom of thought, and expression; democracy depends on it. Sixty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, a noble document whose articles18 and 19 guarantee freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of opinion and expression, Islamic countries on 28 March, 2008 managed to kill it.

The 57 Islamic States with support from China, Russia and Cuba succeeded in forcing through an amendment to a resolution on Freedom of Expression. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression will now be required to report on the “abuse” of this freedom. Theo van Gogh, the Danish cartoonists, Geert Wilders and anyone criticising Islam, or the Sharia will now be deemed to have ‘abused’ the freedom of expression. In other words, instead of protecting freedom of expression, the amendment will now be limiting freedom of expression.

The nations that created the United Nations, and promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 were committed to the concepts of equality, individual freedom and the rule of law. In the last fifteen years, the UN has been taken over by the Islamic States, whose record on human rights is abysmal, and who have a very shaky notion of what constitutes democracy, and whose allegiance is to a seventh-century worldview defined exclusively in terms of man’s duties towards God or Allah. The Islamic States have been supported by those nations with a hatred of the United States of America, and those countries who see their future economic and political interests as being best served by their alliances with the Islamic States.

The Human Rights Council [HRC] replaced the old Commission on Human Rights in June 2006 following criticism that the latter was too selective and too politicised. However, the HRC is equally selective and politicised as it has failed to condemn human rights abuse in the Sudan, Byelorussia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China, for example, while constantly reprimanding Israel and Israel alone. The HRC is now dominated by countries that think that you should be killed for changing your religion, a clear violation of article 18 of the 1948 Declaration; quite clearly it is incapable of fulfilling its central role, that of promoting and protecting human rights. And yet, the western delegates instead of voting against the amendment abstained. The West blithely, complicitly, slides to its self-immolation.

As of June 16, 2008, discussion of religious questions is now banned at UN Human Rights Council. The UN Human Rights Council is not allowed to judge religions, according to president Doru Romulus Costea of Romania. Criticism of Sharia law or fatwas is now forbidden. This ruling follows attempts by the Egyptian and Pakistani delegates at the Council to silence criticism of human rights abuse in the Islamic world.

The representative of the Association for World Education, in a joint statement with the International Humanist and Ethical Union, had denounced the stoning to death of women accused of adultery and of girls being married at the age of nine years old in countries where Sharia law applies.

The speaker, David Littman, was interrupted by no fewer than 16 points of order and the proceedings of the Council were suspended for forty minutes when the Egyptian delegate said that “Islam will not be crucified in this Council” and attempted to force a vote on whether the speaker should be allowed to continue.

On giving his ruling after the break Council President Costea said that the Council “is not prepared to discuss religious questions and we don’t have to do so. Declarations must avoid judgments or evaluation about religion. … I promise that next time a speaker judges a religion or a religious law or document, I will interrupt him and pass on to the next speaker.”

Let us move on to Democracy. We, in the West, tend to use the term “democracy” synonymously with “liberal democracy”, but we should distinguish between a democracy, meaning the rule of the people, involving free and fair elections, and a liberal democracy, whose liberal constitution enshrines the principles of rule of law, equality before the law, the right of minorities, a separation of powers, freedom of expression, religion, assembly, and the right to property- in other words a Bill of Rights that limits the power of the central government and protects the rights of individual citizens, against arbitrary arrest, and protects the rights of due process. Democracy takes many forms: representative democracy, direct democracy, and may include a greater and lesser use of referenda.

Historically, democracy and constitutional liberalism have followed different paths, and, contrary to one’s expectations, liberalism has preceded democracy. Greece gave us democracy, Rome gave us the notions of limited government, and the rule of law, but it was the rise of the Christian Church that was the source of liberty in the West since it was first major institution in history that was independent of temporal authority and willing to challenge it.1 Jumping ahead to the nineteenth century, I should like to add here, as noted earlier, while Biblical Criticism led to the abandonment of a literal reading of the Bible, it was also Christian religious tolerance and religious pluralism that eventually led to tolerance and pluralism tout court. As scholar Chadwick put it, “once concede equality to a distinctive group, you could not confine it to that group. You could not confine it to Protestants; nor, later, to Christians; nor, at last, to believers in God. A free market in some opinions became a free market in all opinions… Christian conscience was the force which began to make Europe ‘secular’; that is, to allow many religions or no religion in a state, and repudiate any kind of pressure upon the man who rejected the accepted and inherited axioms of society….My conscience is my own”.2

The American diplomat, Richard Holbrooke said about the situation in Yugoslavia in 1990, “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists fascists, separatists. That is the dilemma”.3 Similarly, free elections in many Islamic countries could well usher in an Islamic theocracy; for instance in the elections in Algeria in 1992, the Islamists were all set to win the elections when the army stepped in. The Islamists are quite capable of using the democratic process to destroy “liberal democracy.” Their philosophy is summed up in the pithy saying: “One man. One vote. Once.” We also know that Hitler became chancellor of Germany via free elections. Thus, unless there are constitutional safeguards that prevent even a majority – the tyranny of the majority as J. S. Mill put it – from threatening the rights, and freedoms of all its citizens regardless of race, gender and religion, democracy will clearly be not enough. As the great Medieval scholar Alcuin wrote to Charlemagne in 798, Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit, which roughly translated reads as, And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.

The great British philosopher John Stuart Mill [1806-1873] wrote in On Liberty, ‘Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.’ 

The cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a mocking light raise the classic question of freedom of expression. Are we in the West going to cave in to pressure from societies with a medieval mindset, or are we going to defend our most cherished freedom, the right to speak freely? 

A democracy cannot survive for long without freedom of expression, the freedom to argue, to dissent, even to insult and offend. It is just this freedom which is sorely lacking in the Islamic world. Without it Islam will remain in its dogmatic, fanatical, mediaeval fortress; ossified, totalitarian and intolerant. Without this fundamental freedom, Islam will continue to stifle thought, human rights, individuality; originality and truth. A Liberal Democracy proceeds by tentative steps after deliberations, debate, and compromise, and is able to adapt to changing circumstances. This precisely how an Islamic theocracy does not proceed, and it is to such a theocracy we now turn.

There is a well-known café in Brooklyn called Vox Pop, and underneath the sign bearing that name there is a sub-title, which reads Books, Coffee, Democracy. A theocratic café would undoubtedly be called Vox Dei- the voice of God, and its subtitle, Book (in the singular), Holy Water, and Theocracy; Vox Populi where sovereignty belongs to the people, versus Vox Dei, where sovereignty belongs to God; quite clearly two contradictory worldviews. In an Islamic theocracy with its book the Koran, manmade laws, which in a secular democracy, have been arrived at by a historical process of debate and deliberations, and which reflect the changing aspects of society, are to be replaced by God’s laws as laid down in the Koran, and elaborated by theologians. Islamic law, Sharia, though in reality they reflect a Medieval, seventh or eight century world view are considered eternal and applicable in whatever conditions or times Muslims find themselves in. As interpreted by the four major schools of law of Sunni Islam, and the Shiites, the Sharia is unambiguously incompatible with a Liberal Democracy, and unequivocally violates several articles.


Sharia is the total collection of theoretical laws which apply in an ideal Muslim community which has surrendered to the will of God. It is based on divine authority which must be accepted without criticism. Islamic law is thus not a product of human intelligence, and in no way reflects a constantly changing or evolving social reality (as in European law). It is immutable, and the fiqh or the science of the Sharia constitutes the infallible and definitive interpretation of the Sacred Texts; infallible because the group of Doctors of Law have been granted the power to deduce from the Koran and the Traditions authoritative solutions; and definitive because after three centuries, all the solutions have been given. While European law is human and changing, the Sharia is divine and immutable. It depends on the inscrutable will of Allah, which cannot be grasped by human intelligence; it must be accepted without doubts and questions. The work of the learned doctors of the Sharia is but a simple application of the words of Allah or His Prophet, and it is only in certain narrowly defined limits, fixed by God Himself that one can use a kind of reasoning known as Qiyas, that is, reasoning by analogy. The decisions of the learned having the force of law rest on the infallibility of the community, an infallibility that God Himself conferred through Muhammed on his community.

While the Koran contains praiseworthy moral principles, even if not particularly original- the need for generosity, respect for parents, and so on, these are outweighed by unworthy principles: intolerance of pagans, the call to violence and murder, the lack of equality for women and non-Muslims, the acceptance of slavery, barbaric punishments, the contempt for human reason.

Is the Sharia still valid? We may well ask how a law whose elements were first laid down over a thousand years ago, and whose substance has not evolved with the times, can possibly be relevant in the 20th century. The Sharia only reflects the social and economic conditions of the time of the early Abbasids and has simply grown out of touch with all the later developments- social, economic and moral. It seems improbable but we have progressed morally-we no longer regard women as chattel, which we can dispose of how we will, we no longer believe that those who do not share our religious beliefs are not worthy of equal respect, we even accord children and animals rights. But as long as we continue to regard the Koran as eternally true, with an answer for all the problems of the modern world, we will have no progress. The principles enshrined in the Koran are inimical to moral progress.

Let us look at The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and compare it to Islamic law and doctrine.

Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Here are my comments on the above Articles:

Women are inferior under Islamic law; their testimony in a court of law is worth half that of a man; their movement is strictly restricted, they cannot marry a non-Muslim.

Non-Muslims living in Muslim countries have inferior status under Islamic law, they may not testify against a Muslim. In Saudi Arabia, following a tradition of Muhammed who said ‘Two religions cannot exist in the country of Arabia‘, non-Muslims are forbidden to practice their religion, build churches, possess Bibles, and so on.

Non-believers- atheists in Muslim countries do not have ‘the right to life’. They are to be killed. Muslim doctors of law generally divide sins into great sins and little sins. Of the seventeen great sins, unbelief is the greatest, more heinous than murder, theft, and adultery.

Slavery is recognised in the Koran. Muslims are allowed to cohabit with any of their female slaves (Sura, iv.3); they are allowed to take possession of married women if they are slaves (Sura, iv.28).


Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Punishments for the transgressors of the Holy Law include amputations, crucifixion,

stoning to death, floggings.

Article 6: Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

The whole notion of a person who can make choice, and can be held morally responsible is lacking in Islam; as is the entire notion of human rights.


Articles 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 deal with the rights of an accused person to a fair trial.

As Schacht has shown, under the Sharia, considerations of good faith, fairness, justice, truth, and so on play only a subordinate role. The idea of criminal guilt is lacking. Revenge for a killing is officially sanctioned, though a monetary recompense is also possible. The legal procedure, under Islam, can hardly be called impartial or fair, for in the matter of witnesses all sorts of injustices emerge. A non-Muslim may not testify against a Muslim. For example, a Muslim may rob a non-Muslim in his home with impunity if there are no witnesses except the non-Muslim himself. The evidence of Muslim women is admitted only very exceptionally and then only from twice the number required of men.


Article 16 deals with the rights of marriage of men and women.

Women under Islam do not have equal rights: they are not free to marry whom they wish, the rights of divorce are not equal.

Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or

in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Under Islam, one does not have the right to change one’s religion, if one is born into a Muslim family. Applying double standards, Muslims are quite happy to accept converts to their religion, but a Muslim may not convert to another religion, this would be apostasy which is punishable by death. Here is how the great commentator Baydawi (c.1291) sees the matter: “Whosoever turns back from his belief, openly or secretly, take him and kill him wheresoever you find him, like any other infidel. Separate yourself from him altogether. Do not accept intercession in his regard’.


Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinion without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The rights enshrined in articles 18 and 19 have been consistently violated in Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In all three countries, the rights of their Bahai, Ahmadi, Shia, and Christian minorities have been denied. All three countries justify their actions by reference to Sharia. Christians in these countries are frequently arrested on charges of blasphemy.

Article 23: Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Women are not free to choose their work under Islam, certain jobs are forbidden to them, even in so-called liberal Muslim countries. Orthodox Islam forbids women from working outside the home. Non-Muslims are not free to choose their work in Muslim countries, or rather certain posts are not permitted them.

Article 26 deals with the right of education.

Again, certain fields of learning are denied to women.

It is clear that Islamic militants are quite aware of the incompatibility of Islam and The 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. For these militants met in Paris in 1981 to draw up an Islamic Declaration of Human Rights which left out all freedoms that contradicted Islamic law. Even more worrying is the fact that under pressure from Muslim countries in November 1981, the United Nations Declaration on the elimination of religious discrimination was revised, and references to the right ‘to adopt'(Article 18, above) and, therefore to ‘change’ one’s religion were deleted, and only the right ‘to have’ a religion was retained.

One of the fundamental principles of Democracy is the separation of church and state (Amendment I of the American Bill of Rights: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … ‘). We have seen, that in Islam there is no such separation, instead, we have, what Thomas Paine calls, the adulterous connection of church and state.

The political principle embodied in the apothegm “reason not revelation” is the separation of church and state, or the separation of religious and secular authority. It is customary to begin arguments in favor of a separation of church and state with Jesus’s own words: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).

Roger Scruton takes the debate further back to the Greeks, arguing that the tension between religion and politics is present in the tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus. In Sophocles’ Antigone, as G. W. F. Hegel describes it, the public law of the state is set in conflict over against inner family love and [religious] duty to a brother; the woman, Antigone, has the family interest as her “pathos” [passion, affection, “loyalty”], Creon, the man, has the welfare of the community as his. Polynices, at war with his native city, had fallen before the gates of Thebes, and Creon, the ruler, in a publicly proclaimed law threatened with death anyone who gave this enemy of the city the honour of burial. But this command, which concerned only the public weal, Antigone could not accept; as sister, in the piety of her love for her brother, she fulfils the holy duty of burial. In doing so she appeals to the law of the gods; but the gods whom she worships are the underworld gods of Hades (Sophocles, Antigone, 451), the inner gods of feeling, love, and kinship, not the daylight gods of free self-conscious national and political life.

Creon is concerned for the safety of the polis, the city-state, and wishes to restore and maintain order. For him loyalty to the city takes precedence over any private loyalty to friend or family. It is man’s ingenuity and rationality that has conquered nature and established man-made laws in cities: And speech and thought, quick as the wind and the mood and mind for law that rules the city—all these he has taught himself.

As Scruton argues, a similar conflict informs Aeschylus’s Oresteia: “In the political order, we are led to understand, justice replaces vengeance, and negotiated solutions abolish absolute commands. The message of the Oresteiare sounds down the centuries of Western civilization: it is through politics, not religion, that peace is secured. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord; but justice, says the city, is mine.”

The Christian approach to the separation of religious and secular authority was developed by Saint Augustine in The City of God, where human history is seen as a struggle between two cities, a heavenly city of God and an earthly city of the world. The ecclesiastical order is not charged with temporal affairs, though it is considered prior to the civil order. The Pastoral Rule of Saint Gregory imposed the duty of civil obedience on the clergy. Pope Gelasius I, in a famous letter to Emperor Anastasius, written in 494 C.E., in his Fourth Tractate, and in other works, formulated the “doctrine of the two powers,” according to which “this world” is governed by two sovereignties, the sacred authority of the priests (auctoritas sacratapontificum) and the royal power of kings and emperors (regalispotestas). Milton Anastos describes Gelasius’s achievement:

“Each of these [Gelasius] defined as independent and supreme in its own sphere, but subordinate to the other in that of the other. The emperor, as the sovereign ordained by God, was entitled to obedience from the clergy in the temporal realm. But he had no priestly functions, and was required to bow in submission to the priests, and especially to the bishop of Rome, who was the highest among them, in all ecclesiastical matters. “Hearken to my admonitions in this life, I beg you,” Gelasius warned the Emperor, “rather than hear me make accusations against you, heaven forbid, at the divine judgment.” Ignoring the papal authorities who had not refused to ascribe priestly qualities to the emperors, Gelasius declared that it was Christ, the last ruler to have been both Priest and King, who separated the functions of the two powers, so that the Christian emperors would need assistance from the priests to attain eternal life, and the priests would depend upon the emperors for the conduct of temporal affairs. Many clerics had protested against imperial infringements upon the freedom of the Church in language much like that used by Gelasius. But he was the first to state formally as a juridical principle that the two powers had equal standing, were jointly responsible for the administration of human society, and imposed limitations upon each other.”

Many Christians developed what Austin Dacey calls the Argument from Futility to separate the church from the state and as a defense against persecution. For example, Marsilius of Padua argued in Defensor Pacis, Defender of the Peace (1324 C.E.) that, “it would be useless …to coerce anyone to observe [Christ’s commandments], since the person who observed them under coercion would be helped not at all toward eternal salvation”.4 Erasmus [died 1536 C.E.] voiced similar concerns, “That which is forced cannot be sincere, and that which is not voluntary cannot please Christ”5. While Leonard Busher, an English Baptist, wrote in 1612, “[A]s kings and bishops cannot command the wind so they cannot command faith….You may force men to church against their consciences, but they will believe as they did afore”.6

In the wake of the religious wars in Europe between 1540 and 1650, many seventeenth-century thinkers such as Baruch Spinoza, John Milton, John Locke, and dissident minority Protestants such as the Baptists and Anabaptists called for a separation of civil and ecclesiastical powers. A number of different arguments were evoked by these distinguished philosophers and writers to advocate the separation. Spinoza argued for the freedom of conscience in his Tractatus of 1670, and developed two arguments for a secular society, and against state enforcement of traditional religious orthodoxy. “[E]very man may think as he pleases, and say what he thinks. The most tyrannical government will be one where the individual is denied the freedom to express and to communicate to others what he thinks and a moderate government is one where this freedom is granted to every man…. It is not, I repeat, the purpose of the state to transform men from rational beings no beasts or puppets but rather to enable them to develop their mental and physical faculties in safety, to use their reason without restraint….Thus, the purpose of the state is, in reality, freedom”.7

Spinoza developed a theological argument, Argument from Theology for secularism. Essentially, Spinoza believes that the state powers should limit themselves to promoting a simple faith that consists solely “in loving one’s neighbor (for he who loves his neighbor in obedience to God’s command has fulfilled the Law, as Paul says in Romans chapter 13 verse 8”.8 Thus the state that restricts itself to this modest role will not participate in divisive theological controversies over esoteric dogmas like Unitarianism, transubstantiation, or infant baptism. These disputes should be resolved by each individual citizen according to the dictates of his own free conscience. The universal religion should contain “only those dogmas which obedience to God absolutely demands, and without which such obedience is absolutely impossible. As for the other dogmas, every man should embrace those that he, being the best judge of himself, feels will do the most to strengthen him in love of justice. Acceptance of this principle would, I suggest leave no occasion for controversy in the Church”.9

Austin Dacey summarizes Spinoza’s Argument from Theology: “In Spinoza’s vision, it is under the institutions of the tolerant secular state that the reign of the true religion can come to earth. A state that respects conscience grants the widest possible space to human understanding and so frees us for the most noble activity of which we are capable In contemplating our place in the workings of nature and its eternal, necessary laws, our minds meet the divine. This amor intellectualis Dei, the intellectual love of God (for Spinoza, something like the immutable laws of nature themselves), is the unsurpassed human good. In his political theology the secular state is a sacred state”.10

Spinoza also uses the Argument from Futility to show that coercion of belief is self-defeating; it is the very nature of belief that it answers only to evidence and not command, “It would be vain to command a subject to hate one to whom he is indebted for some service, to love one who has done him harm, to refrain from taking offense at insults, from wanting to be free of fear, or from numerous similar things that necessarily follow from the laws of human nature.”11

Spinoza goes on to argue, “Honesty and sincerity of heart is not imposed on man by legal command or by state’s authority It is an absolute fact that nobody can be constrained to a state of blessedness by force or law; to this end one needs godly and brotherly exhortation, a good upbringing, and most of all, a judgment that is independent and free.

“Therefore, as the sovereign right to free opinion belongs to every man even in matters of religion, and it is inconceivable that any man can surrender his right, there also belongs to every man the sovereign right and supreme authority to judge freely with regard to religion, and consequently to explain it and interpret it for himself”.12

Attempts at state coercion will only result in citizens turning against their own government. “Men in general are so constituted that their resentment is more aroused when beliefs which they think to be true are treated as criminal, and when that which motivates their pious conduct to God and man is accounted as wickedness. In consequence, they are emboldened to denounce the laws and go to all lengths to oppose the magistrate, considering it not a disgrace but honourable to stir up sedition and to resort to any outrageous action in this cause”.13

In his A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke develops versions of Spinoza’s Arguments from Theology and Futility, but adds a third one:

“First, because the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate [i.e. the state], anymore than to other men. It is not committed unto him, I say, by God; because it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another, as to compel any one to his religion. Nor can any such power be vested in the magistrate [state] by the consent of the people; because no man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation as blindly to leave it to the choice of any other, whether prince or subject, to prescribe to him what faith or worship he shall embrace. For no man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another. All the life and power of true religion consists in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing.’

“In the second place, the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force: but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force…. It may indeed be alleged that the magistrate may make use of arguments…But it is one thing to persuade, another to command; one thing to press with arguments, another with penalties… The magistrate’s power extends not to the establishing of any articles of faith, or forms of worship, by the force of his laws.’

‘… There being but one truth, one way to heaven; what hope is there that more men would be led into it, if they had no other rule to follow but the religion of the court, and were put under a necessity to quit the light of their own reason, to oppose the dictates of their own consciences, and blindly to resign up themselves to the will of their governors, and to the religion, which either ignorance, ambition, or superstition had chanced to establish in the countries where they were born? In the variety and contradiction of opinions in religion, wherein the princes of the world are as much divided as in their secular interests, the narrow way would be much straitened; one country alone would be in the right, and the rest of the world put under an obligation of following their princes in the ways that lead to destruction…’”

In other words, it is not the business of the state to interfere with the freedom of conscience and thought of its citizens, it cannot make people religious by force; at best, there may be outward observance, but at the cost of sincerity of belief. Locke’s third point above, a point also made by Kant, is that by behaving in the above manner one is cutting one self and an entire age or generation off from further enlightenment and progress. As Kant put it: “…To unite in a permanent religious institution which is not to be subject to doubt before the public-that is absolutely forbidden.” That is to abdicate reason, renounce enlightenment and trample on the rights of mankind. Locke further argues that we must get away from the notion that we are ‘born Muslims’ or ‘ born Christians’ and we cannot do anything about it. We should be free to enter or leave any particular creed otherwise there would be no progress, freedom or reform. Once the principle of the separation of church and state is admitted, there should follow a free discussion of religion without fear of torture. However, of course, this is precisely what theocratic governments or religious autocrats fear- free-thought. As Paine put it, ‘The adulterous connection of church and state, wherever it has taken place, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish [Muslim], has so effectually prohibited by pains and penalties every discussion upon established creeds, and upon first principles of religion, that until the system of government should be changed, those subjects could not be brought fairly and openly before the world; but that whenever this should be done, a revolution in the system of religion would follow. Human inventions and priest craft would be detected; and man would return to the pure, unmixed and unadulterated belief of one God, and no more.”


Freedom of conscience is a fundamental principle of Western-style democracies, and, as Roger Scruton expressed it, “[f]reedom of conscience requires secular government.” Thomas Paine once made the brilliantly simple observation that supposing, for the sake of argument, “that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. [It is] hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.” Thomas Nagel fleshes out the subtle philosophical arguments behind Paine’s simple formulation, arguing that reasons given for political decisions must meet a certain standard of “higher-order impartiality” or objectivity since they must appeal to all members of society, to all citizens who participate in the process of government. One should be prepared “to submit one’s reasons to the criticism of others, and to find that the exercise of a common critical rationality and consideration of evidence that can be shared will reveal that one is mistaken. This means that it must be possible to present to others the basis of your own beliefs, so that once you have done so, they have what you have, and can arrive at a judgment on the same basis.”

However, the standard of impartiality is not met when “part of the source of your conviction is personal faith or revelation—because to report your faith or revelation to someone else is not to give him what you have, as you do when you show him your evidence or give him your arguments.” If political reasons fall short of objectivity, political debate degenerates into a mere “clash between irreconcilable subjective convictions” rather than a disagreement in “the common, public domain.”

Freedom of conscience requires secular government, and secular law is made legitimate by the consent of those who must obey it. Citizens participate in government, in the making and enacting of the law. In an Islamic theocracy, sovereignty belongs to God. One has but to obey unquestioningly the dictates of those who interpret the Holy Book. In a democracy, sovereignty rests with the people; freedom is the cardinal principle. As Scruton summarizes, “Without freedom there cannot be government by consent; and it is the freedom to participate in the process of government, and to protest against, dissent from, and oppose the decisions that are made in my name, that confer on me the dignity of citizenship. Put very briefly, the difference between the West and the rest is that Western societies are governed by politics; the rest are ruled by power.”

Freedom of thought demands freedom of expression, and freedom of expression is important in a democracy to enable citizens to criticize the government, to offer alternatives, and to find ways to improve their political lot.




Since September 11, every journalist has been eager to point out that in Islam there is no separation between mosque and state. Indeed in Classical Arabic there are no pair of words corresponding to ‘lay’ and ‘ecclesiastical’, ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal’, ‘secular’ and ‘religious’. But what these same journalists fail to add is that the doctrinal lack of a separation of mosque and state did not mean that Islamic history was a chronicle of a series of relentless Muslim theocracies. On the contrary, as Carl Brown demonstrated recently, Muslim history has been marked by a de facto separation of state and religious community.14

Many of the modern leaders of culturally Islamic countries were secular in their outlook and approach to the problems of modern industrializing societies; leaders such Muhmmad Ali Jinnah of Pakistan, Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia. Let us look at two modern leaders, Muhammad Ali Jinnah of Pakistan, and Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia.

It is ironic that Pakistan which was created for the Muslims of India should have as its founder, Jinnah, who was an atheist. Educated in England, Jinnah had acquired decidedly un-Islamic tastes for alcohol, and pork. In the last speech that he ever gave, Jinnah clearly envisages a secular future for the newly created state. In his presidential address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, August 11, 1947, Jinnah said:

“We should begin to work in that spirit and in course of time all these angularities of the majority and minority communities, the Hindu community and the Muslim community, because even as regards Muslims you have Pathans, Punjabis, Shias, Sunnis and so on, and among the Hindus you have Brahmins, Vashnavas, Khatris, also Bengalis, Madrasis and so on, will vanish. Indeed if you ask me, this has been the biggest hindrance in the way of India to attain the freedom and independence and but for this we would have been free people long long ago. No power can hold another nation, and specially a nation of 400 million souls in subjection; nobody could have conquered you, and even if it had happened, nobody could have continued its hold on you for any length of time, but for this. Therefore, we must learn a lesson from this. You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State. As you know, history shows that in England, conditions, some time ago, were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other. Even now there are some States in existence where there are discriminations made and bars imposed against a particular class. Thank God, we are not starting in those days. We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State. The people of England in course of time had to face the realities of the situation and had to discharge the responsibilities and burdens placed upon them by the government of their country and they went through that fire step by step. Today, you might say with justice that Roman Catholics and Protestants do not exist; what exists now is that every man is a citizen, an equal citizen of Great Britain and they are all members of the Nation.

“Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”

Habib Bourguiba, for example, barely five months after Tunisian independence, pushed through a radical legal reform (August 1956) that outlawed polygamy and made judgment for divorce a prerogative of the court, withdrawing the husband’s exclusive right to divorce his wife. Although fourteen Tunisian religious scholars issued a fatwa denouncing the new law, it was received with enthusiasm by the modernists and met with practically no resistance. Bourguiba had taken on the Muslim official religious class and won. Modernization and secularization of education followed, including the downgrading of the venerable Zaytuna Mosque University, which ultimately became a faculté of religious studies in the University of Tunis.

Unfortunately, corruption, nepotism, incompetence, pandering to the mullahs, the obscurantist religious scholars, led to the rising influence of the Islamic fundamentalists, who, sensing that their time had come, demanded ever more introduction of Islam in public life.

Since the 1920s there have been many individual intellectuals from Islamic countries who have advocated secularism and state-religion separation as a way out of their intellectual, economic and moral morass. Among the earliest advocates of secularism were Christian writers like Ya’qub Sarruf, Faris Nimr, Nicola Haddad, and Salama Musa. Many of them were Christian immigrants from Syria, looking for asylum from Ottoman rule in British-occupied Egypt. The first Muslim religious scholar to plea for secularism was Shaykh Ali Abd al-Raziq (1888-1966) in his al-Islam wa ‘Usul al-Hukm, (1925) where he argued that “Islam was a religion and not a state, a message not a government, a spiritual edifice not a political institution,” a proposition that led to his defrocking by the Azharite Committee of Ulema.15

Many courageous individuals, and Human Rights organizations continue to fight for political rights in Islamic states, rights we take for granted in the West.

For example, recently, liberal Kuwaiti Sh’ite activist Dr. Ibtihal Abd Al-Aziz Al-Khatib, an academic and columnist declared that a secular state is the only way to protect religious rights in the Arab World. When asked by a television interviewer if she had a problem with religion, replied, “Of course not. My problem is with religious coercion, when you impose a particular school of religion on a certain country… Let’s take Kuwait as an example, since I am a Kuwaiti. In Kuwait, the predominant school of Islam is Sunni. In Iran, for example, it is the Sunnis whose rights are violated, and they suffer from pressure because they are a minority. If you separate religion from state and have full civil rights… secularism protects religions and does not oppose them. When you treat all religions on the same level, you guarantee everybody’s liberty to exercise their religious rights.”

The one redeeming feature of the entire grim farce at the UN recounted at the beginning of this talk was the passionate plea from twenty-one courageous NGOs from the Islamic States, along with nineteen other organisations such as the Cartoonists Rights Network of USA, to delegations to oppose the amendment. They wrote,

We, the Undersigned, are deeply concerned that the proposed amendment undermines the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, at a time when it most needs protection and strengthening.

The proposed amendment is particularly problematic for the following reasons:

1. It goes against the spirit of the mandate: The role of the Special Rapporteur is not to look at abusive expression, but to consider and monitor abusive limits on expression. There are several other United Nations bodies which have a specific role in relation to incitement to racial hatred, such as Committee on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which has devoted a lot of attention to it.

2. It lacks balance: The amendment only focuses on restrictions to freedom of expression, rather than on the idea of an appropriate balance between the positive protection for the right to freedom of expression and the need to limit incitement to racial and religious hatred. This lack of balance is reflected, for example, in the opening language, as well as in the reference only to Article 19(3), which is about restrictions on freedom of expression, rather than to Article 19 as a whole.

3. It is unnecessary: It is inherent to the mandate that the Special Rapporteur should consider and comment on appropriate limitations to the right to freedom of expression, as the current post-holder Ambeyi Limbago has done many times before (as well as his predecessor). Furthermore, by focusing specifically on one type of restriction, the proposed amendment puts undue emphasis on it.

4. It can be misinterpreted: The convoluted wording of the amendment may leave international human rights law generally and the special mandate specifically open to various misleading interpretations.’16

These NGOs from Islamic States are perfectly aware of the implications of living under Islamic Law, and were clearly frustrated that they were not heeded by those delegates who take the freedoms they enjoy for granted.

Perhaps I should give the last word to Sayyid Iyad Jamaleddine, a reform-minded Iraqi Shiite cleric, who has called for an absolute separation of mosque and state in Iraq:

“I am a Muslim. I am devoted to my religion. I want to get it back from the state and that is why I want a secular state….When young people come to religion, not because the state orders them to but because they feel it themselves in their hearts, it actually increases religious devotion….The Koran is a book to be interpreted [by] each age. Each epoch should not be tied to interpretations from 1000 years ago. We should be open to interpretations based on new and changing times”. 17


1 Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom, Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007, p.34

2 Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, 1975, pp.21-23

3 Quoted by Fareed Zakaria, op. cit., p. 17.

4 Marsilius, Defensor Pacis, trans. Alan Gewirth, New York: Columbia University Press, 1956, p.164.

5 Quoted by Roland Bainton in his edition of Sebastian Castellio, Concerning Heretics, New York: Columbia University Press, 1935, p.33

6 Edward Bean Underhill ed., Tracts on Liberty of Conscience and Persecution: 1614-1661, London: Adamant Media Corporation, 2005, p.17

7 Benedictus de Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, trans. Samuel Shirley, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1998, pp.231-232

8 Ibid. p. 158

9 Ibid. pp. 166-167

10 Austin Dacey, The Secular Conscience. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2008, p.64.

11 Spinoza, op. cit., p.191.

12 Ibid., p.106.

13 Ibid., pp.234-235.

14 L. Carl Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000

15 Fauzi M. Najjar “The Debate on Islam and Secularism in Egypt,in Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ) Spring, 1996.

16 Signatories:


Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Egypt

Adaleh Center for Human Rights Studies, Jordan

Al-Haq, Palestine

Andalus Institute for Tolerance_and Anti-Violence Studies, Egypt

Amman Centre for Human Rights, Jordan

Azerbaijan Journalists’ Trade Union, Azerbaijan

Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Bahrain

Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication (BNNRC), Bangladesh

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Canada

Cartoonists Rights Network, USA

Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, Syria

Darfur Bar Association, Sudan

Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Egypt

Freedom House, USA

Free Media Movement (FMM), Sri Lanka.

Greek Helsinki Monitor, Greece

Independent Journalism Center, Moldova

Index on Censorship, U.K

International Pen, U.K

International Publishers Association, Geneva

Iraqi Centre for Transparency and Anti-Corruption, Iraq

La Ligue Tunisienne pour la défense des Droits de l’Homme, Tunisia

Maharat Foundation, Lebanon

Massline Media Centre (MMC), Bangladesh

Media Institute of Southern Africa, Namibia

Media Rights Agenda, Nigeria

Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), Palestine

Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), Pakistan

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), France

Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights (SAF), Yemen

Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), Thailand

The Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), Indonesia

The Arabic Network for Human Rights (Egyptian)

The Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI), Pakistan

The Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement (EACPE), Egypt

The Egyptian Association for the Support of Democratic Development (EASD), Egypt

The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, Azerbaijan

The Network of African Academics for Media Policy and Regulation

The World Association of Newspapers, France

17 Thomas Friedman, Dinner with the Sayyids, New York Times, August 10, 2003, quoted in Austin Dacey, op. cit., pp. 74-75.


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