Sample Argumentative Essay on Islam and Democracy


Democracy is a major function of religion. Religion, as an influential factor in determining democratic development, has been extensively reviewed to support the claim that it curtails democracy, but others seem to be less convinced. The cause of disagreement seems to be the alleged theological lack of separation between the state and religion in Islam, which tends to facilitate authoritarianism in most of the Muslim-majority nations. Bernard Lewis and Esposito and Voll have explored this issue in detail. They take a different approach to analyzing the aspects of Islam and its connection to democracy. While Bernard Lewis sees the lack of freedom in Islam as the major obstacle to democratization, Esposito and Voll argue that Islamic tradition contains a number of key concepts that support democracy. This paper will compare the two articles based on elements of democracy, namely personal freedom, political freedom, political equality, the rule of law, participation, and respect. A critical analysis of thesetwoarticles revealsthat the relationship between Islam and democracy is an obscure relationship. The nature of Islam is packaged in such a way that it resists democratic development or modernity, and different components of the articles will be examined to review, specifically those the arguments of which support the thesis: “The relationship between Islam and democracy is an obscure relationship, and its (Islamic) fundamental principles inhibit democracy.”[1] The coexistence of Islam and democracy is supposed to work great in theory, but it remains doubtful whether it is possible in the current practice.

The Democracy Deficit in Comparative Perspective

Lewis and Esposito and Voll use different paths of making their cases. While Esposito and Voll use an exploratory type of analysis to argue that Islam is indeed compatible with democracy, Lewis uses an induction method based on the Western principles of democracy to state that Islam is the main obstacle to achieving democracy in the majority of Islamic nations. Lewis assumes that outside forces are not to blame for the deterioration of Islamic nations while Esposito and Voll assume that Islam does facilitate the implementation of a framework combining democracy and religious government.

Lewis and Esposito and Voll perspectives of a democratic nation are similar. At least the element of freedom is mentioned several times with respect to the relationship between the state and the citizens. The idea of democracy, however, takes a different turn between these thinkers when they attempt to show the compatibility, or lack thereof, between Islam and democracy. Esposito and Voll argue that Islam should not be viewed as an inherently incompatible religion with democracy because political Islam is often a program for religious democracy. Lewis, on the other hand, sees the lack of freedom in Islam as the main barrier to democracy, at least when observed through the lens of the Western freedom. Based on the theory of Western freedom, Islam and democracy are inherently incompatible because for one jurisdiction to be termed as democratic, it has to preserve and protect the freedom of speech, expression, and equality rights. These freedoms were and are constrained in the Muslim world at one time or another.

The arguments on the compatibility of Islam and democracy are more theoretical rather than the practical ones. When Esposito and Voll argue that Islam should not be viewed as inherently incompatible with democracy, they are referring mostly to the theoretical part. They refer to the Qur’an which advocates for practices that can be traced back to the founding elements of democracy. For example, Esposito and Voll refer to the Arabic words caliph and caliphate to draw the background of Islamic democracy. The terms are used in reference to stewardship of human beings to their God and are extended to involve the responsibilities of citizens in the political sense. They state that “Muslims understand Khilafah as directly political…and Islamic religion requires followers to be effectively politicized.”[2] However, all this inspiration is in vain if Islam goes ahead in practice to deny “one-half of its people participation in the running of the country.”[3]

Lewis proves that the elements within Islam should work in favor of democracy that fails terribly to replicate their impact on practice. When authoritarian leaders such as Zia ul-Haqq in Pakistan attempted to enact programs that Islamized the political system in the 1980s, the outcome was not consistent with the democratic principles. Human rights of the non-Muslim minority and of those who opposed the regime were exploited and left in a deplorable condition. This proves Lewis’ observation that Islam is an obstacle to democracy.

Islam does not have a historical tradition of the practice of democracy. Esposito and Voll point to the local traditions of shura (consultation) where men are required to settle their disputes by observing mutual consideration. They appreciate the aspect of ijma (consensus) that directs that decisions have to gain the backing of some significant numbers in the society.But, as it has come shown, in practice, the interests and rights of the minority groups are almost never considered. The local traditions would have been expected to observe their rights rather than neglect them. Also, there has been a tendency for the Islamic world to support authoritarian rule. Esposito and Voll might mention the example of Turkey as a Muslim nation that has made huge steps towards democracy. However, the reaffirmation of the recent Islamic identity is threatening to tear the progress to make its status as a democratic country less foreseeable in the future. The ongoing disputes and sentiments in the Islamic world are making it hard for the nation to convince the world that it has made progress. It shows that the often-quoted connection between Islamic traditions and democracy is almost absent.

Esposito and Voll assume that because countries such as Turkey have appreciated the attractiveness of democracy, it is possible to conclude that there is a link between Islam and democracy. They also point to Iran where women leaders have been elected in the past to prove that Islam is not an obstacle to democracy. This is an assertion that the authors quote using the concept of shifting from “one man, one vote, one time” to the “one woman” practice in voting.[4] However, a closer look at the state of nations such as Turkey reveals a different picture. As Lewis notes, “by all standards,” the lack of freedom continues to be felt by the public.[5] Esposito and Voll err in assuming that because such nations engage in open elections they have attained democracy. They point to the election of Abd al-Rahman Wahid in Indonesia in 1999 as a reflection of democracy because he managed to rise against the former military regime. The authors claim that because the orderly replacement did not end up with religious warfare, it must have been a sign that there is “an increasing role for democracy with an Islamic tone.”[6] However, this is not the real picture of events happening in such countries. Turkey, which has been praised for adapting democratic institutions in the past decade, has had its president order the arrest of academics, journalists, and activists. The indicators of pluralism, the rule of law, respect for human rights, and freedom of expression have suffered the sharpest decline. As Lewis notes, the troubles of the Islamic world continue to manifest in the general lack of freedom of expression and tyranny. A total state control does contradict democracy, therefore Esposito and Voll’s assumption on a lack of religious warfare as a sign of democracy in Indonesia does not hold.

Islam hinders democracy. Lewis attaches this fate to the lack of freedom that Islam exercises. The author suggests that where Islam is present today, it is difficult to have democracy. Ahmad seems to support this claim by stating that “with respect to Islam, the reliance on an inflexible religious text and also quasi-legal ordinances, divine sovereignty, and the lack of separation between political and religious realm, all work against the development of democracy.”[7] Democracy has failed to be entrenched in most of the Muslim nations. This is because such nations are infertile grounds the development of democracy. Modernity, which is defined by institutions such as capitalism and liberal democracy, cannot, therefore, emerge due to the fundamentalist version of the religion. The failure of liberal democracies to thrive in Islamic nations is a phenomenon that continues to repeat itself. This failure comes from the inhospitable elements of the Islamic culture towards Western liberal practices. Therefore, it can be noted that Islam plays a huge role in Muslim countries that do not appreciate modernity nor accommodate democracy.

Separating the church and the state to give a chance to liberal democracy is difficult. As it has been observed in the Islamic world, Islamic values are cherished, and they form the core of political realm. For this reason, it becomes impossible to transition from a religious authoritarianism to a secularized type of Islamic democracy today. This is a point that contradicts Esposito and Voll’s explanation of the Islamic democracy through the concepts of caliph (khalifah) and caliphate (Khilafah). It remains a tall order to separate the church and state because Islam, probably more than any other monotheistic religion, is embedded in all aspects of social life.

The perceived separation between the state and the church has occurred in the past and led to disastrous results. For example, the separation happened during the ruthless regime of Saddam Hussein of Iraq and authoritarianism was largely in play. It would have been expected that an Islamized democracy would tone down authoritarianism, but this is not what happens in reality. An oppressive and ineffectual administration tends to develop the rule with a “velvet fist.” It seems that religiously, Islamic democracy, where the church is separate from the state, is not practical. This separation is foreign to the Islamic doctrine to the extent that even when a political party appears secular, it refrains from setting aside the foundation of Islam. Turkey is a great example that has not been able to attain Islamic democracy. Wedding the two is a tall order, and it has been proven through the rule of Erdogan. While the president was eager to promote economic advances and seemingly talking about liberty, he was turning to imprisoning members of the press to draw himself more power. He ended up controlling the nation through Islamic ethos and not through the previously-intended democratic principles.

Esposito and Voll agree that the relationship between Islam and democracy is uncertain. At least on this component, their argument is similar to Lewis’ point of view on democracy. There is an overarching realization that the concept of popular sovereignty that is exercised through democracy does not allow for the Islamic affirmation of God’s sovereignty. This is tantamount to idolatry, which shows the incompatibility of Islam and democracy. Most of the people who share these ideas are noted to keep away from the political environment. They limit themselves to taking part in influential debates and discussions in the hope that others will agree with their concept. Lewis talks about this same theme concerning the place of religion and the professional exponents in the political scene. There is an agreement between the authors that marrying the fundamental aspects of the religion with political sovereignty is unlikely to happen. Furthermore, political parties in democratic nations play a huge role in transcending religion, which does not go down well with Islam. Therefore, political sovereignty makes it difficult for secular democracy to take effect.

Lewis focuses on the relationship between Islam and civilization (modernization). Esposito and Voll miss this concept in their argument as they make the conclusion that Islam is compatible with democracy. Lewis claims that by all standards of modernization, Muslim civilization has fallen. To this effect, many in the Islamic nations point to a variety of external forces when their religion should be blamed for inhibiting modernity through democracy. The unique religious history associated with Islam inhibits modernity. Muslims continue to view the religion as their most prized ally in their efforts to come to terms with the changing circumstances of modernity across the world. In most instances, some parties have pointed out the 13th-century Mongol invasions have curtailed civilization by destroying Muslim power.[8] Western imperialism has also been blamed for eroding the Islamic culture that could have driven civilization. However, the blame always goes back to the wedge between Islam and democracy. Marrying the two to produce an Islamic democracy is always going to be challenging, but at least it facilitates freedom. This is the freedom of the mind from being constrained. Islam has not reconciled the religious principles with freedom. Therefore, it has been difficult to appreciate the rights of minorities, and especially women, which would have set the precedence of modernity. The rights that include education, empowerment, and access to economic opportunities are constantly facing the freedom barrier that underlies most of the Muslim world.

There is a strong claim made by Esposito and Voll that Muslims view democracy as their hope and channel to effective participation in national matters. They point to the Muslim states of Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as best examples of nations that have turned to competitive elections where women were considered for various posts. Lewis supports the same view when he claims that the unhappy subjects concerned about the oppressive and ineffectual governments are not the solution to the poverty and the tyranny they have to endure. However, it goes back to the theoretical and the application differences that will have to include a separation of the state and religion. Without the separation, the Middle Eastern nations can only hope for effective governance without achieving it since Islam and democracy will always act as barriers to progress if they are not separated.

Bernard Lewis and Esposito and Voll make some valid points concerning the relationship between Islam and democracy. Some of their arguments are compelling, although they make different conclusions. They state that separating Islam and state is possible but faces many obstacles as it has been observed in Turkey. Lewis’ primary point is that Islam curtails freedoms while Esposito and Voll argue their primary argument based on the realization that Islam is compatible with Islam. The conclusion that can be made from the two articles is that the separation of the state and religion will be the foundation of democratic progress. The two must be mutually exclusive for the public to be fairly represented and elements of democracy to be practiced.


The relationship between Islam and democracy is uncertain and disabling in the context of progress. Esposito and Voll’s argument seems to show that Islam and democracy are compatible theoretically but fail when put in practice. This is one of the arguments that I agree with because countries such as Turkey that were promising to make huge steps toward democracy have not quite been able to separate Islam and democracy in leadership. This has made it difficult for Turkey to exercise democracy in its entirety.For example, the freedom of expression is still curtailed especially on the part of media. On the other hand, Lewis points out the historical events that placed Middle Eastern nations in a precarious situation. He points out that Islam curtails freedom, and in the process acts a barrier towards attaining civilization. This is another argument I agree with because rights that include access to economic opportunities are constantly facing the freedom barrier that underlies most of the Muslim world. Women tend to be disadvantaged in this aspect of owning property and expressing their views in most Islamic nations.





Ahmad,Irfan.”Democracy and Islam.”In Toward New Democratic Imaginaries-Istanbul Seminars on Islam, Culture and Politics, edited by SeylaBenhabib and Volker Kaul, 125-136.Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2016.

Esposito, John L., and John O. Voll.”Islam and Democracy.”Humanities 22, no. 6(2001): 1-6.

Lewis, Bernard. “What Went Wrong?”The Atlantic289, no. 1 (2002).

[1]IrfanAhmad, “Democracy and Islam,” in Toward New Democratic Imaginaries-Istanbul Seminars on Islam, Culture and Politics, ed.SeylaBenhabib and Volker Kaul(Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2016), 125-136.

[2]John L. Esposito and John O. Voll, “Islam and Democracy,” Humanities 22, no. 6(2001): 4

[3]Bernard Lewis, “What Went Wrong?,” The Atlantic, 289. no. 1(2002).

[4]Esposito and Voll, Islam and Democracy, 4.

[5]Lewis, What Went Wrong?

[6]Esposito and Voll, Islam and Democracy, 5.

[7] Ahmad, Democracy and Islam,125-136.

[8] Bernard, What Went Wrong?