Muslims, Democracy and Liberty

TEHRAN, IRAN - AUGUST 14: Iranian women in chadors walk at the Holy Shrine mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini on August 14, 2012
TEHRAN, IRAN - AUGUST 14: Iranian women in chadors walk at the Holy Shrine mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini on August 14, 2012 in Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Franco Czerny/Getty Images)

Most Muslims (including most Muslim women) in most non-Western countries believe that wives have an obligation to obey their husbands; and yet most Muslims in most of those countries believe that the wearing of a veil should be the woman's decision. Most Muslims in most non-Western nations favor Sharia -- traditional Islamic law -- as the law of the land; and yet most Muslims in most of those nations are opposed to unduly harsh punishments, such as cutting off the hands of thieves or executing Muslims who convert to, say, Christianity. Finally, most Muslims in most non-Western countries favor religious liberty and tolerance.

A fascinating glimpse of Muslim views on faith and politics can be gleaned from the Pew Research Center's recently published survey of Muslims in non-Western countries. Pew researchers conducted a remarkable 38,000 face-to-face interviews in more than eighty languages in Azerbaijan all around the alphabet and back again to Afghanistan.

The survey finally lays to rest the myth of the Arab spring--it's not restricted to Arabs and it's not a new season for democracy. The democratic impulse is truly alive and well among Muslims around the world. The majority of Muslims in 31 of 37 countries prefer democracy over a strong ruler. In some countries -- Ghana, Tajkistan, Lebanon, Kosovo, to name just a few -- the number of people on the side of democracy is overwhelming: 87 percent of Ghanaians and 81 percent of Lebanese Muslims, for example, favor democracy.

And while Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world, and Christians are most in peril in Muslim-majority countries, Muslims themselves are strongly in favor of religious freedom. In nearly every country, Muslims were overwhelmingly supportive of the claim that it is good that others are free to practice their faith. This suggests that religious persecution in Muslim-majority nations is in the hands of a small but powerful (or at least unpunished) minority. But the view of the majority in most of these countries affords great hope for religious liberty around the world. In 33 of the countries surveyed over 75 percent of all Muslims are supportive of religious liberty and tolerance. It's high time to unleash the power of this majority.

Finally, many Muslims in many of these countries are concerned about religious extremism in general and Islamic extremism in particular. And in the 22 countries where the question -- "Is suicide bombing justified?" -- was asked, only six countries reported more than 15 percent advocating suicide bombing in certain situations. Since the moral objection to suicide bombing is that it kills innocent civilians, it is worth noting that while most U.S. citizens condemn suicide bombing, U.S. military interventions have killed vastly more innocent civilians in the 21st century than all suicide bombers put together.

Perhaps of most concern to non-Muslims, in 26 of the 39 countries surveyed, the majority favored the institution of Sharia as the official law of the land. Concerns one may have about the institution of Sharia are tempered by the fact that the majority supporters of Sharia in most Muslim-majority countries say that Sharia should apply only to Muslims. Moreover, while most favor the application of Sharia to the adjudication of family and property matters, fewer favor Sharia's most severe punishments.

Women are disproportionately likely to be negatively affected by the institution of Sharia. Consider simply the issue of divorce. While a man can divorce his wife without her consent (it is sufficient in some countries for the husband simply to utter "I divorce you" three times), a woman must either persuade her husband to permit the divorce, or ask a judge to dissolve the marriage. In 9 of the 22 countries where Pew researchers asked if women had the right to divorce, the majority said, "No." Moreover, women are disproportionately likely to be financially and socially disadvantaged by divorce. If the woman initiates the divorce, she has to return her dowry; in addition, the cost of procuring a divorce is twice as much for a woman as it is for a man. If the wife has not been allowed to work during the marriage, has been tasked with child-rearing, and comes from a poor family, a divorce is likely to leave her financially destitute. Since the majority in 11 of 23 countries where the question was asked, said that daughters and sons should not have equal inheritance rights, negative financial consequences are compounded. Of course, the financial cost of divorce maybe the single greatest factor driving some Muslim women to endorse unconditional obedience to their husbands.

Such attitudes toward women are deeply disturbing, affecting half of the human population in the countries surveyed. We can only hope that the trends towards democracy and liberty that the Pew survey alerts us to will extend to women in the near future.

When all of the data on democracy and liberty are added to data collected about American Muslims, one thing rings loud and clear: Muslims around the world are in favor of peace, harmony, liberty, and tolerance. The stereotype of the Muslim terrorist must finally be laid to rest -- this is the view of a very small minority. Those in the West should stop judging Islam in the light of this very small minority.