Democracy in Religious Countries

Dabir Tehrani is an Honorary Professor at Heriot-Watt University,
Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, and a member of AHA, BHA, HSS, NSS, EHF, IHEU,
UNA-UK, UNAS, and EPI. This is the transcript of a talk given by him at the Friends Meeting House
during the recent Edinburgh Festival.

There have recently been appreciable movements towards the abolition of dictatorships in North Africa, Middle East, and elsewhere, because there is a strong desire of all nations to live in free and democratic societies. It is, however, very unfortunate to see that some of the leaders of the Western States refer to some religiously oriented undemocratic states as ‘democratically elected’ presidents or governments.

There are articles in the Constitutions (if they have any constitution at all) of most religious states with provisions that do not honor, and sometimes directly contradict, the Universal Human Rights such as the UN’s ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ and the ‘International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’. Lovers of freedom and democracy are deeply concerned about the previously autocratic systems being replaced only by new forms of authoritarian theocratic or semi-theocratic regimes.

1.0 – Introduction:

It is true that one of the basic elements of democracy is the ballot box, i.e. that the majority of people should vote for their ruling regime. But democracy does not end with the ballot box. The majority rule is only one of the 16 basic elements of democracy (See 2.1 below for the elements).

One of the very basic elements of democracy is having a fairly elected constitutional assembly, which itself must honor the other basic elements of democracy for setting up rules, guidelines and criteria for electing president, parliament, and future laws, and in doing so should conform to the Universal Human Rights, such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). One of these basic human rights is that all members of the nation should be treated equally before the law, regardless of their race, gender, religion or no religion. If the Universal Human Rights are not respected in the Constitution, we should not call that constitution and its associated regime a democratic one.

In this talk I shall list a number of areas of the Sharia, Christian and Jewish laws that contradict the human rights provided in the UDHR and will conclude that regimes such as those dominated by religious laws, like those prevailing in Vatican, Poland, Israel, Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are far from being democratic. Unfortunately, I find that the state leaders such as Barack Obama and David Cameron were not fair to the concept of ‘democracy’, by calling Mr. Mohammad Morsi the democratically elected president of Egypt.

I believe any regime that does not honor the universal human rights must not be called a democratic regime.

1.1 Egypt Regime Under Mohammad Morsi’s Presidency

Article 68 of the Egypt’s recent constitution(1) says: The State is committed to taking all measures to establish equality between women and men in political, cultural, economic and social life and all other fields without prejudice to the provisions of Islamic Sharia. [highlight by the author]

Listed below are some areas of contradictions of the Islamic Sharia Law with those rights provided in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR):

Women’s Rights in Sharia:

• A woman inherits (from a deceased parent) half as much as that of her brother’s!
• A woman cannot be a judge!
• In case of witnesses for financial transactions, Islam requires ‘two men’ or ‘one man and two women’ to witness.
• A man can marry up to four permanent wives and as many temporary wives as he likes (with some variations among different sects).
• A man can easily divorce any of his wives. A woman has to meet some restricted criteria.
• A man can travel as and when he wishes, without permission of his wife (or wives), but a woman must obtain prior approval of her husband and in the absence of husband of another man in the family.
• A woman has no right to punish her disobedient husband, but Islam permits a man to punish (even beat) his disobedient wife.
1.2 Punishment of Crimes:

Islamic law of qisas, or retribution, says that the victim shall do to the criminal what the criminal has done to him (eye for eye) unless the criminal pays certain amount of money. This type of punishment is currently being practiced in Saudi Arabia (5).

Three of the basic, and necessary, but utterly insufficient, elements of democracy, as understood by Egyptians and, by many people in developing world, are:

i. Self-determination: every nation should have the right to elect their own representatives to a constituent assembly to write a constitution that sets out the framework for their future legislations.

ii. Powers of decision making should be based on the views of the majority (2).

iii. Constitutions are prepared, or modified, by majority vote of the elected constituent assemblies.

In Egypt and Iran, for example, the vast majority of citizens are Muslims. In Israel, a vast majority are Jewish, in Northern Ireland a large majority are protestant. They think if they elect a group of devout Muslims, or Jewish, or Protestants as their representatives for the Constitutional Assembly, their regime is democratic and if their regime, directly or indirectly, imposes the religious laws of majority on all citizens, it should be honored as their democratic right.

1.3 – Democracy:

Democratic method of government was initiated in Greece, about 508 BCE, and has greatly evolved to its present forms mostly in today’s developed countries. People in the developing states may ask: Why should they follow the standards of ‘democracies’ of the developed states? Democracies in developed states do not even have the same consistent standards among themselves! Some, like the UK, have hereditary monarchy, some have their own particular parliamentary system with an unelected House of Lords, some like the US have a powerful President, a House of Reps, and a Senate, with 50 states each having different local legislative and executive powers. Some support the international laws and norms of justice, e.g., International Court of Justice (ICJ), or the International Criminal Court (ICC), some, like the USA, do not completely adhere by the rulings of the ICJ(3) or ICC(4). Some, like the US, very strongly support their friendly dictators (such as those ruling in Saudi Arabia and even supported Mubarak, the last dictator of Egypt), just to protect their own national financial and political interests, and some other so-called ‘democratic’ states support dictatorships, as and when they see fit. Some abide by the UN international norms, some don’t. I personally witnessed the dictatorship of Shah in Iran, who was firmly supported by the USA, to maintain the US national interest (mainly oil). I also witnessed the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the subsequent election in which overwhelming majority voted for a theocratic government, with Ayatollah Khomeini in absolute power. Some Iranians consider their regime a democratic Islamic Republic and ask why should the Western Nations tell them what sort of democracy they should or should not have? They say if the majority of their people believe in Shi’ite sect of Islam and accept the inequalities such as those listed above for women, why should the other nations complain?

2.0 – Proposed Actions:

I believe that aiming for a fairer and a more just and peaceful world is an important duty of all of us, no matter where we live. We should all try hard to educate ourselves to adhere by at least the universally accepted morality and norms of law and order, and try hard to urge all nations (powerful or not) to operate under the rule of international law. The standards set in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and ‘International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’ as issued by the United Nations, and accepted by all the signatories, should be adhered to by any state that aims to be democratic. One of the basic initial objectives of everyone should be to ensure that all nations, large or small, powerful or weak, will honor them. The rule of law should prevail throughout the world. We should urge all the governments, and in particular the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, to fully recognize and abide by the rulings of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court and to avoid supporting dictatorships, and avoid supporting anyone who breaks the international laws, wherever they are. We believe the above-mentioned set of three basic elements of democracy is utterly inadequate for a regime to call itself democratic (2).

Recognizing the fact that whatever principles people agree upon could still change with time[a], I suggest that the following set of basic elements should be used as the currently minimum required for democracy. These are not based on any individual form of existing democracies, but we believe that even all the present ‘democracies’ should strive to fully adopt them:

2.1 – Suggested 16 Basic Elements of Democracy:

1. Self-determination: every nation should have the right to elect their representatives to a constituent assembly whose purpose is to write a constitution safeguarding human rights as enshrined in international law [b].

2. Powers of decision making should be based on the views of the majority, subject to protection of the universal human rights, in keeping with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and their possible future editions, which should be approved only by super-majority of the member states of the United Nations.

3. Constitutions drafted by elected constituent assemblies, should conform to the UDHR and ICCPR. [c]

4. Constitutional amendments are carried out only by a freely elected assembly and only with a super-majority (i.e., much higher than 50%, say 66% or 75%). There should be no derogation permitted of the universal rights as set out in the UDHR and ICCPR.

5. Free and fair periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedures[d].

6. Elections to be monitored by an impartial body [e].

7.Absence of influence in elections by foreign governments, foreign media, multinational corporations, and the illegal financing of candidates and election campaigns.

8. Secularism: meaning separation of religion from the State (including all its agencies) and thorough impartiality and non-discrimination by the State towards all under its jurisdiction, regardless of their religion, no religion, or belief.

9. Politically and religiously neutral and impartial public services [f].

10. Freedom of Conscience and Freedom of Expression, which includes freedom of media.

11. Separation of powers between: the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial branches [d].

12. Impartial and apolitical police and armed forces. These forces should not provide any privilege to any political party or religious group and should all operate under the rule of law.

13. Equality of all before the law, except to the extent those objective differences justify differentiation [g].

14. Freedom of assembly and association for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Trades Unions. The right to independent, self–organization of the citizens should be granted in the Constitution [h].

15. There should be Constitutional safeguards to ensure that government budget deficits are maintained within specified sustainable limits[i].

16. There should be mechanisms to enable people to actively participate in the democratic process [j].

3.0 – Conclusion

People of the world are delighted to see that there are strong and serious movements towards achievement of democratic regimes. However, democracy is not merely having self-determination, powers of decision making and having a constitution based on the views of the majority. By today’s standards there are at least 16 basic elements that should be honored before a regime can be classified as a fully democratic regime. All states should adhere by ‘The Rule of Law’, at both local and international levels.


[a]-We should recognize that there are continuing processes of evolution in which new democratic rules will be developed beyond those currently accepted. Indeed, what we presently consider as the basic elements of democracy may change in the future as new forms gain acceptance.

[b]- In this context, all should support Article 1.1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which says: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status, and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development”

[c]- Specifically, constitutions should conform to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and ICCPR. These rights include: the protection of everyone’s life by law; the prohibition of torture, slavery and forced labor; the protection of everyone’s liberty and security; the right to a fair trial and no punishment without law; the right to education, the right to respect for private and family life; freedom of thought, conscience, religion and expression and equal rights for all adult citizens to vote, regardless of race, religion or belief, gender, sexual orientation, education, wealth, age, health or disability. Voting limits of age, health and disability, should be set and defined by the Constitution.

[d]-An independent judiciary (e.g., a Supreme Court with independent judges, specified by the Constitution) should have the power to declare elections or legislative acts unconstitutional and be able to nullify breaches of procedure by any other powers.

[e]-To avoid any illegitimate influence on elections and to ensure absence of corruption, elections should be monitored by persons, who are representatives of the people as a whole or, at the request of the government, by persons appointed by the United Nations.

[f]- All government employees, should enjoy full civil and political rights, but should be politically and religiously neutral in the exercise of their public duties and impartial in implementing the policy programs of the elected government.

[g]-Some differentiation is legitimate. Examples include: children, elderly people, and the disabled; the taxation of income and wealth; the absence of voting rights for children; different treatment for children convicted of crimes; and enjoyment of certain privileges by the elderly and pregnant women.

[h]- All should fully support Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), regarding freedom of assembly and association, and the Conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO) concerning the right to organize.

[i]-Government deficit limits, such as a proportion of GDP, to be defined in the Constitution to prevent any government from buying electoral popularity by acquiring excessive loans, incurring excessive expenditure, and in effect mortgaging the nation’s future. Under exceptional circumstances the government could refer to the relevant Legislative bodies to obtain permission (by their super-majority) to exceed previously approved deficit limit.

[j]-A democratic polity should have provisions for facilitating people’s effective participation through pre-legislative consultations with Civil Society, independent media and independent opinion polls, whilst decision-making powers remain with the legislature.



(2) On 12 November 1933 German Nazis, ‘democratically’, received, 92% of vote and Hitler came to power! In 1979 the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran was approved by 97% vote of Iranians, immediately after the revolution. These were obviously, not democratic processes, by the above-mentioned criteria (16 elements).

(3) The United States had accepted the ICJ’s compulsory jurisdiction upon its creation in 1946, but in Nicaragua v. United States case, it withdrew its acceptance following the Court’s judgment in 1984 that called on the U.S. to “cease and to refrain” from the “unlawful use of force” against the government of Nicaragua. The Court ruled (with only the American judge dissenting and 14 other judges approving) that the United States was “in breach of its obligation under the Treaty of Friendship with Nicaragua not to use force against Nicaragua” and ordered the United States to pay war reparations… After the court ruled that the U.S.’s covert war against Nicaragua was in violation of international law the United States withdrew from compulsory jurisdiction in 1986. The United States accepts the court’s jurisdiction only on a case-by-case basis!

Such approaches of defying the international law should be deplored by all nations and ways and means of enforcing the international law should be devised at, and implemented by, the United Nations.

(4) 121 State members of the UN have signed the International Criminal Court treaty, but not the USA! US opponents of the ICC argue that the US Constitution in its present form does not allow a cession of judicial authority to any body other than the Supreme Court. In the view of proponents of the ICC there is no inconsistency with the US Constitution, arguing that the role of the US Supreme Court as final arbiter of US law would not be disturbed. (We should remember that the US Constitution has had 27 amendments so far, and there is no reason why they should not amend it to protect ‘the rule of international law’. All the UN member states should be urged to recognize ICC and adhere by its rulings.).

(5) BBC News: 4 April 2013: The UK has urged Saudi Arabia not to carry out a reported sentencing of paralysis for a Saudi man as punishment for paralyzing another man. … Such punishment was “prohibited under international law”… A 24-year-old man could be paralyzed from the waist down if he could not pay his victim £250,000 in compensation. Ali al-Khawahir was 14 when he stabbed a friend in the back in the Eastern Province town of al-Ahsa. He has been in prison for 10 years. The judge in the case has reportedly interpreted the Islamic law of qisas, or retribution, that Saudi Arabia follows as meaning that he in turn could face being paralyzed.


Take action now

Sign our petition

Sign our petition to end unelected religious representatives on education committees.

Sign today.

Learn more

Read Our Blog

Humanitie Blog

Humanitie is the platform for thought, comment and analysis for HSS.

Bringing you thought-provoking articles on Humanist issues.

Learn more

New Pod- cast

Available now!

Have you heard we’ve started podcasting?!

You can listen to the first episode, plus two special editions now.

Learn more