Islam, Justice, and Democracy: Between Freedom and Order

By Sabri Ciftci, Kansas State University,

[Image credit: © Hassan Massoudy with courtesy of Temple University Press.]

As Turkey’s economic crisis deepened with rising inflation and devaluation of the Turkish Lira against the US Dollar in 2021, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted on a policy of lowering interest rates against all warnings. In a speech in his party’s parliamentary group, Erdoğan said, “What is it? We are lowering interest rates. Don’t expect anything else from me, as a Muslim, I’ll continue to do what is required by Nas” (Bloomberg News). Nas refers to Islamic teachings, understood as strict orders of the Koran and Prophet Muhammad. What is interesting is that Erdoğan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power claiming their allegiance to constitutional secularism. While AKP’s policies favored certain religious groups and Islam’s presence in the public sphere, the economic realm was an exception to this as Turkey remained a capitalistic economy loyal to neoliberal economic principles. Therefore, Erdogan’s use of Islam to justify economic policy is not merely a political strategy consolidating his support among his loyal, religious base. This move also shows the significance of Islam in the politics of a secular Muslim majority country.

The economy is not the only area where Islam continues to shape political discourse. In fact, we can easily observe the prevalence of Islamic discourses in the politics of Muslim-majority countries regardless of the type of regime or state-religion relations. In my recent book, Islam, Justice, and Democracy, I explore the historical trajectories of Islamic justice conceptions and their relationship with Muslim political preferences. I show how discourses about the central concept of Islam, justice (al-‘adl), and related political struggles, have shaped Muslim political preferences from past to present. The legacies of Islamic justice conceptions have engendered rival legitimacy claims about democracy and authoritarianism.

Muhammad was a revolutionary and a social justice warrior establishing the “ideal Muslim community” cherishing political and economic egalitarianism. Some later incarnations of Islamic governance models, however, favored benevolent dictators thanks to the widely held belief that a pious ruler would ensure the welfare of the Muslim community by upholding God’s justice on earth (i.e., forbearance). In this model, also known as the medieval compromise, preferences favoring political quietism and obedience came to prominence due to the alliance of rulers and religious scholars (ulema). Equally important was the politically sanctioned monopoly of legal tradition (i.e., sharia and fiqh) as a truth-claim controlling the social, religious, and political spheres. Perhaps it was inevitable that the first civil war (fitna) of Islam in the seventh century was fought over a disagreement about political succession reflecting these contrasting perspectives. It created a deep trauma on the psyche of the community of believers (umma) contrasting rebellion against political injustices with political quietism due to the fear of anarchy. One camp strived for political justice and viewed rebellion against tyranny a duty upon believers, because they were the vicegerents of God (khalifa) on earth pursuing justice. The other camp favored order to ensure public interest (maslaha) even if this meant obedience to an unjust ruler (see Figure 1 below). This second position was most succinctly expressed by the great medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyya: Sixty years with a tyrannical imam are better than one night without an imam.

Figure 1: Islamic justice discourses and Muslim political preferences

Courtesy of Temple University Press

The trajectory of political quietism and obedience was legitimized by religious scholars, and it became the dominant political discourse in Muslim politics. Today, there are several regimes employing such discourses of order to justify authoritarian rule. For example, when the Arab Spring protests broke out in 2011, Saudi Arabia and UAE used the services of religious scholars and the discourses of order to prevent dissent (see here for an essay on theology of obedience). Using religious references against dangers of disorder and conflict as threats to the welfare of Islamic society is not a recent strategy. It has a long history dating back to the first fitna and later to the decline of the Muslim empire during the Mongol invasion. Discourses of order were also used to counter the perceived “threat of communism” in the 1960s and 1970s across the Muslim world. At this time, Islamists framed communism as a dangerous ideology threatening the order and morals of Muslim society. A more recent example was seen during the Gezi protests in Turkey (2013). The Gezi protests were the most significant popular challenge to the rule of AKP. Erdoğan framed these protests as unruly demonstrations carried by “looters” who threatened the order of society, harmed religion, and created fitna (anarchy or discord). Nonetheless, a group of Islamists who opposed Erdoğan were also among the protestors.

Discourses of order have become dominant, yet this is not the only trajectory representing Muslim political experience. Since the first fitna in the seventh century, an alternative interpretation of Islamic justice gave way to democratic thinking. Those who opposed political injustices built a discourse of freedom around the notions of free will and responsibility, two concepts emanating from man’s special status as vicegerent of God. Throughout Islamic history, many urban and rural rebellions used discourses of freedom to mobilize the masses to end oppression. For example, several rural rebellions against the Ottoman central administration led by heterodox dervishes, the Urabi revolt in Egypt, and the Tobacco protests triggered by the concessions given to imperial powers by the Shah in nineteenth century Iran were examples of popular mobilization campaigns inspired by religious justice conceptions. Since the nineteenth century, such conceptions were combined with modern political ideas to inspire the constitutionalist movements in the Middle East. This second trajectory of Islamic justice, discourses of freedom, inspired pluralistic ideas and various democratic movements in the Muslim world. Notably, the language of Arab Spring protestors resembled the language of the nineteenth century constitutionalist movements calling for an end to political injustices. For example, perceptions of political injustices demonstrate significant distrust of the state during the Arab Spring (Figure 2 below).

Figure 2. Perceptions of political injustice in the Arab World.

Note: State of Democracy: percentage of survey participants responding state of democracy is “bad” or “very bad”; Political Trust: percentage of survey participants responding “trust government to a limited extent” or “absolutely do not trust”; Access to Services: percentage of survey participants responding “difficult” or “very difficult” to reach an official to file a complaint; Corruption: % responding “yes” there is corruption in the state institutions. Source: Arab Barometer, Waves 2&3. Courtesy of Temple University Press.

Islam, Justice, and Democracy explains the evolution of social and political justice trajectories and their effects on contemporary Muslim political preferences. Evidence from a variety of sources, including historical struggles from the early periods of Islam, nineteenth century constitutionalist movements, the Arab Spring, public opinion surveys, Islamist writings, and interviews with Islamist youth, demonstrates that Islam may engender democratic or authoritarian preferences according to different conceptions of Islamic justice and accompanying discourses of order and freedom. For most of Islamic history, discourses of freedom inspiring democratic ideas remained dormant, but they did not disappear. There were many instances of popular mobilization campaigns where people opposed tyranny and called for freedom and justice with Islamic justification. We need to understand why discourses of freedom did not become dominant when discourses of order prevailed for better understanding Muslims’ preferences about democracy.

Democratization is a complex process shaped by social, economic, and institutional factors. At the same time, culture is likely to play a role in this process. Examining the synergies between discourses of freedom and structural conditions inhibiting their democratic potential will provide valuable new insights about the democracy question in Islam. If we define culture as the total sum of individual values, orientations, preferences, and attitudes, it should be clear that Islamic justice conceptions provide great potential for understanding democracy’s acceptability in the Muslim world.

Sabri Ciftci is professor of political science and Michael W. Suleiman Chair at Kansas State University. He is the author of Islam, Justice, and Democracy (2021, Temple University Press) and co-author of Beyond Piety and Politics (2022, Indiana University Press). Ciftci has also widely published in scholarly journals about Middle East politics, Islam and democracy, and Turkish politics. His Amazon page is at

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