November 13, 2003
New York Times

A New Democracy, Enshrined in Faith

by Noah Feldman

Can a nation be founded on both Islam and democracy without compromising on human rights and equality?

. . . the Afghan constitution is pervasively Islamic. Its first three articles declare Afghanistan an Islamic Republic, make Islam the official religion, and announce that "no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam and the values of this constitution." The new Supreme Court, which is given the power to interpret the constitution, is to be composed of a mix of judges trained either in secular law or in Islamic jurisprudence.

The new flag features a prayer niche and pulpit, and is emblazoned with two Islamic credos: "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet" and "Allah Akbar" ("God is Great"). The government is charged with developing a unified school curriculum "based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, national culture, and in accordance with academic principles." The provision requiring the state to ensure the physical and psychological well-being of the family calls, in the same breath, for "elimination of traditions contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam."

And yet, the draft constitution is also thoroughly democratic, promising government "based on the people's will and democracy" and guaranteeing citizens fundamental rights. One essential provision mandates that the state shall abide by the United Nations Charter, international treaties, all international conventions that Afghanistan has signed and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Because Afghanistan acceded in March to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women - a treaty the United States Senate has never ratified - the draft constitution guarantees women far-ranging rights against discrimination. It also ensures that women will make up at least 16.5 percent of the membership of the upper legislative house (only 14 of 100 United States senators are women.)

. . . The draft Afghan constitution is just one possible picture of how Islam and democracy can live side-by-side in the same political vision.


[Noah Feldman, author of "After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy," is a law professor at New York University. He was a senior adviser for constitutional law to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.]

"Democracy and Islam"

Naomi Klein, "Iraq is Not America's to Sell," Guardian, November 7, 2003

Robert Fisk, "How We Denied Democracy to the Middle East," Independent, November 8, 2003

David Rennie, "Iraq appoints US citizen as its American envoy," The Telegraph, November 24, 2003

[Islamic Sharia law is not specifically mentioned in the draft document--"Afghans agree on new constitution," BBC News, January 4, 2003]

[The constitution says the country will be ruled in accordance with international codes on human rights but no law can be contrary to the "provisions and principles of Islam".--Victoria Burnett, "Triumph for Karzai over Afghan constitution," Financial Times, January 4, 2003]

[Fuller defines an Islamist as: "Any Muslim who believes that Islam has something important to say about how Muslim governance and society should be structured and who tries to implement their thinking."

The prime agenda of mainstream Islamists, he argued, is to achieve greater social justice. Fuller stressed that America must recognise Islamist movements as the most dominant - and often the sole - alternative to authoritarian regimes today.--"Progress and peace 'future of Islam',", January 6, 2003]

Graham E. Fuller, "Islamist Politics in Iraq after Saddam Hussein," U.S. Institute of Peace, Special Report 108

[Bremer was asked what would happen if Iraqi leaders wrote into the interim charter that Islamic sharia law is the principal basis of legislation. "It can't be law until I sign it," he said.--Robert H. Reid, "U.S. won't let Islam be main source of Iraqi law," Detroit Free Press, February 17, 2004]

Arnaud de Borchgrave, "Chalabi's road to victory," United Press International, March 29, 2004

Charley Reese, "Islamic Democrats,", July 3, 2004

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