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Is Islam Compatible with Democracy and Human Rights?
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I'm currently reading the late Benazir Bhutto's Reconciliation, in which she argues that people in the West have a misunderstanding of Islam and that contrary to common misconceptions it is a peaceful religion that is not only fully compatible with democracy and equal treatment of women, the Koran actually supports and encourages such concepts.

I'm afraid I'm not buying it, though. A couple of months ago I finished Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel, in which she argues the complete opposite, that the Koran encourages the suppression of women's rights and that it demands utter submission to Allah, which is inherently an authoritarian ideology, incompatible with democratic principles.

Now, I'm not that familiar with the Koran, but my guess is that both women are somewhat right. Any sufficiently large and ancient holy book is going to contain a wide enough spectrum of interpretable passages as to allow for support of nearly any set of views. The Bible has at various times been used to both support and oppose slavery, polygamy, forced conversions, draconian criminal punishments, war, and on and on. I would suppose that the Koran could be invoked in a similar way.

But one correlation seems fairly clear: Religion does the least harm when it is taken less and less seriously. The major problem with Islam today is not the correctness of its central tenets, which are highly interpretable, but that too many people take it way too seriously. If the religion is permeating all aspects of society, and is intimately intertwined in government, that's a recipe for disaster.

I doubt the vast majority of Muslims care about Bhutto's interpretation of the Koran. In practice, they've got a legion of holy men telling them the exact opposite. Besides, her book doesn't feel like it's written for Muslims anyway. It feels squarely aimed at Westerners. I'm not even sure the book has been translated into Arabic and is available in her home country of Pakistan. The message of moderation is one that Muslims need to hear far worse than Westerners.

Oh, and I found one passage particularly disheartening and funny at the same time. Bhutto cites a passage from the Koran and comments on it:

Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, not follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.

Although this verse may appear superficially problematic, a close reading shows that it does not advocate violence against people of the Book, only those who reject God and his teachings outright.

I just had to shake my head and laugh at that one. No, no, she's saying...the Koran doesn't advocate violence against all non-Muslims, just against all non-monotheists. So basically, if you're a Hindu or a Buddhist or an atheist, it's perfectly cool for a Muslim to chop your head off. Nice.

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