Most Muslims around the world would prefer living in a democracy that upholds religious freedom, according to surveys conducted after the start of the Arab Spring that also found many Muslims want their religious code to be the law of the land.
The view of Sharia, or Islamic law, as part of a democracy may seem contradictory to Westerners, but it is not inconsistent in areas of the world where politics and public life are drawn along religious instead of secular lines, researchers said.
"Democracy needs to be continually questioned in terms of its definition so that it is not just seen as a secular endeavor," said Farid Senzai, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding at Santa Clara University. "(Western governments) continue to support and promote democracy but insist that it be a secular project when the evidence suggests in (Muslim countries) it will never be a secular project."
Senzai was among several advisers to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life for a study that involved surveys of 39,000 Muslims in 39 countries on religion, politics and society. The report comes more than a year after the forum released a report about Islamic practice and belief based on the same surveys.
Support among Muslims for enshrining Sharia — a set of ethical principles that offer moral and legal guidance for nearly all aspects of life — as the law of the land varied widely around the world, according to the Pew study.
In countries where Muslims make up more than 90 percent of the population, support ranged from overwhelming, such as in Afghanistan (99 percent) and Iraq (91 percent), to weak, such as in Turkey (12 percent) and Azerbaijan (8 percent). Experts say the results undermine the idea that there is a monolithic code that constitutes Islamic law.
"That's why we see such huge variations of what constitutes Islamic law in Asia and in Russia versus the Middle East and North Africa," said Amaney Jamal, associate professor of politics at Princeton University. "Sharia has different meanings ... understandings based on the actual experience of countries with or without Islamic Sharia."
She said that because the survey took place after the beginning in late 2010 of the Arab Spring, in which uprisings in several Middle Eastern and African countries with high concentrations of Muslims overthrew existing regimes, the survey provides an honest view of opinions in some countries where Muslims feel more free to express themselves.
The idea of Sharia as a legal code strikes fear into many Westerners who hear about its severe penalties for crimes or apostasy. For example, Oklahoma lawmakers passed a bill in April that would prohibit Sharia or other foreign laws from being enforced in that state's courtrooms.
Senzai believes such actions can be attributed to concerted efforts since 9/11 to demonize Islam as antithetical to democracy. But, he said, survey results showing that Muslims' support for democracy (regional medians ranging from 72 percent to 45 percent) and religious freedom (medians ranging from 97 percent to 94 percent) indicate that Islamic law and Muslims themselves are more nuanced in their views of religious law in the public sphere than Westerners realize.
The Pew study found Muslims are most comfortable using Sharia to settle family or property disputes. In most countries surveyed, there was less support for severe punishments, such as cutting off the hands of thieves. In Pakistan, where 84 percent of Muslims support codifying Sharia, those same people say it should only apply to Muslims. That exclusiveness explains why 96 percent of Pakistani Muslims support religious freedom for others, yet 76 percent support executing apostates from Islam.
Senzai explained that Muslims desiring their religious beliefs to be incorporated into public law is no different from some Christians wanting their moral standards dealing with marriage incorporated into public law.
He said the study shows Muslims see no conflict in promoting democracy and religious freedom while also supporting Sharia, and that this is because religion is and always will be entrenched in the public and political life of many countries where the study was conducted.
"Laws reflect the values of the people," said Senzai.
Pew compared the worldwide survey to one it did in 2012 among U.S. Muslims, who are more at ease with living in contemporary society than Muslims living elsewhere. About six-in-ten Muslims living in the U.S. (63 percent) say there is no tension between being religiously devout and living in a modern society, compared with a median of 54 percent of Muslims worldwide.
On the question of violence committed in the name of Islam, the surveys found about eight-in-10 Muslims (81 percent) say that suicide bombing and similar acts targeting civilians are never justified. Across the globe, a median of roughly seven-in-10 Muslims (72 percent) agrees.
In other findings of the survey:
• At least half of Muslims in most countries surveyed say they are concerned about religious extremist groups in their country.
• Muslims around the world overwhelmingly view certain behaviors — including prostitution, homosexuality, suicide, abortion, euthanasia and consumption of alcohol — as immoral. But attitudes toward polygamy, divorce and birth control are more varied.
• In most countries where a question about so-called “honor” killings was asked, majorities of Muslims say such killings are never justified. Only in two countries — Afghanistan and Iraq — do majorities condone extra-judicial executions of women who allegedly have shamed their families by engaging in premarital sex or adultery.
• Majorities of Muslim women as well as men agree that a wife is always obliged to obey her husband. At the same time, majorities in many countries surveyed say a woman should be able to decide for herself whether to wear a veil.
• In half of the countries where the question was asked, majorities of Muslims want religious leaders to have at least “some influence” in political matters, and sizable minorities in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa think religious leaders should have a lot of political influence.
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