The Truth About Islam and Democracy (With Anwar Ibrahim)

Hundreds of millions of Muslims live in democracies of some shape or form, yet a narrative persists — particularly in the west — that Islam and democracy are incompatible.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

Subscribe to the Deconstructed podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcherRadio Public, and other platforms. New to podcasting? Click here.


Hundreds of millions of Muslims the world over live in democracies of some shape or form, from Indonesia to Malaysia to Pakistan to Lebanon to Tunisia to Turkey. Tens of millions of Muslims live in — and participate in — Western democratic societies. The country that is on course to have the biggest Muslim population in the world in the next couple of decades is India, which also happens to be the world’s biggest democracy. Yet a narrative persists, particularly in the West, that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Islam is often associated with dictatorship, totalitarianism, and a lack of freedom, and many analysts and pundits claim that Muslims are philosophically opposed to the idea of democracy. On this week’s show, Mehdi Hasan is joined by the man expected to become Malaysia’s next prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, and by Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, to discuss Islam, Muslims, and democracy.


Anwar Ibrahim: We represent Islam the sense that is has to tolerant, liberal, plural, and even accept some of the values of the west.

[Music interlude.]

Mehdi Hasan: I’m Mehdi Hasan. Welcome to Deconstructed.

It’s a never-ending debate. Why do so many Muslims live in undemocratic countries? How do you get more freedom in the Middle East? Does Islam have a problem with democracy? They’re age-old and often quite cliched questions. So, on today’s show, I want to do a bit of debunking and deconstructing, with the help of a very special and a very relevant guest.

AI: You have corrupt, oppressive, tyrannical states and they use the label Islam.

MH: That’s my guest today, the renowned Malaysian leader and former political prisoner Anwar Ibrahim, who is on course to become the country’s next democratically-elected prime minister. I’m also joined by Dalia Mogahed, the American Muslim writer, scholar and former White House adviser.

Dalia Mogahed: When you look at the facts, they simply don’t support the idea that there is a clash of civilizations or a clash of values.

MH: So, on today’s show, what’s the deal with Islam, Muslims and democracy?

Islam and democracy. Is there a clash? Is there a contradiction? I’ve been hearing this question posed by right and left alike my entire life. Since before 9/11 but especially since after 9/11, when we were told by George W Bush, Tony Blair, the neocons and others, that the real problem in the Muslim-majority world is the lack of democracy and freedom and political pluralism. And guess what’s to blame for that? Islam or at least political Islam, whatever that is.

Now, I have a lot of problems with this rather lazy and simplistic narrative, which completely and conveniently overlooks the role played by Western governments in propping up Muslim dictators like the President of Egypt or the King of Saudi Arabia, but here’s my biggest one: it’s factually inaccurate. Right now, in 2019, hundreds of millions of Muslims, possibly the majority of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims, live in democracies of some shape or form, live in countries where they have the right to vote, the right to choose and to change their own governments — from Indonesia to Malaysia to Pakistan to Lebanon to Tunisia to Turkey, not to mention the tens of millions of Muslims who live in Western countries, in Germany, France, the UK, Canada, the United States. The mayor of London, last time I checked, was a Muslim. And in fact, the country which is on course to have the biggest Muslim population in the world in the next couple of decades is India; which also happens to be the world’s biggest democracy.

So why is it that in the West, in particular, people still associate Islam with dictatorship and totalitarianism and a lack of freedom, why is it so many folks still think Muslims have some sort of inherent objection to, or problem with, the idea of democracy? That we’re not interested in, or grown up enough, or liberal enough, for democracy? What’s the actual reality? It’s a big question but it’s a question I’m asking on Deconstructed today and we’re lucky to have two fascinating and very clever guests who I hope are going to enlighten us all.

[Music interlude.]

More than twenty years ago, Anwar Ibrahim was on the cover of Time magazine, which called him “the star of a rising generation of Asian leaders.” But the then deputy prime minister of Malaysia and devout Muslim leader spent the next two decades in and out of prison on trumped-up charges.

News Anchor: Malaysian reformist leader, Anwar Ibrahim, has been released from prison. The release comes after his opposition alliance won the elections earlier this month.

AI [at press conference]: Now, there is a new dawn for Malaysia. I must thank the people of Malaysia […] regardless of race and religion who stood by the principles of democracy and freedom.

MH: Today, this long-standing advocate for democracy, dialogue and human rights who’s become a bit of a rock star in the Muslim-majority world, is a step away from becoming prime minister of, yes, democratic Malaysia, having come out of prison and helped pull off the unlikeliest of election victories last year. Anwar Ibrahim joins me now to talk Islam and democracy.

[Music interlude.]

MH: Anwar Ibrahim, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.

AI: Thank you.

MH: To many in the west, Anwar, many here in the U.S., there is a clash, a contradiction even, between Islam and democracy, but you come from a Muslim majority country of more than 30 million people that is a democracy, a flawed democracy. But which democracy isn’t? So what do you make of this constant claim both from right-wing Islamophobes, but also from well-meaning liberals who genuinely seem to think that Islam and democracy, Muslims and democracy don’t go together?

AI: I think, to quote Edward Said, it’s a clash of ignorance. There’s very little understanding what’s happening on the ground, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. It is as democratic as the United States, Turkey, of course, there are some criticisms, but there was elections which was seen or perceived by the West even as independent and no militia. As you know in the last year’s elections, and now proceeding towards a vibrant democracy. India, although Muslims are the minority but they support the Democratic process. You have Christian democracy in Europe. Why can’t we have Muslim democrats in the Muslim world? The issue is the fundamentals of the democratic process cannot be compromised — judicial independence, free media, equal rights for citizens — and that is being observed.

MH: It’s more than just having elections. A lot of countries have elections which turn out to be not so democratic.

AI: Exactly, with elections in an undemocratic society will always be flawed.

MH: So what’s your explanation then for the preponderance of dictatorships across the Muslim-majority world, especially across the Middle East and the Arab world?

AI: Well, there are also internal dynamics within Muslim societies that must be addressed, but you can ask the similar questions at the Washington elite, the London elite, who actually has been to a large extent complicit in this arrangement. They support the dictators and authoritarian regimes, but I would not use that as a complete argument because I think the Muslim societies themselves need reform and need a further commitment towards this and it is happening in the Muslim world, in Indonesia, Malaysia. It is not happening, unfortunately in the Arab world. The problem is the Arab nations and not a Muslim problem.

MH: And unfortunately, as you yourself have noted Arab nations are often conflated with all of the Islamic world, even though Arabs are a minority of the world’s Muslims. As you mentioned, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. You said in 2014, that “All eminent Muslim democrats must condemn not just groups like ISIS and Boko Haram but the dictatorships and autocratic regimes in the Muslim world that have persistently denied democratic rights to their citizens and whose human rights records could even put North Korea to shame.”

And when I read that quote Anwar, I’m kind of torn because on the one hand it’s so refreshing to hear a Muslim leader willing to criticize Muslim-majority countries when a lot of Muslims as you know, in our communities turn a blind eye to our own problems and we’re very happy to criticize Israel or America or the West. We don’t want to say things about Muslim countries. So I’m glad that you’re willing to say that. On the other hand, there is this view that it feeds into a dangerous narrative that says Muslims are all collectively responsible for bad things that happen in Muslim societies that we have to constantly play this condemnation game and some would say, you know, what do I have to do with Saudi Arabia? Why should I condemn them? Nothing to do with me. I’m not Saudi. I’m not to blame for Saudi Arabia. I’m not responsible.

AI: That is a problem. I endured these atrocities and imprisonment for two decades. I don’t expect much either from the West or the Muslim world, but the bare fact, the reality is capitals, Western capitals including the United States were more, at least, committed though oftentimes ambivalent, but at least, they have been seen to be more supportive. So they —

MH: Rhetorically.

AI: — Rhetorically, at least, which is not happening in the Muslim world. So, I think that my position is we must be morally coherent and consistent if you condemn atrocities in, for example, some other countries, Latin America, Africa, you must be prepared to do the same.

MH: You’ve noted that in the West, we often equate the Arab countries, as I said, with Islam. You’d like to talk about Indonesia, Malaysia, Muslim democracies, which are culturally politically distinct yet Malaysia does have an official religion. The constitution states that Islam is the religion of the federation but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the federation. Is it your view that you don’t need to be secular in order to be democratic that you can be an Islamic or Muslim democracy?

AI: The Constitution stipulates Islam [as] the religion of the federation. It’s not an Islamic state. It stipulates judicial independence, free media, which need not necessarily be tied to the religious precepts. That must be clear. Secondly, I think, the issue of secular or Islamic, it depends on how you you conceptualize. If it is laïcité in the extreme sense—

MH: The French, the French secular model.

AI: — Secular model. But I think to my mind, what is essential is every citizen must be given equal right.

MH: So Muslims don’t have preference over non-Muslims in a society or extra rights.

AI: Yes, because we have a certain number of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists in this country.

MH: You mentioned the very thorny, contentious idea of Islamic State, which of course ISIS have given a whole new meaning to but generally there are people in the Muslim-majority world who have peacefully non-violently want to work towards a “Islamic State.” What do you understand to mean by Islamic State? Does such an idea even, can such a state even exist?

AI: I would say that Muslims would need to suggest that they need [an] independent state that allows for freedom of expression and worship and you want to call it Islamic or secular, It does not matter. I would go for the content. Now, if it is an interpretation of Islamic State as promoted by Boko Haram certainly, I totally reject and I think it’s nonsensical. It cannot be defended.

MH: Or even Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan — they all call themselves Islamic Republics or Islamic kingdoms in some shape or form.

AI: It doesn’t mean anything. I mean Pakistan —

MH: But in practice, they do some pretty un-Islamic and horrible things.

AI: Clearly, yes, yes, it’s a gross contradiction. You have oppressive states. You have undemocratic, corrupt, oppressive, tyrannical states and they use the label Islam.

MH: Hmm, it’s a problem. As someone who’s been tried and convicted twice for sodomy, these trumped-up charges that you were accused of. A sentence in Malaysia that can lead up to 20 years in prison. It can lead to whipping under the Malaysian law. You told the Wall Street Journal back in 2012, many years ago, that Malaysia’s sodomy laws a “archaic,” that they should be amended. You said “It’s not my business to attack people, arrest people based on their sexual orientation.” Now you’re a free man. Now that your party is in power, you’re on the verge of, some would say, soon becoming prime minister — we can talk about that. Do you still stand by that? Will Malaysia be repealing its sodomy laws anytime soon?

AI: Yes, it is archaic, introduced by the British in 1947 to India. We replicate these laws.

MH: Colonial hanger.

AI: Colonial and has nothing to do with Islam or Christianity. So, I believe, well, I’ve said it’s archaic. It has to be revised, amended. You cannot condemn people for their sexual orientation. Although, as a country, not only Muslims, Christians, Hindus, we reject the notion of people displaying open sexual acts in public and which is consistent with many countries in the West. Your sexual orientation is your business.

MH: No, but just to push back a little bit there in the West, of course, there’s something such as — there are there are gay pride marches, for example. Even in Turkey you mentioned until very recently there were gay pride marches in Turkey, a Muslim-majority country. Is that something you can see happening in Malaysia or are you saying, we won’t punish you but you got to keep it behind closed doors? No public affirmation of being gay.

AI: Because I think the general moral standards is a concern not only Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, we are quite conservative in that light, liberal in terms of political orientation. But I think rather conservative in one thing, this display of, public display of sexual acts in public and other.

MH: Whether heterosexual or homosexual?

AI: Yes, so it is not a prejudice against any sexual orientation, but I think it will take time it would evolve. If you mean —

MH: I mean, even your stance of coming out against punishment is controversial in Malaysia. There’s “Islamic parties” that want to keep those archaic punishments.

AI: Yes, and I endured that for years because they came to condemn me. Look, this guy is supportive of all these acts against religion, for example. I do not agree, but I stand my ground and I think I have a solid argument to support our contention.

MH: Would you describe yourself — and this is loaded language, I know — as a liberal Muslim or a conservative Muslim? What do you think of those labels?

AI: A Muslim must be liberal in the sense that they tolerate and try and understand the other. So, conservative in the sense that you do accept the fundamentals of religion. You pray, I mean, so it depends on your connotation, but I think the important point here is do you tolerate differences? Yes. Do you allow people to criticize or condemn somebody’s religious beliefs? Yes.

MH: We need a reassertion of pluralism.

AI: Clearly, it is a multiracial country. It is plural. I mean and Islam itself promotes that or accepts that as a reality.

MH: In theory, but now with Muslims in practice.

AI: Exactly, the contradiction is because the flaw of the neoconservatism not only in the West but also in Islam.

MH: Neoconservatism in Islam, that’s a good line. You said in the past that “Sharia law” which is real bogeyman of a phrase here in the West has been misunderstood. It’s been conflated in the eyes of both many Muslims and non-Muslims with “Hudud punishments,” the stonings, the beatings, the lashings, the amputations, the really brutal and violent stuff that we see on our screens on the news almost nightly. You said you’re more interested in the maqasid of the law, the higher aims of the Sharia. Explain to our listeners who are not familiar with these concepts. What do you mean when you talk about Sharia law and the higher aims of the Sharia?

AI: The relevance of religion Islam or Christianity, Judaism is justice and compassion. You ignore this and then talk about punishment. Certainly, the entire approach is wrong. So, to my mind religion requires understanding, compassion. And legal precepts should be at the tail end even then there must be a clear legitimate interpretation. Most of the interpretations are by the neocons of the Islamic world.

MH: How do you push back against them?

AI: We will have to continue to be vigilant, to be active. Those of us who believe in justice must be more assertive and the courage although condemned by many of the neocons.

MH: And you talk about the neocons of the Muslim world, some of the neocons in the Western world are very keen to pathologize Islam, to treat Islam as a kind of oddity in the modern world and Muslims who don’t sign up for liberal secular values overnight or yesterday are somehow backward, primitive, barbaric, you know, need to get on the modernity train. How do you push back against that line of thinking?

AI: I consider it a paradoxical situation because the neocons of the West should be friendly to the neocons of the Muslim world. They are blinkered in their views non-tolerant and completely unjust to the other. We represent Islam in a sense that it has to be tolerant, liberal, plural, and accept even some of the values of the West.

MH: Samuel Huntington of the Clash of Civilizations fame once declared that Islam has bloody borders and here in the West a lot of people again, both conservatives and liberals will look at the violence and insurgency and terrorism plague in countries like Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, even Indonesia, and they will say yeah, that’s undeniable. Islam has bloody borders. What do you say to them in response?

AI: Selective amnesia when you talk about all the atrocities, the many atrocities in the world are by ideologues. the wars in Europe, the murders and death in China, and nothing to do with religion. I will not condone excesses whether in the name of Islam or religion or secularism, but I think to treat history in such a blinkered view is certainly not acceptable. That is why I started by suggesting this notion used by or the phrase used by Said as a “clash of ignorance”.

MH: Clash of ignorance over a clash of civilizations. When do you plan to replace Mahathir as prime minister? That’s the plan, right? You’re going to be prime minister of Malaysia? That’s the plan?

AI: What the agreement was — the word agreement — that he will surrender power, he has come up repeatedly will not be more than two years. So, unless he had to go. I think we should be patient and I should use my time, this transition to prepare, to listen, to interact with Malaysians and also my friends overseas.

MH: And you have been very patient. You were in prison. Then you were in the opposition. Now your party’s in power and you’re waiting to take over. Let me ask you this final question. I really you know, it’s something that’s quite interesting about you. You’ve said on the record that you forgive Mahathir for putting you in prison. You forgive Najib Razak, the former prime minister who you defeated last year for helping putting you in prison. How does someone like yourself — who spent, I think, more than 10 years behind bars away from your family in pretty horrific conditions — How do you find it within yourself to forgive these men who’ve treated you in this way?

AI: I think, my discussions with Mandela, we joked about we being a bit either mad or crazy. But since we have been certified as not being mad, we are certainly crazy and doing what we have to do and the sufferings endured by Azizah, my wife, and family and friends. But on hindsight, what do we do? I mean, is our personal interest more important than the welfare of our citizens? We talk about religion, humanity, compassion, and forgiveness. Why is it when we come to our turn, we can act or implement these ideals? So, I think finally, it’s not choice. It’s an imperative that we have to act upon.

MH: Anwar Ibrahim, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.

AI: Thanks, Mehdi.

[Music interlude.]

MH: That was Anwar Ibrahim, who is amazingly now on course to become Malaysia’s next prime minister. What a journey he’s been on. I’m joined now by Dalia Mogahed, from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, ISPU. She’s a former Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. She served on President Obama’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships — the first woman in a headscarf to ever do so — and is the co-author, with Professor John Esposito, of the acclaimed book, “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.” Dalia, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.

DM: It’s my pleasure. Thank you, Mehdi.

MH: Dalia, just listening to that interview with Anwar Ibrahim. What do you make of his answer that this endless debate over Islam and democracy is the product not of a clash of civilizations, but in the words of the late, great Edward Said a clash of ignorance?

DM: I’d really have to agree with Anwar on that. When you look at the facts, they simply don’t support the idea that there is a clash of civilizations or a clash of values. I worked on the largest, most comprehensive study of global Muslim opinion when I was with Gallup as the executive director of Muslim studies. We interviewed tens of thousands of people from all over the world and asked them questions about their views of their own society of the West, their own aspirations, politically and personally, and when you do that, when you allow Muslims to speak for themselves, you get a very different picture than what the pundits would have us think.

MH: Surprise.

DM: Right, surprise. It’s always interesting to me that vocal extremists from the Muslim side say exactly what Islamophobes say. They seem to have perfect agreement but it’s very different from what the vast majority of Muslims think. When Gallup asked citizens of Muslim-majority countries from around the world what they admired most about the West one of the most frequent responses to that open-ended question was democracy.

MH: But Dalia, George W. Bush told us that they hate our freedom.

DM: Right, they don’t hate our freedom. They want our freedom. They want the same thing for themselves.

MH: Here’s a question for you — you hear people like Sam Harris and Bill Maher and others talking about “Oh, Muslims in the Middle East in particular, but across the world, they want Sharia law, they want Islamic State. They don’t want what we want. There’s a difference between us and them.” What do you say in response to that?

DM: Well, I think there’s a lot to say in response to that. First of all, I’m wondering what they mean by we because a lot of people in our country definitely want their religious values reflected in our law, and I’m not talking about Muslims.

MH: Yes.

DM: So in our research at The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, as well as in Gallup’s research, we found that lots and lots of Americans say that they want the Bible to be reflected in law. And that’s — you don’t need a poll to tell you that, just look at our politics. So, the idea that religious people want to see their values reflected in their law is not exclusive to Muslims. Now, it’s also interesting to see what Muslims around the world mean when they say Sharia. So, one of the questions we asked in the polling we did when I was with Gallup was a series of questions about what they associate with Sharia compliance. So, when they say Sharia, what do they mean? Sharia compliance to them meant things like the rule of law that government had to abide by the same laws as the people. Women associated Sharia compliance with gender justice. Now, that’s how they’re interpreting Sharia and it’s interesting. I know Anwar was explaining the differences between you know, the way Sharia is interpreted by Muslim neocons as well as Islamophobes and the way he thinks about Sharia law is as a set of principles.

MH: And that’s a widespread view, according to your research.

DM: It’s a very widespread view according to the research we did, yeah.

MH: Dalia, you’re not just a Muslim-American. You’re an Egyptian-American. When you listen to Anwar Ibrahim saying that the problem for democracy in the Muslim-majority world is really a problem for the Arab world. That’s where the Democratic deficit is right now not in Indonesia or Malaysia or turkey. It’s in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries, Jordan. Is that fair point, do you think?

DM: I think it’s absolutely a fair point and unfortunately, has always been the case. I don’t, I think the Arab Spring and as well, as a lot of research has proven that it’s not because the people are not interested in democracy, don’t aspire for democracy, but that there’s lots of other complex geopolitical factors that keep democracy away. So, I agree with him. Actually the majority of Muslims live under a democratic system or another. It’s just the Arab world where that has not been the case.

MH: So here’s a question about Muslim Americans who are also under the spotlight these days for good reasons and bad. Where do they fit into this in terms of attitudes towards democracy, political engagement, especially religious or practicing Muslim Americans, if I can call them that? What are their attitudes like?

DM: Muslim-Americans, if I can generalize according to research, are a community that believes deeply in our democracy. One question I remember from a Gallup poll found that Muslims were the most likely faith community to have confidence in our electoral system.

MH: And Dalia right now, you have Ilhan Omar, congresswoman, first one of the first two Muslim-American women to be elected to congress. She’s in the news being attacked. The president of the United States says she should resign from Congress. To me, it’s so frustrating that Muslim Americans are told to integrate, to be more democratic, to run for office. And then when they do, they’re vilified, they’re demonized, they’re held to standards that other politicians are not held to.

DM: That’s absolutely true and I have been so disappointed in the way that our two congresswomen have been treated. They didn’t go to Congress to fit in, right? They knew it was going to be tough. And that speaking about certain topics was going to be met with some response. But even I was surprised by how difficult it’s been for them.

MH: And how much of this discussion on Islam and democracy and integration is driven by Islamophobia whether witting or unwitting?

DM: I think that some of the underlying assumptions that animate this discussion are Islamophobic and it is often times unwittingly. But I really challenge even the framing of words like assimilation or integration. It implies, you know, the mental model behind it is a host and an outside, you know, group coming in and trying to integrate or assimilate.

MH: One-way traffic.

DM: A one-way traffic, exactly. And it is always the other being hosted by the real Americans and it’s on the other to accommodate and assimilate. And so, I think that we simply have to reframe and rethink that entire model. You know, America is supposed to be a place where we’re all equally American. There is no second-class citizenship. And that’s the model we have to hold our country to.

MH: Dalia, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining me on Deconstructed.

DM: Thank you, Mehdi.

MH: That was Dalia Mogahed from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and co-author of the book, “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.” And before her, of course, was Anwar Ibrahim. A lot of food for thought, I think you’d agree. And a reminder that on thorny and contentious issues like this one, we all need to dig deeper and get past simplistic binaries, lazy media coverage and, perhaps unconscious, Islamophobia.

[Music interlude.]

That’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept, and is distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Zach Young. Dina Sayedahmed is our production assistant. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review. It helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Thanks so much!

See you next week.

Join The Conversation