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Not just under Taliban, data shows Sharia law hardly ever lets freedom flourish

ThePrint uses studies by reputed international researchers to see whether Sharia and personal freedoms are as mutually exclusive as critics make them out to be.

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New Delhi: Images of Afghans rushing to the Kabul airport to try and get out of the country as the Taliban recaptured power last month have been etched into the collective memory of the world. The Taliban intend to make an Islamic emirate out of the strife-torn country, where Sharia will be the law of the land. And dozens of incidents in the last month alone have shown how individual freedoms are being hampered under the religious law, despite the Taliban projecting themselves as less hardline than before.

Sharia is derived from the Quran and the Hadiths — the statements, actions and teachings of Prophet Muhammad. In most Islamic countries, Sharia finds its place in personal and legal matters. Lexico, a website powered by Oxford University Press dictionaries, says Sharia “prescrib(es) both religious and secular duties and sometimes retributive penalties for lawbreaking. It has generally been supplemented by legislation adapted to the conditions of the day, though the manner in which it should be applied in modern states is a subject of dispute between Muslim traditionalists and reformists”.

However, critics like author Taslima Nasreen have said the Afghans, especially women, are actually trying to flee Sharia law, and the personal freedoms it restricts.

ThePrint dives deep into data from reputed international researchers to see whether Sharia and personal freedoms are as mutually exclusive as Nasreen and other critics make them out to be.

Also read: What is Sharia? Islamic legal system adopted by Taliban has wide-ranging interpretations

Sharia and personal freedoms

Across different Islamic countries, the percentage of laws based on Sharia varies widely, making it difficult to gauge just how much the religious law impacts their current rules and regulations.

But for the purpose of this report, two data sets have been used — one, a 2013 survey by US-based think-tank Pew Research Center, which asked respondents about their approval for Sharia to be the official law of their country; and two, the 2016 edition of the annual Human Freedom Index released by US-based think-tank CATO Institute, in collaboration with Canada’s Fraser Institute. The 2016 edition is the earliest available for comparison.

The Human Freedom Index is based on 34 personal freedom indicators and 42 economic freedom indicators. The personal freedom index broadly measures two categories — legal protection and security (which includes civil justice, security of people from terror and women’s safety), and specific personal freedoms (which includes freedoms pertaining to movement, religion, civil society, expression and information and identity and relationships).

ThePrint’s analysis of 23 Muslim-majority countries on these indices shows that personal freedom and preference for Sharia are moderately correlated with each other, with a negative relationship (coefficient of correlation = -0.57). This means that countries where Sharia has a strong approval are also the ones where individual freedoms are limited.

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania, the two Muslim-majority countries in eastern Europe, where individuals were freer than the global average score, had the lowest approval for Sharia as the law of the land — around 10-12 per cent.

But in the rest of the Muslim-majority countries, people enjoyed less freedom than the global average. Iraq, where the personal freedom score was the lowest in the Human Freedom Index, had 91 per cent respondents favouring Sharia as their country’s law in the Pew survey.

Egypt, Bangladesh and Pakistan are other prominent examples of people wanting Sharia law, and possessing low levels of freedom.

Democracy essential for freedom

The next question to be studied is just why Islamic countries rate poorly on personal freedoms — the key lies in the absence of democracy in many of them.

According to a study by Mustafa Akyol, senior fellow at the CATO Institute in Washington D.C. and expert on Islam and modernity, there exists a strong positive correlation between democracy and human freedom. The more successful a democracy is, the more individual freedom it offers.

The 2020 edition of the Human Freedom Index report also shows that there is a high degree of positive correlation between human freedoms and the level of democracy, and not just in Islamic countries. Authoritarian regimes like China, Venezuela and North Korea have the lowest human freedom scores.

The Economist magazine’s Intelligence Unit also publishes an annual Democracy Index, which ranks countries based on the quality of democracy — full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. In the last four years, of the 50-55 authoritarian regimes in the index, more than half are from Muslim-majority countries. In the 2020 rankings, about 13 Muslim-majority nations featured in the bottom 20 of the Democracy Index.

Also read: Islamabad has a problem. Taliban won’t tone down now – in Afghanistan or Pakistan

Islam and democracy

According to a paper by the United States Institute of Peace, an American think-tank working in conflict management, the reasons for the high level of authoritarianism in Islamic countries are political, economic, cultural and historical, more than religious.

The paper states that a vast majority of Muslim thinkers are opposed to democracy because it gives more value to the law created by humans over the law laid down by Allah. But there also exists a school of thought that is in favour of new ideas, practices and institutions. “(This school) stresses the need for continuity of basic Islamic traditions but believes that Islamic law (Sharia) is historically conditioned and needs to be reinterpreted in light of the changing needs of modern society,” the paper states.

According to Hilal Ahmed, a scholar of political Islam and associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), “Islam and Sharia and even the notion of democracy are highly diversified concepts. This heterogeneity should be recognised as a precondition to talk about the complex ways in which these ideas are used in the Muslim world”.

“One may identify two observable trends. First, the authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia evoke Sharia to legitimise their rule in the name of Islam. These regimes suppress dissent to establish Sharia. They always take refuge in the conventional binary between Sharia and democracy,” Ahmed told ThePrint.

Sultan Shahin, editor of New Age Islam, a progressive website working on rethinking Islamic postulates, said problems exist in the Sharia too. “With the concept of ‘Shura’ (consultation) placed in the Quran, Islamic countries should not have dynasties and monarchies at all, but that’s not the case. The Sharia law is based on the interpretation of the Quran which came about 150-200 years after the Prophet died,” he told ThePrint.

The Arab Spring revolutions of the last decade had produced hope that the Islamic world would turn towards democracy, but it has proven to be a false hope. Asked how democracy, which is essential to personal freedoms, can take hold in the Islamic world, Ahmed said: “There is a serious lack of intellectual work as well as political debates on this question in these countries. In my view, there is a need to evolve a democratic system suitable for the adherents of Islam, instead of evoking outdated intellectual claims such as the Islamic notion of democracy.”

Meanwhile, Shahin said while the Quran cannot be changed, there is scope for improvement in the Sharia law, and that through various instruments available in Islam, Muslim scholars can ameliorate the situation. “If they believe that the objective of Sharia is to bring harmony and restricting human rights is causing disharmony, they might even change the law,” he said.

“Of course, that will only happen if Ulema (Muslim scholars) decide to follow Islamic rules about human rights. At the moment, Ulema, who should have been the biggest defenders and propagators of human rights, are its biggest violators across the world,” he opined.

(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)

(The figures for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania on people’s preference for Sharia have been corrected)

Also read: Return of Taliban is biggest trauma for new generation of Afghans: Amrullah Saleh’s daughter


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