Small Wars Journal

Countering Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Democracy Narrative

Fri, 09/16/2011 - 3:13pm

In light of the Arab Spring over the past several months, many in the West have optimistically projected that a tide of change was coming, and that liberal, Western-style democracy was slowly becoming the normative standard in the Middle East and North Africa, the cradle of Muslim civilization. Most recently, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s newly minted leader, came out and offered public support for the Syrian protestors – an instance, Tom Ricks notes, is perhaps the first time the United States and al Qaeda have supported a common goal.[i] In online extremist forums, the Egyptian released a video referring to the protestors as “mujahideen” and lauding the fact that these so-called “holy warriors”(the English translation of the term) were "teaching lessons to the aggressor, the oppressor, the traitor, the disloyal, and standing up against his oppression."[ii] However, the trumpets of democratic triumphalism should refrain from sounding their horns just yet – or even contemplate rehearsing their opening note. After all, Zawahiri champions the protestors not out of some budding appreciation for the tenets of liberal democracy, but rather, in what he perceives to essentially be a struggle between Sunni fundamentalists and Alawites.[iii] The ensuing question, however, is worthy of consideration: is there any possible ground for philosophical understanding between democrats of the liberal Western tradition and Zawahiri and his fellow Islamic extremists?

The Moderate Muslim World’s View of Democracy

            Before assessing the prospects for democratic dialogue with Islamic extremists, it is perhaps prudent to consider the attitudes of the more moderate Islamic plurality throughout the world, namely, those who might agree with many of the complaints Osama bin Laden alleged against the US (among them support for Israel, US presence in Saudi Arabia, and support of certain autocratic regimes within the Middle East), but do not feel that terrorist attacks and violence are the ways to address such grievances.

            In 2001 King Abdullah of Jordan dissolved the Jordanian parliament and delayed popular elections under the pretense of “security.” After the Muslim Brotherhood – an outlawed party in Egypt whose candidates must run as independents – won 20% of the seats in 2005’s legislative elections then President Hosni Mubarak canceled the elections set for 2006. Furthermore, although town councils were popularly elected in Saudi Arabia in 2005, such councils have negligible power, while reforms promised by the Saudi elite have largely failed to materialize. More significantly, many of the political realities of the Muslim world simply are not democratic – a mere one in four of Muslim majority countries possess democratically elected governments, and a majority of Muslim governments “control or severely limit opposition to political parties and non-governmental organizations.” It was against this backdrop that “President George W. Bush signaled the importance of addressing the democracy deficit in the Muslim world, identifying democratization as a key goal of American foreign policy.”[iv]

            As a foreign policy objective, the gradual democratization of the Middle East has continued from the Bush administration into the Obama administration. Emboldened by the popular push for democracy across the region – the “Arab Spring” as it has been dubbed – the United States has continued to prioritize global support for democracy as a key tenet of its foreign policy. In early July at a conference for international democracy held in Lithuania, Secretary Clinton asserted “that the rule of law, political parties and democratic institutions must emerge in the Arab world if it is to emulate Eastern Europe's remarkable transition two decades ago from authoritarianism to truly free societies.”[v] At the “Community of Democracies” meeting, Clinton identified several preconditions necessary for the success of democracy, among them equality among the citizenry (to include women), freedom of the press, economic opportunity, institutions rooted in law, and legitimate leadership. The Associated Press further reported “the implicit warning was that it is uncertain if the Arab reform movements will translate into stable democratic societies. While Tunisia and Egypt try to find their own formulas for a new system of governance, the would-be democrats of Syria may never get their chance.”[vi]

            Whether or not the Syrian activists realize their desire to participate in a democratic form of government, it does seem to suggest that democracy might not be altogether incompatible with Islam, as some have alleged. In 2007, John Esposito and Dalia Mogahead published “Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think,” the result of a multiyear Gallup worldwide survey, in which Gallup “conducted tens of thousands of hour-long, face-to-face interview with residents of more than 35 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have substantial Muslim populations.” In short, the authors explain, “we [Gallup] surveyed a sample representing more than 90% of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, making this the largest, most comprehensive study of contemporary Muslims ever done.”[vii]

            Significantly, the work points out that “U.S. policy on democracy in the Middle East does dovetail with the sentiments of vast majorities of those surveyed who say they admire the West’s political freedoms and they value and desire greater self-determination.” Furthermore, “many in the Muslim world would say political freedom and liberty, and freedom of speech, is what they admire most about the West.” While the polling indicated a common association of the West with a “fair judicial system” and “citizens enjoying many liberties,” this stood in stark contrast to the things many of the poll’s respondents admired least about the Muslim world – a lack of unity, corruption (both economic and political), and extremism.[viii]

            The West, however, need take caution in simply considering such poll results carte blanche – for all the seemingly democratic impulses bubbling up in the Muslim world, there is a significant divide between what American democracy looks like and the sort of democracy many in the Muslim world envision. Whereas separation of church and state is generally taken to be something of a maxim in Western governance, the majority of those surveyed considered separation of church and state as unnecessary for self-determination. Even more significantly, large majorities “cite the equal importance of Islam and democracy as essential to the quality of their lives and to the future progress of the Muslim world.”[ix]

            In the West one tenet of liberal democracy is that free speech and the separation of church and state are inextricably linked. As such, this maxim makes it somewhat difficult for the average Westerner to reconcile an apparent desire in the Muslim world for an Islamically informed democracy with the aforementioned desire for free speech. However, polling indicated that overwhelming majorities in most of the surveyed nations indicated that “if drafting a constitution for a new country, they would guarantee freedom of speech, defined as ‘allowing all citizens to express their opinion on the political, social, and economic issues of the day.” These majorities reached as high as 95% in Burkina Faso, 94% in Egypt, 93% in Iran, and 90% in Indonesia. However, “many appear to want their own democratic model that incorporates Sharia – and not one that is simply dependent on Western values.[x] Admittedly, the development of democratic norms and institutions in the West was a centuries long process; despite the “wired” nature and speed of contemporary communications, any widespread realization of such a democratic model in the Islamic world would probably require years (if not decades) of further popular thought and discourse.

The Islamic Extremist’s View of Democracy

            For all the popular support of democracy in the Islamic world – be it different from the American conception of democracy as it may – the same sentiment is not being echoed from the most extreme elements of the Islamic world. Significantly, this hearkens back to Ayman al Zawahiri’s recent support for the Syrian protestors, but not under the guise of supporting democracy; it simply happens to be that American objectives in Syria (e.g. the support of democracy) overlap with alternate ideological objectives for al Qaeda.

            On the contrary, Zawahiri’s statements on the incompatibility of democracy with “true” Sharia law can be found from his days as al Qaeda’s number two, prior to Osama bin Laden’s killing. Raymond Ibrahim translated many of Zawahiri’s works, and in one section of his compilation of these and other translations, “The Al Qaeda Reader,” provides a section explicitly on “Sharia and Democracy.” In it, the Egyptian is quoted as saying, “The Book [Koran], the sunna, and the sayings of the ulema, both past and present, all clearly demonstrate that exchanging the Islamic sharia with something else is infidelity – especially in the despicable manner that we see today in the lands of Islam.”[xi]

            Zawahiri goes on to identify the reasons he claims why the “regimes that exchange the sharia of Allah are outcasts from the Muslim umma.” First, he explains, such regimes shun themselves from the umma because they exchange the sharia – that is, divinely provided law – “in exchange for a motley set of contrived rules.” Secondly, he views withholding sharia law, and in turn substituting a debated set of norms, values, and regulations as a mockery of Alalh’s law. Thirdly, he specifically criticizes such regimes for instituting democratic rule, and cites Abu al-Ali al-Mawdudi’s “Islam and Modern Civilization” characterization of democracy as “rule of the masses” and “the deification of man.” Lastly, though, he claims that such regimes, in casting aside sharia remove themselves from the umma because they “legitimize what is forbidden and forbid what is legitimate.”[xii]

            A thorough consideration of Zawahiri’s grievances, however, can be boiled down to two key contentions against the underrepresentation of sharia law in governance throughout the Islamic world. Firstly, Zawahiri adheres philosophically to the principle that an ideal life is one lived in accordance with Allah’s law – as it is divinely revealed, it is completely without flaw. As such, any absence of said law is not a provision of freedom, but rather, an inhibitor of freedom, that is, the freedom to live as the best possible Muslim. This overarching point speaks directly to the first, second, and fourth of Zawahiri’s aforementioned contentions.

            The other component which Zawahiri’s grievances can be boiled down to, however, is his detestation of democracy in and of itself; this was the third of the four aforementioned objections he raises. In his writing, Zawahiri further explains his fundamental objection towards democracy, namely, “Democracy is partnership with Allah. The difference between democracy and monotheocracy [tahwid] is that monotheocracy makes Allah the sole Legislator while democracy is rule of the people for the good of the people.” Zawahiri continues, noting, “the legislator in democracies is the people, and the Legislator in monotheocracies is Allah, the Glorious and Most High. Thus, democracy is partnership with Allah, for it divests the Almighty of the right to legislate and gives it to the people.”[xiii]

While “partnership with God” might seem like something altogether beneficial in a Judeo-Christian context (that is a Jew or Christian might be inclined to interpret “partnership with God” as doing God’s will on Earth in the model of Abraham or Christ), Ibrahim explains that such a statement carries an altogether different meaning in the Muslim context. “The two Arabic words rendered here as ‘partnership’ (shirk) and ‘monotheocracy’ (tahwid),” Ibrahim writes, “are highly important and convey a major antithesis in Islamic theology. Shirk (partnership) is the greatest and only unpardonable sin in Islam – associating something, whether a physical thing or an abstract concept, with Allah.” This is reinforced in the Koran, which states, “Allah will not forgive those who set up partners with Him; but He will forgive whome He will for other sins. He that serves other gods besides Him is guilty of a heinous sin” (4:48). Ibrahim even further notes that “shirk is the fundamental state of being in rebellion against Allah.”[xiv]

            In short, if a Western thinker places themselves in the context of the Muslim world and accepts, hypothetically, the premise that sharia is perfect, divinely mandated law, Zawahiri’s arguments suddenly become altogether unreasonable. After all, one in the Muslim world might ration, why accept anything other than this highest expression of freedom, that is, the system of governance which codifies good Muslim behavior? Furthermore, assessing the second component of Zawahiri’s thinking, if democracy is portrayed as somehow equal or superior to divine law, how could it be anything other than evil in nature?

Where Islamists and Democrats Have Not Seen Eye to Eye

            Obviously, Zawahiri represents the extreme end of Islamist thinking on the geopolitical spectrum in terms of a sheer and utter rejection of democracy as inherently evil and incompatible with Islam. As Esposito and Mogahead more than substantially demonstrated, much of the Muslim world does recognize value in democracy, if not a democracy in the traditional Western sense. However, there clearly exists some pull to the thinking represented by Zawahiri where democracy is concerned, namely, the sharia is perfect law, and thus must have a place in governance.

            It is in Western interests to have democracy spread in the Muslim world. Even if a more radical, fundamentally religiously motivated party seizes control, in the long term, it is generally accepted that democracies are much slower to conduct war with other democracies. As such, it behooves Western thinkers to find some sort of common ground from which to articulate the value of democracy and its potential compatibility with sharia law in the Muslim world, in order to undermine the perspective of Zawahiri and other extremists, namely that democracy is an intrinsically evil supplanting of man’s law in favor of divine law. How, though, can a Western secular democracy draw upon its own traditions to make such a point without conveying a sense of cultural hubris?

A Western Consideration of the Extremist Objections

Submission in the Western Tradition

            A product of parochial primary education and Jesuit secondary education, many of my high school friends and I are painfully aware of Augustine’s exhortation to the Lord in his spiritual autobiography Confessions “Da mihi castitatem, sed noli modo,” or “Give me chastity, just not yet.” In many ways, the increasingly difficult battles with chastity of early manhood forces a change in Christian faith; for many, it becomes a matter of either struggle and acceptance (if not full understanding) of some of traditional morality’s more difficult callings. On the other hand, this becomes the first substantial tear in a garment of Christian identity which ultimately ends up in tatters.

            Where the less permissive norms on sexuality are observed, however, there eventually arises an awareness that abiding by such standards ultimately manifests a greater sense of freedom than living outside such mandates of morality. Rather than having succumbed to the hormonally tempting sins of the flesh, the individual demonstrated sufficient freedom of will to resist said temptations, rather than being held captive by physical desires. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, “the practice of the moral life animated by charity gives to the Christian the spiritual freedom of the children of God. He no longer stands before God as a slave, in servile fear, or as a mercenary looking for wages, but as a son responding the love of him who ‘first loved us.’”[xv]

            While the provided example was highly specific, it is simply one microcosm of a much greater truth realized in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and can be applied independent of, say, sexual morality. Willful submission to a given norm or standard, is, almost counter intuitively, the greatest act of freedom one might commit.

A Common Ground

The reason for a contemplation of the Judeo-Christian morality in a discussion of Islamic extremism and democracy is the potential ground for commonality afforded between those in the Muslim world, like Zawahiri, who prefer tahwid, and those in the West, who see a pluralistic democracy as perfectly compatible with the Judeo-Christian tradition and their own religions’ understandings of divine law. The first of Zawahiri’s two earlier identified key strains of complaints of Western democracy, namely, that an ideal life is one lived in perfect accordance with Allah’s law; as such, any sort of alternative to sharia as governing doctrine cannot possibly enhance freedom and wellbeing.

Herein lies the opportunity for Western thinkers to influence the democracy and morality narrative in the Muslim world: by providing the ideological premise that the greatest of human freedoms come through submission (not insignificantly, the English translation of Islam) to God’s will, we essentially begin to craft a narrative far more palatable to a world in which sharia law must be a part of daily life. This stands in stark contrast to the democracy narrative thus far provided by the West, namely, one in which the diminished role of religion is celebrated as ideal. Rather than jumping to a proclamation of the virtues of the First Amendment when providing the democracy narrative to the Muslim world, the West must first stress the belief of many Westerners that God’s law does provide where Caesar’s cannot.

After this premise has been established, the narrative might then address the second strain of Zawahiri’s contentions, namely, that democracy is inherently evil because it represents a partnership with Allah. Having already established the paramount importance of God’s law as the truest guarantor of personal freedom in the Western tradition, this new Western narrative might undermine Zawahiri’s anti-democratic narrative by depicting man’s law not as superior, or even equal to God’s law, but rather, as ultimately subservient to God’s law.

Many in the West might have tangible, knee-jerk reactions to such a proposition, but in reality, the Western theological tradition provides for democracy while still insisting upon the superiority of God’s law. The West ought to craft a narrative insisting that the type of sharia law and governance envisioned by Zawahiri compels one to be a “good Muslim” under threat of legal punishment rather than by true desire to please Allah, their own capacity for holiness is diminished. Although Allah’s law may be the highest, most valuable, and most liberating of all laws, compelled adherence to it by forcing one’s will undermines their ability to please Allah in the highest manner possible.

This, of course, parallels a very Western notion which allows for submission to God’s law through a distinctly democratic form of government. Thomas Aquinas, in the “Summa Theologica,” considers the effects of violence (or, more applicably to this case, legal force) on the will, and cites Augustine in De Civitate Dei, who wrote, “that what is done by the will is not done of necessity. Now, whatever is done under compulsion is done of necessity: consequently what is done by the will, cannot be compelled. Therefore the will cannot be compelled to act.”[xvi] Just as an obeying of divine law in the Judeo-Christian tradition simply because of legal mandate would in many way preclude a liberating submission to God’s will, the West must convey as part of its democracy narrative that a compelled adherence through state enforced sharia law would preclude a truly liberated life in Islam.


            The Western world has a vested geopolitical interest in the spread of democracy in the Islamic world. It has become a generally accepted tenet of contemporary political thought that established democracies are less likely to go to war with each other. Even if more radical and Islamic fundamentalist elements gained power through popular elections, the presence of democratic norms in the Muslim world would eventually push the general trend of geopolitical affairs towards more peaceful resolutions by promoting dialogue and undermining the language of violence and terrorism.

            There are any number of difficulties which stand in the way of the United States and Western community in promoting democracy in the Middle East, not least of all the Muslim backlash against the American tendencies to verbally support democracy while propping up autocratic regimes that best serve its regional interests.[xvii] However, as long as Islamic extremists such as Ayman al-Zawahiri go insufficiently challenged while continuing to hold influence in the Islamic world and shape the narrative against the West, there cannot reasonably be a widespread success of democracy throughout the Muslim world. By offering an alternative narrative, however, Western society has the chance to tangibly find common ground with the moderate Muslim majority that admires many of the traits of Western democracy, all while providing for a much more comfortable relationship between sharia law and popular governance – both from a Western and Islamic perspective.

[i] Ricks, Thomas E. "U.S. and Al Qaeda Agree on Syria." Web log post. Foreign Policy. 28 July 2011. Web. 29 July 2011. <>.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Esposito, John L., and Dalia Mogahed. Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think. New York, NY: Gallup, 2007. Print. Pgs 30-31.

[v] The Associated Press. "Clinton: Democracy Must Emerge in Arab World." Haaretz, 1 July 2011. Web. 29 July 2011. <>.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Esposito and Mogahead. Pgs x-xi.

[viii] Ibid. Pgs 31-34.

[ix] Ibid. Pg 35.

[x] Ibid. Pg 47-48

[xi] Ibrahim, Raymond. The Al Qaeda Reader. Random House Digital, 2007. Google Books. Web. 29 July 2011. <>. Pg 123.

[xii] Ibrahim, Raymond. Pgs 123-124.

[xiii] Ibrahim, Raymond.  Pgs 123-124.

[xiv] Ibrahim, Raymond. Pgs 292-293.

[xv] “1828." Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994. 450. Print.

[xvi] Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. I-II, q. 6, a. 4. New Advent. Web. 29 July 2011. <>.

[xvii] Esposito and Mogahead. Pg 58.

About the Author(s)

Second Lieutenant Michael Orzetti is a Master’s Candidate at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a 2011 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.


Second Lieutenant Michael Orzetti is a Master’s Candidate at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a 2011 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.




Mon, 09/19/2011 - 8:28pm

Made me think tangentially about how we need more people who are already on the side of; living amidst; participating in a democracy to understand and embrace the concept that submission to the will of God is part of democracy's fabric. I thought also how typical it is that something's strengths, taken to the extreme, can create weaknesses...even democractic concepts, taken to their limits, can become an individual's excuse to ignore their obligations. Using the guise of freedom does not always excuse their actions.


Mon, 09/19/2011 - 12:52am

In reply to by Mark Pyruz

Mark -

Thanks for taking the time to read the article. I think the point Tom Ricks was trying to make was not so much that President Obama and Ayman al-Zawahiri shared the same reasoning, but rather, despite their highly different strains of reasoning, both had drawn the conclusion that their respective interests would best be served with Bashar al-Assad out of office. Certainly an important distinction, though.

Mark Pyruz

Fri, 09/16/2011 - 4:37pm

2ndLt Orzetti,

Regarding the anti-Syrian government exhortations of Ayman al Zawahiri, you are aware are you not that a great number of his allied Jihadi fighters have returned to Syria from the previous Iraqi battlefield (where they fought the U.S. military and others), and are now engaged in an armed struggle against the Bashar regime.

Suggested reading:

Unfolding the Syrian paradox
By Alastair Crooke

I would hardly call this a congruence of views between the current U.S. administration and al-Qaida, as such thinking offers a potential result on par with the foreign policy disaster incurred by the launching of Operation Iraqi Freedom.