Does Islam Threaten Democracy?

Is Islam incompatible with multicultural democracy? Many people point to the fact that few Muslim societies are democratic and conclude that Islam must be inherently undemocratic. They point to Muslim rhetoric suffused with hatred of the West, and deduce that Muslims cannot be good citizens of Western democracies.

Britain, with around 1.6 million Muslims in a population of 58.7 million, provides an excellent place to test these notions. Three quarters of British Muslims come from the Indian subcontinent, mainly rural Pakistan and Bangladesh. This is important because some of their difficulties in settlement arise not from religion but from unfamiliarity with modern life.

So far, Britain has seen only four Muslim riots, compared to about eight race-related riots by Afro-Caribbeans. One concerned Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses ; the others were triggered by police insensitivity and white racist marches. With the qualified exception of the first, all riots were local, relatively minor, and lasted barely a day or two. So Britain's Muslims have presented no major problems of law and order.

But Muslims' presence in British society has presented other challenges. One is a ``clash of practices,'' including demands for Halal meat for Muslim schoolchildren, Muslim dress, prayer time, female circumcision, polygamy, and arranged marriages. Female circumcision and polygamy are banned, and Muslims accept this.