Over the past 25 years, the Muslim world has witnessed constant struggle between liberals and conservative Islamists. Liberals want a state that will generally be democratic, but will not permit majorities to discriminate against less powerful groups in society or violate basic human rights; liberal Muslims among them are able to reconcile twin commitments to both liberalism and Islam. Conservative Islamists generally want a state that is democratic but is constitutionally barred from adopting policies inconsistent with their understanding of Islam, which they interpret in a manner that is irreconcilable with liberal principles. The state advocated by conservative Islamists must intrude into areas of life that even liberal Muslims think of as “private.” It must provide Muslims and non-Muslims with different levels of religious freedom. More broadly, it must subject men and women to different rules in a wide range of areas.
The struggle between liberals and conservative Islamists often intensifies when constitutions are being drafted or amended. The Arab Spring has thus ushered in an era of fierce contest. In the West, many are interested in predicting the outcome of constitutional debates between religious conservatives and liberals. Some also wish to influence the outcomes. To understand these debates and to engage intelligently with the participants, outsiders must understand the debates’ nuances. They must keep in mind that in different types of countries, the same constitutional provisions have radically different effects. Finally, they also need to understand that in some countries today, the provisions that most affect the lives of citizens may not be the ones that explicitly mention Islamic law.
Islam and Constitutions in the Modern World: Historical Background