The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Islam could teach Donald Trump about democracy and freedom

America's ideals are under threat, but not from Muslims.

From his hateful tweets and provocative rhetoric to his “new” executive order banning Muslims and refugees all over again, President Trump is driven by the idea that Islam is a threat to what makes us American.

Trump has declared that “Islam hates us.” “There is,” he says, “an unbelievable hatred.” Stephen K. Bannon, one of his chief advisers, claims that “we are in an outright war against … Islam” and doubts whether “Muslims that are shariah-adherent can actually be part of a society where you have the rule of law and … are a democratic republic.” He believes Islam is “much darker” than Nazism and seems to agree with HUD Secretary Ben Carson that “Islam is a religion of domination.”

But Trump and his administration could learn a thing or two about American values such as freedom and equality from the religion and people they so hate.

In Islam’s founding story, after Muhammad’s death, it was unclear who would lead the nascent Muslim community. Typically, succession disputes make for great drama. This one, however, was more C-SPAN than “Game of Thrones.” Rather than intrigue or bloodshed, the believers pursued democracy. Only by the people’s consent, they reckoned, could a ruler justly be named and a community freely governed. They chose Abu Bakr, one of Muhammad’s companions. His inauguration speech, according to one of Muhammad’s earliest biographers Ibn Ishaq, was brief (though we’re not sure how big the crowd was). It went something like this: “I’m no better than any of you. Only obey me if I do right. Otherwise, resist me. Loyalty means speaking truth. Flattery is treason. No human, but God alone is your lord.”

Abu Bakr sought to guard the people against domination by making himself accountable to them. The people obliged, securing their liberty. They could call him out at any time, and he had to listen. He even had to ask their permission for new clothes. His successor Umar carried the legacy forward. Publicly rebuked by a woman for overstepping the law, Umar responded: “That woman is right, and I am wrong! It seems that all people have deeper wisdom and insight than me.”

This spirit of accountability and liberty would become enshrined as a religious duty in Islam, though as with any tradition, these values are not always upheld. Nonetheless, every Muslim has the obligation to command right and forbid wrong, correcting and resisting any who betray justice, rulers included. That Abu Bakr and Umar are paradigms of good Islamic rule for well over 1 billion Sunni Muslims tells us something about this tradition’s love for freedom.

So does the 12th-century theologian al-Ghazali, one of Islam’s most beloved figures. In his most famous political work, an open letter to a young sultan, Ghazali famously defends a golden rule of liberty: “The fundamental principle is … treat people in a way in which, if you were subject and another were Sultan, you would deem right that you yourself be treated.” Nothing a ruler would not himself endure has any place in politics. While sin against God can be forgiven, violation of this rule cannot: “Anything involving injustice to mankind will not in any circumstance be overlooked at the resurrection.” Ghazali tells rulers that on judgment day, not God but the people will determine their fate: “The harshest torment will be for those who rule arbitrarily.” He sounds striking similar to James Madison writing in Federalist 57, for whom rulers “will be compelled to anticipate the moment when their exercise of power is reviewed, and they must descend to the level from which they were raised.” Only in Ghazali’s vision, the tyrant descends to hell.

Of course, like their Western counterparts, many Muslim regimes fail to honor this vision of liberty. But it is women and men like Malala Yousafzai, Humayun Khan and the hopeful youths who filled Tahrir Square who are faithful to the best of Islam, not the likes of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and Saudi princes.

For Islam and the American founders alike, freedom is about protection from arbitrary power and rule by law, not the caprices of men. Theirs is a vision where citizens stand not in slavish deference to masters but on equal terms with all. This vision animates our whole system of governance. It was this vision Lincoln endorsed when he wrote, in words that echo Ghazali: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.” And it was this vision Sojourner Truth, the Rev. Martin Luther King  Jr. and Harvey Milk invoked when they each demanded that equality before the law be still further expanded so that it would eventually include not just straight white men but everyone.

This vision is under threat in a way it rarely has been in our history. It is not under threat by Islam, but by Donald Trump and his administration.

Trump’s first Muslim ban was an act of brazen, unconstrained power and barely concealed animus. The second ban is more of the same. The blessing of the first was just how blatantly it betrayed our deepest values. The danger of the second is its attempt to conceal its dominating and bigoted aims. No serious observer thinks these bans make us any safer. Instead, they seek to circumvent rule of law, roll back liberty’s benefit  and wage Bannon’s war with Islam. They give Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security and other agents discretionary power to decide on a whim whether to sever families, deport refugees and detain Muslims. And they make Trump and his cronies unaccountable arbiters of who really loves the very American values the administration is busy betraying.

Trump wants to return America to its former greatness. But when it comes to freedom, Ghazali and Abu Bakr have far more in common with Madison and Lincoln than with terrorists and tyrants who claim Islam’s mantle. For that matter, they have far more in common with this country’s great lovers of liberty than does the current president. So, instead of banning Muslims, Trump should listen to them: He might learn something about liberty and equality, two values he seems not to have learned to love from our own nation’s history or the Constitution he swore to uphold.