Fox's Johnson Doesn't Know The Facts On Egypt, Islam, Democracy

On Fox & Friends, Fox News legal analyst Peter Johnson Jr. claimed that “Shariah is the basis of all law in Egypt” and that “democracy and Islam” are “not compatible.” In fact, Egypt is among the most secular countries in the Middle East, and several of the world's largest democracies are Muslim-majority countries.

Fox's Legal Analyst Johnson Misrepresents “Democracy And Islam,” “Shariah Law” And Egypt

Johnson: “Most Scholars Have Said” Democracy And Islam Are “Not Compatible.” During the February 7 broadcast of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy discussed the ongoing unrest in Egypt with Johnson. During the segment, Johnson said that “most scholars have said” over the past few years that democracy and Islam are “not compatible.” After playing a clip from President Obama's interview with Fox host Bill O'Reilly in which Obama discussed the hope for democracy in Egypt, Doocy said:

DOOCY: OK, [Egypt is] not going back to what it was. But what will it be in the future? Fox News legal analyst Peter Johnson, Jr. joins us live. Peter, we want democracy. But that's not a done deal.

JOHNSON: Yeah, when we see the crowds in the square, we say, “Oh, wonderful, people are yearning for democracy. They're going to be free.” Unfortunately, I don't think they're going to be free, and you have to look at the -- the scholarly research on this issue over the years -- is democracy and Islam, are they compatible? And most scholars on the subject have said that they're not compatible. So when we're talking about a democracy, perhaps, in Egypt, we're maybe talking about a theo-democracy, a religious democracy.

DOOCY: Wait, isn't that what they have in Iran?

JOHNSON: Correct.

DOOCY: Something like that?

JOHNSON: It's not Platonic. It's not Aristotelian. It's not Jeffersonian. It's not Madisonian, it's not Jacksonian, it's not American democracy. Islam doesn't recognize popular sovereignty. It doesn't recognize pluralism. It doesn't recognize many of the basic human rights that the United Nations recognizes. And that's embedded in our own civil rights, in our own constitutional rights in this country. So to say that there's going to be a committee appointed here or committee appointed there, and these kind of ad hoc temporary things, and that somehow substitutes for the will of the people, I don't think that's going to happen. I think the president is being careful and saying, well, there may be representative government, but a democracy? [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 2/7/11, emphasis added]

Johnson: “Shariah Law Is The Law In Egypt. It's The Basis For All Law.” Johnson went on to assert that “Sharia law is the law in Egypt. It's the basis for all law.” From the show:

DOOCY: Sure. And who's going to be it representing? Because we understand that now, extraordinarily, over the weekend and last -- I think last night into today -- the government has been meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood.


DOOCY: They've been -- the Muslim Brotherhood is at the table, and they're negotiating over the future of Egypt.

JOHNSON: And we have to understand, to begin with, Shariah law is the law in Egypt. It's the basis for all law. They have some other types of law mixed in, the Napoleonic code and other things, but that's the basis of all law. So we have to understand going forward, is it realistic to meld democracy and an Islamic culture? We've tried to engraft democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, pure representative democracies that are Muslim, religious countries, that are Islamic cultures are few and far between across the world. So we have to look carefully, know what our real expectations are, and know how we protect ourselves and our allies like Israel going forward.

DOOCY: Absolutely.

JOHNSON: I'm afraid the people in Egypt, if they're really expecting democracy in those streets today, they're going to be sadly disappointed. Let's see what we can do to assist them. But culturally, it may be impossible.

DOOCY: No kidding, all right. [Fox & Friends, 2/7/11, emphasis added]

Experts Call Johnson's Claims “Silly,” “Idiotic,” “Patently Inaccurate”

Georgetown Professor Of Islamic Studies: Johnson's Claims Seem “Silly”; Claim That Islamic Law Is Not Pluralistic Is “Patently Inaccurate.” In an email to Media Matters, Dr. Jonathan Brown, assistant professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, wrote that the segment “seems silly” and rebutted Johnson's specific claims. Brown wrote:

I watched the segment, and it seems silly. First, I've never seen that most scholars think Islamic [sic] and democracy are incompatible. Also, which scholars is he talking about? American scholars? Muslim scholars?

Second, he hasn't defined what he means by Islam or democracy. He says that whatever democracy there would be in Egypt wouldn't [be] Jeffersonian or Jacksonian or American democracy. Is that really surprising considering that it would not be in America? Isn't it normal to expect that a country would implement democracy in its own way?

Third, the fact is that when you say “Islam doesn't allow X” or “isn't compatible with Y”, you're already saying something incorrect because how Islam and Islamic law are understood and implemented would differ so dramatically from place to place and state to state. Indonesia [and Turkey] are just two versions of Muslim states that combine Islamic law and democracy, and you could look at Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and other countries as well.


As for the idea that Islamic law is not pluralistic, that's patently inaccurate. Jews, Christian, Hindus, Parsis, Buddhists and others all lived in the various Islamic empires that stretched from Spain to India. Non-Muslims enjoyed the protection of the Islamic state, could live according to their own communal laws, settle their disputes in their own courts and practice their religions freely. They sometimes had to pay a tax, but we must remember that Muslims also had to pay the zakat tax that non-Muslims did not have to pay. [Email to Media Matters from Dr. Jonathan Brown, assistant professor of Islamic Studies and Muslim Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, 2/7/11]

Tufts Professor Warde: “Any Statement In Soundbite Form On Religion And Democracy Is Kind Of Silly ... It's An Idiotic Statement.” Responding to Johnson's claim that “most scholars” agree that democracy and Islam are “not compatible,” Dr. Ibrahim A. Warde, adjunct professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and researcher in Middle East politics, described the claim as “dubious.” He added: “As far as serious scholarship, I don't know who he's referring to.” Warde also told Media Matters:

Any statement in soundbite form on religion and democracy is kind of silly. Until not long ago in the U.S., it was kind of majority opinion that in the Catholic church ... there would be no room for democracy, and that Catholics could not adapt to the democratic system. So these kind of soundbites are always kind of silly. ... If Egypt is having problems with democracy, I'm not sure it's because of the Islamic nature of [the country.] .... It's an idiotic statement. [Phone interview with Media Matters, Dr. Ibrahim A. Warde, adjunct professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, 2/7/11]

In response to Johnson's general claim that “in Egypt, we're maybe talking about ... a religious democracy,” Warde said: “That's probably not very [likely]. Right now there's talk about some kind of coalition that would include the Muslim Brothers,” but “in the short run ... it doesn't look like they're necessarily headed in [the] direction” of a religious democracy.

Several Large Muslim-Majority Countries Have Democracies Or Republics

While experts agree that the following countries still need reform to become more free and fair societies, the following countries are Muslim-majority nations that have democratically elected governments.


Indonesia, World's Largest Muslim Country, Is An Independent Republic. According to the U.S. State Department Background Note on Indonesia:

Indonesia is a republic based on the 1945 constitution providing for a separation of executive, legislative, and judicial power. Substantial restructuring has occurred since President Suharto's resignation in 1998 and the short, transitional Habibie administration in 1998 and 1999. The Habibie government established political reform legislation that formally set up new rules for the electoral system, the House of Representatives (DPR), the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), and political parties without changing the 1945 Indonesian constitution. After these reforms, the constitution now limits the president to two terms in office.

Indonesia adopted a bicameral legislative system following the establishment of the DPD (Regional Representatives Council), which was first elected in 2004. The DPD is composed of four representatives from each of Indonesia's 33 provinces. Although it can make proposals and submit opinions on legislative matters concerning the regions, it does not have the power to create legislation.


The president, elected for a 5-year term, is the top government and political figure. The president and the vice president were elected by popular vote for the first time on September 20, 2004. [U.S. State Department, accessed 2/7/11]

Freedom House Rates Indonesia A “Free” Society. Based on a number of measures of political and civic freedoms, the nonprofit human rights organization Freedom House rates Indonesia a “free” society. The organization gives Indonesia a “political rights” score of 2 and a “civil liberties” score of 3, on a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 representing the most free and 7 the least free. [Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2010 Survey, accessed 2/7/11]


Turkey's Government Is “Democratic, Secular, And Parliamentary.” According to the State Department, “The 1982 Constitution, drafted by the military in the wake of a 1980 military coup, proclaims Turkey's system of government as democratic, secular, and parliamentary.” From the State Department:

The 1982 Constitution, drafted by the military in the wake of a 1980 military coup, proclaims Turkey's system of government as democratic, secular, and parliamentary. The presidency's powers are not precisely defined in practice, and the president's influence depends on his personality and political weight. The president and the Council of Ministers, led by the prime minister, share executive powers. The current president, who has broad powers of appointment and supervision, was elected by Parliament in August 2007 for a 7-year term. Pursuant to a constitutional amendment package approved by voters in an October 2007 referendum, the president is directly elected by the voters for a term of 5 years and can serve for a maximum of two terms. The prime minister administers the government. The prime minister and the Council of Ministers are responsible to Parliament. [U.S. State Department, accessed 2/7/11]

Freedom House Rates Turkey “Partly Free.” Freedom House rated Turkey “Partly Free.” The organization gave Turkey a political rights score of 3 and a civil liberties score of 3. [Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2010 Survey, accessed 2/7/11]


Bangladesh's Government Is “Elected By Universal Suffrage.” According to the State Department, Bangladesh's “legislature is a unicameral, 300-seat body. All of its members are elected by universal suffrage at least every five years.” From the State Department:

The prime minister is appointed by the president. The prime minister must be a Member of Parliament (MP) who the president feels commands the confidence of the majority of other MPs. The cabinet is composed of ministers selected by the prime minister and appointed by the president. At least 90% of the ministers must be MPs. The other 10% may be non-MP experts or “technocrats” who are not otherwise disqualified from being elected MPs. According to the constitution, the president can dissolve Parliament upon the written request of the prime minister.

The legislature is a unicameral, 300-seat body. All of its members are elected by universal suffrage at least every five years. Parliament amended the constitution in May 2004, making a provision for 45 seats reserved for women to be distributed among political parties in proportion to their numerical strength in Parliament. Several women's groups have demanded direct election to fill the reserved seats for women. [U.S. State Department, accessed 2/7/11]

Freedom House Rates Bangladesh “Partly Free.” Freedom House rated Bangladesh “Partly Free.” The organization gave Bangladesh a political rights score of 3 and a civil liberties score of 4. [Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2010 Survey, accessed 2/7/11]

Egyptian Law Is Not Sharia; Comparison To Iran “Dangerously Misleading”

BBC: “Sharia Law In Egypt Applies Only In Personal Status Issues.” A February 2008 BBC article about Sharia law explained:

Sharia law in Egypt applies only in personal status issues - such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and custody of children. Otherwise the legal system is entirely a secular one, on the model of the French legal system.

Egypt incorporates Islamic law into its constitution by making Islam the official religion of the country and Islamic jurisprudence the principal source of legislation.

Sharia courts and judges, qadis, are run and licensed by the Egyptian Ministry of Justice, not by mosques.

Islamists in Egypt are pressing for Sharia law to be applied in all areas of the legal system.

A non-religious Supreme Court operates above the Sharia personal status courts and the secular criminal courts.

Religious minorities in Egypt are governed under separate personal status laws and courts.

Coptic Christians in Egypt marry under Christian law, and foreigners marry under the laws of their countries of origin. [BBC, 2/8/08]

Brown: “Nothing In Egyptian Law Can Contradict Shariah” But “Only Family Law In Egypt Is Primarily Shariah Derived.” In an email to Media Matters, Brown further explained:

In 1980 the Egyptian constitution was changed from saying that Shariah was a major source of law to “the” primary source, but all that has meant is that nothing in Egyptian law can contradict the Shariah. The Egyptian Constitutional Court and Administrative court has interpreted this very liberally, using a modernist interpretation of Shariah that makes it difficult to say that something is against the Shariah. The bulk of Egypt's law code comes from European civil law codes with adjustments to make it more compatible with Egypt's heritage of Islamic law (this was done by the famous SECULAR Egyptian jurist Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanhuri (d. 1971). Only family law in Egypt is primarily Shariah derived. [Brown email to Media Matters, 2/7/11]

Warde: It's “Not Correct” That “Sharia Law Is The Basis Of All Law” In Egypt. In an interview with Media Matters, Warde responded to Johnson's claim that “Sharia law is the ... basis of all law” in Egypt, by saying, “That's not correct. It's just one of the sources of legislation. The role of the Sharia was upgraded during the Sadat administration. There are many other sources of law.” [Warde phone interview with Media Matters, 2/7/11]

Experts Say Comparison To 1979 Iran Is “Dangerously Misleading.” As Media Matters has previously noted, many experts say that comparing the current unrest in Egypt to the 1979 revolution in Iran is a “dangerously misleading” and largely inaccurate comparison. [Media Matters, 2/3/11]