Democracy Can Flourish in the Islamic World

News Abroad

Dr. Sullivan is a professor of economics at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of the National Defense University of any entity of the US government.

Democracy and Islam have the potential to be very flexible and mobile concepts, as Noah Feldman would put it. Islam has shown a great deal of flexibility and mobility in its application within many different cultures and societies from Morocco, to Egypt, to Saudi Arabia, to Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa. Democracy has flourished in many different parts of the world. There is no particular problem with democracy that should not allow it to also flourish in the Arab world.

As a matter of fact, the Arab world is ripe for it. The problem is that some Arab leaders do not want it. They would rather have their power, wealth, and wasta (connections), rather than the deserved peace, prosperity and justice for their people. If the flexible and mobile sides of democracy and Islam are allowed to flourish and develop then we all may have greater hopes for peace, prosperity, and freedom. Without democracy there is no freedom. If the inflexible sides of each of these concepts is allowed to develop more so they we should all expect more trouble, more war, and more terrorism.

There is no doubt that Islam and democracy can occur at the same time in many different places in the world, if the people in these places are allowed to work through amongst themselves what combination of Islam and democracy would work best for them. The concepts of shura (consultation), ijma (consensus) , and ijtihad (interpretation) are Islamic concepts that can be used to develop greater freedoms and democracy in Islamic contexts for many people.

The process of melding Islam and democracy could take decades. It will also take massive efforts on the parts of the ulema (the religious elite), political leaders, and others to work things through. The end result may be a synthesis that is very different from what democracy may look like in other countries. It may be very different from what the U.S. might think it wants to happen.

However, if the synthesis is allowed to occur naturally and appropriately then the results could be much better than the U.S. could have ever hoped for, even if the physical and political entity may seem foreign and strange to the American mind. The end objectives to political and economic developments should be peace, prosperity, freedom, and the betterment at many levels of one's people and of the world.

Short term policy objectives and myopic strategies should not get in the way of the melding of two world historical ideas and their implementations. In Islamic terms: democracy in an Islamic context can bring greater adel (justice) and mizan (balance or equilibrium) to a people in a Muslim country.

There will be the very complex issues of how to treat non-Muslims, religious freedom and the choice of family and other laws. In the past, the Islamic world has been able to overcome many of these obstacles. Maybe it is time, oddly and paradoxically enough, to return to some of the greater freedoms and understandings of the past that have been torn away from the people by the both the political and religious dictators, and by the closing of the door of ijtihad. Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together in peace for very long periods in the past. Maybe it is time to implement changes that will allow such peaceful coexistence to flourish more propitiously in the future. Democratization is but one of the required changes, but a vital one.

The U.S., the European Union and others can help in the process of democratization, but ultimately it has to be up to the people of each of these countries to decide what their futures hold. The U.S. cannot and should not do this on its own. The negative views in the region of U.S. policies may cause the process to backfire if the U.S. tries to go it alone, or if he democratization process has a strong U.S. stamp on it. Democracy, like Islam, cannot and should not be forced on anyone. There is no compulsion in religion, according to the Koran, the word of God according to Muslims. There should also be no compulsion in the choices of one's leaders, or in the choices of processes that lead up to the choosing of leaders.

Democracy is a great system if it developed and applied properly, and if it is developed and applied within the cultural, religious, and ethical constraints of a society. This is especially so in Islamic societies. Islam is a great, profound and beautiful religion. Muslims deserve the freedom to be Muslims. Muslims deserve prosperity and peace. Appropriately formed democracies can help give them that.

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erden el - 6/21/2004

Hello! I am Erden El.I live in Turkey, which has a 95 per cent muslim majority. I am also muslim and I am watching the terrorist deeds of a group of so-called muslims with anxiety. I would love to say that those ruthless deeds do not become Islamic doctrine and we as muslims strictly refuse and depriciate such institutions.Thank you for your invaluable comments.Regards!

Josh S Narins - 4/5/2004

Mr. Livingston, you are the man!

You need to get to Iraq, post haste, to convert all those sandy, terrorists into True Christians(tm)(all rights reserved), so the great military of America's can democratize them!

Iraqis need our love. Bomb them with Jesus!

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/30/2004

The Weimar example that Mr. Larison brings up is an interesting one. Although weak, the Weimar government might have lumbered along and even stabilized over time--if the Great Depression had not sent the economy into yet another tailspin.

The Iraqi government will probably lumber along for a time, too. Whether it gets a chance to stabilize may depend on things outside of their and our control.

See Jonathon Dresner's fine HNN column this week for more on that line of thought.

Daniel B. Larison - 3/29/2004

Just to be clear about my position, I am entirely in favour of allowing the Iraqis to find their own way. Mr. Chamberlain makes a good point that the current plans include restraints, in theory, on various kinds of excess and concentration of power. Let us hope that such plans meet with greater acceptance and success than that other "most liberal" constitution signed at Weimar. On paper, it looked excellent, and Germany had many more advantages in making it work than these folks do.
Incidentally, it will be wonderful to see all interventionist "socialists," statists and other such troublemakers of all nationalities and parties stay out of other nations' affairs as much as is humanly possible.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/29/2004

I'm not quite sure what Shannon means by "Western socialist", but the general point is well taken. If we are serious about democracy being the best system, we must step back and let the people of Iraq define it for themselves. It probably will be more theocratic than we would prefer, but that will be their decision.

The point made by others that democracy in its literal meaning is not always good for liberty is well taken. However, for better or worse, most of the governmental proposals that I have seen have some form of checks and balances that limit somewhat the will of the majority. Whether those will protect religious freedom, or the rights of women, or many other ideals that we hold dear is less certain.

William Livingston - 3/29/2004

For all I'd like to accept Dr. Sullivan's cheery assessment, but the plain fact is Islam & democracy do not mix when there are substanyial religious minorities in predominantly or even heavily Moslem countries. Moslems' inferiority complexes compell them to act violently against prosperous religious minorities. Just look at Pakistan, Nigeria and the Sudan.

His contention that "Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together in peace for very long periods in the past" igores some of the inconvenient aspects of those long periods of peace. For instance, Jews & Christians were free to prsctice their faiths usually only if they paid higher taxes and wore particular dress identfying them as different, as Jews & Christians. Forget not too the stealing of Christian children, boys, from their families to be raised as Jannisaries.

Nowhere do democracy & Islam exist together if Islam is permitted to be the guide to goverance. In theory Indonesia is a plualist society, but Christians are always under seige there. Pakistan has more than a million and a quarter Catholics but Christians there are second class citizens and constantly subject to violent attack by militant Moslems. It is telling too that around the world Moslems are constantly at war with their neighbors, whether Jew, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or secular minded.

Shannon L Anaya - 3/28/2004

My prayer for the Iraqi people is that the Western Socialist talking heads stay out of Iraq so that democracy has an opportunity to flourish regardless of what Islamic slant it may take. It's bad enought that the Socialists in America and Europe are already politically undermining the success of Iraq. Those people don't need another divisive element added to what they are already dealing with.

Daniel B. Larison - 3/25/2004

Mr. Lederer states the point quite well, and I agree with the necessary connection between the religious and political cultures of a place. It is the problem of clashing cultural traditions that makes me very skeptical of the success of implanting any kind of recognisable 'democracy' in the Near East. It has been possible in Turkey, to some extent, but only at the significant expense of very plainly forcing Islam out of much of its historic political and social role. AK is walking a tightrope right now, and it seems to me it can only maintain its harmonious relationship with secularism as long as its constituents believe it is necessary to get what they want; eventually, they will run out of patience, and then we will see what Islamic democracy means (assuming the army stays out of it). One of the things that I have often found admirable about Islam is the conception of the applicability of its revelation to the entirety of life, including the conduct of the state, but this compromises democratic sovereignty. In a sense, if Islamic law were to be supreme in an 'Islamic democracy', that would in itself possibly serve as a curb on certain popular excesses, but would also probably guarantee violations of the freedoms of minorities, as I mentioned before.

There have been elements in Islamic thought in the past that might be more amenable to a conception of personal 'rights', such as the Mu'tazila 'school' that flourished in the ninth century. It seems to me that their affirmation of a near-autonomous free will, their willingness to take reason as an authority with greater weight in Koranic interpretation and their (admittedly heretical) conviction that the Koran is created might have created the potential for Islamic political theories to develop mechanisms for Koranic criticism, as well as an idea of natural law and, eventually, a conception of rights stemming from that law. But that path was closed forever by approximately the start of the tenth century, and it can hardly be reopened without challenging some of the fundamental elements of orthodox Sunni Islam.

But in the process of analysing this problem, it is worth reconsidering whether the Enlightenment conception of 'rights' is lacking in substance. Does such a one-dimensional conception of human freedom, which can tend to simply make 'right' into indulgence, not leave a potentially worthwhile political system, such as grew up in the West, open to the successful criticisms of those elsewhere who can appeal to people by privileging social loyalties, community and justice? And if the West wanted to offer a substantial alternative political vision to the Islamic world, one that is different from both the current realities of power and the established theoretical roles of Islam in politics, is the Enlightenment view really meaningful enough to satisfy Muslim peoples when it requires them to give up much of what they have taken for granted (even if they find elements of it unwelcome)?

The real test of the success of 'transforming' the Near East is whether the peoples of the region will accept with any less struggle the assumptions of the Enlightenment than the peoples of Europe did. There was some considerable resistance to those assumptions in Europe for at least 200 years from the first stirrings in the mid-seventeenth century. While it may be the case that certain extremist forms of Islam lack credibility in parts of the Near East, it would appear that Islam as a source of authority and meaning has not suffered the same sort of scandal that Enlightenment thinkers perceived in Christendom in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Where the political activities and abuses of churches in those centuries purportedly led, in the eyes of the philosophes and an increasing number of people, to the disrepute of religion, the political attitudes of Islamic clerics seem to both fashion and represent, to a much higher degree, broader, popular sentiments. There are secular intellectuals in the Islamic world, of course, but the ground is not fertile for their seeds of dissent and skepticism.

It may be only through the perverse abuse of Islam in its more extreme forms that there will be a broader disenchantment with the religion by more people--hardly an encouraging thought. It may be that, ironically, by attempting to quash that extremism that the rise of the 'cult of reason' in the Islamic world, so to speak, will be delayed that much longer. However, in light of the damage wrought to the West by that same cult, it is not clear that its success would be entirely in the best interests of the people there.

John H. Lederer - 3/24/2004

Democracy certainly does not seem a defender of freedom to me.

I suspect the key preconditions are several philosophical points, heavily rooted in religion, that we seem to lose track of.

1. Individuals have inherent rights
2. Government, though necessary, is the antithesis of these rights.

One more knowledgeable about religion than I would have to comment on to the degree to which the philosphical and religious foundations in the Middle East would support these concepts.

Daniel B. Larison - 3/24/2004

Among many highly optimistic and questionable statements, Mr. Sullivan bluntly states something that is probably widely accepted, but which is also completely inaccurate. He writes: "Without democracy there is no freedom." Americans are familiar with all the rote reasons why this is supposed to be the case, but a more accurate assessment would be that democracy need not necessarily destroy freedom, even though democracy and any sort of guaranteed liberties or liberty from government as Westerners have understood it are by and large at odds.

If democracy is very basically the rule of the many and the assumption of political equality, then by its definition it is the enemy of guaranteed liberties. The idea that majoritarian rule and liberty are mutually reinforcing assumes, without much evidence or precedent, that the majority will value that liberty above all other goods. If it hasn't been true in the West (rhetoric notwithstanding), why will it be true anywhere else? Whether it is social justice, nationalism or religion, the peoples of the Islamic world have a number of priorities ahead of that liberty.

There are ways in which this antagonism can be mediated and reduced, but the history of the rise of modern democracy is also the rise of the intrusive state. It may be a more or less 'benign' intrusive state, but it is intrusive and arbitrary nonetheless. This is not a paradox. The intrusive state is as much a product of democratic ideology as it is a product of other revolutionary ideologies, and all of these create arbitrary government. In that sense, it perhaps correct to say that democracy and Islam might be able to coexist and 'thrive', but if it is freedom from government that one would like to see in the Islamic world then democracy is far and away one of the worst options.

But if it is peace and inter-religious toleration that Mr. Sullivan wishes for the Islamic world, why would he want to empower the majority with supreme sovereignty (that is, after all, what democracy does)? If governments in the Near East come to reflect popular sentiment more, legal protections and toleration for Christians will at best be circumscribed if not severely weakened. The flip side of what toleration there was in the medieval and pre-modern periods is that Islamic law was supreme in those societies. That may allow for some toleration, but it is premised on a religious ruling class and the reduction of the religious liberties of minorities. I happen to think that if the Near Eastern states go that route, then it is entirely their business, but some of the enthusiasts for democracy in the Near East may not be so, well, tolerant of that development.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/24/2004

With that understanding of mentoring, I can see your point. Likewise I agree that the US might have more success in this regard if we acted as if being a democracy was important on a consistent basis.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/23/2004

Indeed, there are probably more echoes of the "white man's burden" in the idea of "mentorship" than I accounted for. That wasn't my intention, obviously.

Actually, I've argued the same thing about the US Revolution in my world history classes: that the foundation of the post-revolution government was the very tradition of self-rule and participatory politics which came directly from Great Britain.

What I was getting at was the idea that a functioning and open democracy can, through engagement and education, help to foster the development of other healthy democracies. Um, examples? Well, Japan and South Korea come to mind, because they're in my field. The problem with making this argument is that I'm trying to reify a kind of subtle moral influence, and that makes it both difficult to prove and to falsify. And, in practical terms, the US has often mixed its pro-democratic rhetoric and example with anti-democratic policies.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/23/2004

I have seen a number of claims of mentorship, but by the mentors themselves. How many cases are there of countries acknowledging that they were mentored?

After all, the British can argue quite reasonbably that they mentored us, until we rebelled.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/22/2004

As much as I agree with Dr. Sullivan, I can't let one thing pass by. He says that "There will be the very complex issues of how to treat non-Muslims. ... Democracy, like Islam, cannot and should not be forced on anyone. There is no compulsion in religion, according to the Koran ... Muslims deserve the freedom to be Muslims. Muslims deserve prosperity and peace."

The issue is actually quite simple: Non-Muslims deserve the freedom to be non-Muslims, even in "Islamic" societies. I'm not going to argue that democracy is incompatible with differential citizenship (that's the way we did it here for a long, long time) but suggest strongly that his "hands-off" formula ignores the right and responsibility of the world to speak out in favor of protections and rights for minorities. I'm not going to argue for a single model of functional democracy, but point out that there is no functional democracy which has a strong, integral religious component.

While my feelings about intervention and interference are mixed, Dr. Sullivan's model suggests that the right thing will more likley happen without US involvement, and I'm not convinced. Engagement with the whole world is necessary, and if we make the case (and follow through) that we are for greater individual rights, more responsive government, and the prosperity that can come from a more open and engaged society, then our involvement will be seen as mentorship, rather than imperialism.