The compatibility of Islam with democracy has been an oft-debated topic since the early 90s when Samuel Huntington published The Clash of Civilizations. The question became increasingly urgent in the aftermath of 9/11, as the U.S. engaged radical Islamic elements in a protracted war. Now, with the recent “Arab Spring” and the large numbers of displaced Arabs fleeing the Middle East toward Europe and America, the question is once again highly pertinent. The relation between Islam and democracy is far more complicated than most people understand, and while I tend to think there is no reason that Islam and democracy can’t be reconciled, there are certain complicating factors that require deeper consideration.
The biggest obstacle to full democracy is Islam’s intolerant views towards women. Very few Arab Muslim countries have enfranchised women, and some countries like Saudi Arabia don’t even allow women to operate motor vehicles. Disenfranchising roughly 50% of the population is antithetical to democracy, and until Middle Eastern countries recognize that women have much to contribute to society, they will always be imperfect democracies. However, it’s important to remember that the Middle East makes up only around 1/3rd of Islam. There are large Islamic populations in Pakistan and Indonesia as well as in Europe and the Americas. While there are certainly equality problems in the Middle East, this appears to primarily be an Arab problem, not a Muslim problem. Women are mistreated in non-Middle Eastern countries as well, of course, but rarely to the same degree as in the Arab world. Moreover, a number of surveys found that barring the question of women, Arabs are actually marginally more tolerant of foreigners and “others” than many in the West. After all, with people like Donald Trump and Victor Orbán succeeding in advanced liberal democracies, it’s hard to argue that the West is all that more cosmopolitan than many Middle Eastern states.
Another complicating factor is the incessant political instability found in many Muslim-majority countries: Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq have all have experienced brutal and oppressive regimes. It’s important to remember, however, that these regimes are largely secular. Assad, Nasser, Sissi, Hussein, and the Pakistani junta were all secular, not Islamic. Indeed, the Middle East fully embraced secularism in the 60s and 70s under the auspices of Pan-Arabism. This project failed to deliver tangible results to the people, however, as basic social services were not provided. In response, people turned to religious groups and charities to acquire basic welfare. This is really what led to the embrace of Islamic-based parties like the Muslim Brotherhood. It wasn’t that Arabs rejected secular government; it was that secular government failed Arab populations. Ironically, Iran – arguably the most ostensibly theocratic of any Muslim-majority state – is one of the most democratic states in the Middle East with the possible exceptions of Jordan and Tunisia. In other words, while there have assuredly been major governance problems in Islamic countries, most of the problems stem from corrupt and incompetent secular governments, not fanatic religious ones. Moreover, in S.E. Asian countries like Indonesia, the government is almost completely secular despite the overwhelming Muslim majority in the country. Just because a country has a large Muslim population does not mean that Islamic governance or Sharia Law will necessarily be implemented. One need only look at Turkey and Indonesia to understand this.
There are positive aspects of Islam as well. First and foremost is the peaceful integration of most Muslims in the West. From Scotland to the United States, very few Muslims oppose democracy or embrace radical tactics to air their grievances. As Alfred Stephan points out in his piece Twin Tolerations, people must understand that Islam has its own traditions and culture. People in the West must tolerate these differences in exchange for Islamic civil society’s toleration of Western political institutions like democracy and free speech. Countries that are relatively more oppressive and aggressively secular like France tend to face more problems with extremists while more accepting places like Scotland have virtually no problems with radicalization. As Evan pointed out in his piece on FADA, too many Christians in the U.S. want to carve about special religious exemptions for themselves while imposing harsh regulations on Muslims. This isn’t toleration; this is bigotry and discrimination. At least in this sense, it’s not Muslims who are opposed to equality and freedom for all, it’s radical evangelicals.
Islam is also uniquely suited to democracy in that there is no central, hierarchical body like the Vatican. Islam is much more like Protestantism and Judaism, traditions which allow more variation from parish to parish and from person to person. To be sure, this presents difficulties because it means that anyone, no matter how radical, can decide to interpret the Koran. There aren’t institutional bodies to regulate religious teachings and ensure only moderate interpretations are circulated. However, there is much more egalitarianism, as each person is able to decide his or her own spiritual views. And, if Catholics and Protestants are a guide, Islam’s lack of a central religious body is beneficial. Catholic countries are far more corrupt and authoritarian than their Protestant cousins. Thus, it is at least reasonable to assume that the lack of a central hierarchy is an advantage.
In conclusion, the story of Islam and democracy is a complex one. There are certainly real problems standing in the way of full democracy in much of the Islamic world. Nevertheless, many of the obstacles to liberalization and democracy do not arise from religion. Many are purely secular in nature. The West should continue to promote liberalization and democracy in the Middle East and Muslim world more generally, but overall I am optimistic. If Tunisia is any indicator of the future the Middle East could have, I don’t think we should give up just yet.