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Can Islam Accommodate Democracy Or Democracy Accommodate Islam?

[ IT ]Benjamin R. Barber

It is absurd to think that Islam cannot accommodate democracy or that democracy cannot accommodate Islam. It is not Islam per se, but religion tout court that stands in some tension with secularism and with democracy – a tension that is healthy rather than unhealthy in a free society. Like Christianity and other religions, Islam is a religion practiced in many cultures and societies, sectarian, stratified, schismatic and pluralistic. To the degree Islam is fundamentalist, so is religion in many places, because in our secular age religion is under siege and fundamentalism is above all a reaction to religion under siege.

This is the paper presented by the author at the Istanbul Seminars organized by Reset Dialogues on Civilizations in Istanbul from June 2nd to the 6th 2008.

There is a powerful rhetoric around today that claims Islam – not just fundamentalist or Wahhabist or Safalist Islam, but Islam itself is a religion hostile to democracy. Hostile not only to liberty, pluralism and the open society, but to modernity itself as it is defined by liberal values. The attitude evident in Samuel Huntington’s discredited notion of a “clash of civilizations” in which the West and the rest are locked in a struggle for survival, so foreign to discussions like our here in Istanbul, in fact remains ubiquitous in Western politics and media.

It is found not only in Bush’s zealous conduct of a disastrous war on the “axis of evil,” or Donald Rumsfeld’s assertion that Islamic fundamentalism is a “new form of fascism;” or in right wing paranoiac events like David Horowitz’s “Islamofascism Awareness Week,” but is reflected also in writings of liberals like Paul Berman who talk about how the West is “beset with terrorists from the Muslim totalitarian movements who have already killed an astounding number of people;” or in scholars like Bernard Lewis who announce in hushed tones of sympathy that “the world of Islam has become poor, weak and ignorant;” or in Muslim apostates like Ali Hirsi who combine a seemingly liberal appeal to feminist values with a total rejection of not just fundamentalism but Islam itself.

These arguments may in their polemical zealotry beyond rational rebuttal, but Professor Habermas would I think prefer that they be rationally confronted and refuted. That is certainly my view if we wish to get on with the difficult work of crafting democracy in societies that take religion seriously – nearly all societies. I want to offer six straightforward arguments, some historical, some sociological, and some philosophical – all reasonable and commonsensical in the broader sense of rational – that suggest why it is absurd to think that Islam cannot accommodate democracy or that democracy cannot accommodate Islam.

FIRST: It is not Islam per se, but religion tout court that stands in some
tension with secularism and with democracy – a tension that is healthy rather than unhealthy in a free society. Augustine’s Two Cities and Pope Gelasius’s two swords speak to a world of the body and a world of the spirit, of the temporal and the eternal, the worldly and the ecclesiastic. These dualisms do not arise out of theology but inform theology with the deep logic of duality that defines our being. The opposition of morality and politics, and of divine or natural and positive law, is transferred to the opposition of church and state that produces troublesome but healthy tensions for societies everywhere.

SECOND: Sociologists from Tocqueville and Durkheim to that American sociologist of democracy Robert Bellah have insisted free societies have been constructed on a religious foundation that lends them stability and affords them the luxury of political disagreement. It is precisely religion that grounds democratic nations and bonds peoples who might otherwise be fatally divided by their economic and social differences and their political disagreements. As Tocqueville wrote in his Ancien Regime, “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot…. Religion is more needed in democratic republics than in any others. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is weakened?”. Civil society is vital to a pluralistic democracy but its bonds are often thin. Religion can be a powerful source of social capital, which is perhaps why Rousseau understood that in the absence of religion a society might require civil religion – what Habermas called Verfassungspatriotismus (the American’s “civic faith”) – to remain free.

THIRD: Like Christianity and other religions, Islam is a religion practiced in many cultures and societies, sectarian, stratified, schismatic and pluralistic. We Christians speak easily of Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists, Mormons, Pentacostals, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Mennonites, Jehovah’s witnesses, Dutch Reformed, Greek Orthodox, Unitarians, Christian Scientists, Universalists, Evangelicals – 200 sects or more – while Thomas Jefferson said “I myself am a sect”! But we find it hard to comprehend that Muslims are also sectarians and schismatics whose religion looks different culture by culture and society by society. Only around 15% of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are Arabs but it’s hard to tell how many Westerners know that by far the largest proportion of Muslims reside in India and Indoneia. Even Bernard Lewis writes his history of Islam’s “decline” through the lens of the Middle East, primarily the Ottamans.

FOURTH: While we like to pretend that religion in the modern era is and should be private, parochial and conventionalist, it remains public, universal and moralistic. It is a creature of the Nomos (the universal law) rather than of the Ethnos. It wishes to occupy the public square (though not necessarily City Hall) and its claims necessarily rival the claims of positive law. Even early societies pitted their conventional “sumptuary laws” regulating public behavior against the positive laws of the state, and there is no religion that does not yield a version of Sharia. Are the Ten Commandments that inform the Mosaic Law meant to be private or less than universal?

A seventeenth century Puritan preacher called Prynne wrote a tract instructing parishioners that among forbidden pursuits were “effeminate mixt dancing, Dicing (gambling), stage-playes, lascivious pictures, wanton fashions, face-painting, health drinking, long haire, love-locks, periwigs, womens curling, powdering and curtting of their hair, bon-fires, new year’s gifts, May-games, amorous pastorals, lascivious effeminiate musicke, excessive laughter, (and) luxurious disorderly Christmas keeping,” all of which are “wicked, unchristian past-times” of a kind that make men “adulterers, whore-masters, bawds, panderers, ruffians, roarers, drunkards, prodigals, and cheaters… (that is) idle, infamous, base, profane and Godless perons who hat all grace and goodness and make a mock of piety.” Such were the Taliban of Puritan’s early years around the time they settled New England and set America on the road to a Puritan Commonwealth and in time a democratic republic – one in which today, in many states, it is still impossible to buy alcohol on Sunday.

FIFTH: To the degree Islam is fundamentalist, so is religion in many places, because in our secular age religion is under siege and fundamentalism is above all a reaction to religion under siege. As religion was once the air we breathed and the ether in which we moved, today commerce, secularism and materialism are the air we breathe and the ether in which we move. Indeed, there are many who insist democracy is little more than the triumph of commerce and the victory of scientistic materialism – which may be why fundamentalists seeking to secure their religions take aim not only at modernity but at democracy as well. American Protestant fundamentalists who school their children at home are little different than Muslim fundamentalists who oppose encroaching capitalist markets. Both see in Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the consumerist franchises that now encircle the world and dominate the media and the internet a two way sewer – one that carries away their own values even as it spews into their homes the violent, pornographic images of “wild capitalism” that compel consumers to drink from its sewers in order that its markets flourish.

In other words, fundamentalism, which is religion under siege, is to some considerable degree reactionary rather than proactive. It responds to exogenous forces that it perceives as weakening its mores, endangering its values, seducing its children, and destroying its communities. There is much hyperbole and misunderstanding in such reactions but there are also truths whose nature I have tried to divine in my Jihad vs. McWorld. The crucial conclusion of that analysis is that Jihad and McWorld both need and produce one another and are alike hostile to democracy. Fundamentalism, unlike ordinary religion, will not support democracy. But neither will the forces of McWorld that drive fundamentalists to the wall or over the precipice.

SIXTH AND LAST: We have seen that the conviction that Islam cannot accommodate democracy is rooted in a shallow and incomplete understanding of Islam. But it is also true that the conviction that democracy cannot accommodate Islam is rooted in a shallow and incomplete understanding of democracy – one that tends to assimilate democratization to Americanization or Westernization or marketization. It is tied to the false view that there is but one kind of democracy, one road to liberty, one formula for translating the theory of justice into just practices. But historically and philosophically, democracy is singular not plural. We would benefit enormously by simply talking about it in the plural rather than the singular: not “democracy” but “democracies.”

It would require a separate essay to suggest how deeply perverse the typical American understanding of democratization is when it comes to “helping” others achieve liberty. The problem begins with the illusion that others can be helped, that democracy can be “given” or liberty “gifted.” No people have ever by liberated from the outside at the point of a gun. An invader may overthrow a tyrant, but cannot create a democracy by doing so. Overthrowing tyranny produces not democracy but instability, disorder, anarchy, often civil war; it tends to lead over time not to democracy but to a new tyrant. President Bush alludes again and again to World War II, but the victory of the Allies over the Nazi regime did not produce democracy. It took re-education, the Marshall Plan, the United Nations and the European Community to do that.

Nor can freedom be given to others; it must be won by those who seek it from the inside. And for them to establish it, it must be constructed bottom up not top down. First educate citizens and do the hard slow work of making a civil society; then build a political infrastructure on top of it. The Americans had a hundred years of experience with municipal liberty and citizen competence before they declared independence. Democracy takes time. The Swiss began in 1291 and gave women the vote only in 1961. The British grounded rights in a Magna Carta in 1215 and fought a Glorious Revolution in 1688 and are still saddled with a House of Lords and a monarchy. The Americans spent the first 80 years of their young Republic trying to figure out how to separate it from slavery, which they ultimately achieved only by dint of a bloody civil war. Yet pessimists expect Iran to get it right in two or three years, while optimists think Iraq needs only another six months.

If patience is required and democracy is built bottom up, then elections come last not first. The rush to vote is generally a sign that the ground for democracy has not been prepared; and when voting occurs in the absence of educated and competent citizens, we can be sure that the prospects for liberty and justice are poor. First come schools, civic education, autonomous civic institutions, and plural civil associations. Then come elections. In helping to enrich and extend civil society, religion can help build a foundation for democratic governance.

Finally, if democracy is plural and distinctive from one society to another, that the road to democracy comes not from imitation and borrowing but from excavation and invention. Every society has democratic tendencies, proto-democratic habits, institutions that foster deliberation, debate and equality. In one place it may be a Loya Jirga that affords negotiation and partial consensus among rival tribes. In another it may be the fraternal and deliberative potentials of tribes themselves: remember how the Founders admired the Mohawk Indians. There are many forms of assembly and many levels of participation any one of which may under the right conditions produce self-government.

In the end, the plurality of democracy mandates that the indispensable condition of democracy is empowerment. And that those who would “help” others learn liberty, learn to leave them alone. As T. E. Lawrence wrote a long time ago, “better to let hem do it imperfectly than to do it yourself perfectly: for it is their country, their way and your time is short.” If democracy means anything it means the right for people to make their own mistakes. To practice their own religion. To purse their own forms of self-government. I know, I know. That takes time. It can compromise rights. It sometimes allows patriarchy to persist and affords religion the chance to subvert as well as support democracy. But that’s how it is, and history suggests the alternatives, however well intended, are usually far worse. Just ask George Bush.

Benjamin R. Barber is the Kekst Professor of Civil Society at the University of Maryland and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos in New York City.

28 Jun 2008

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