Jul 8th 2013

Is Islam Compatible With Democracy?

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

The question raised by the ouster of Egypt’s President Morsi is whether Islam is compatible with democracy or any form of government that empowers the people and limits the power of leaders to hold merely representative offices with limited terms of public service.

Islam is the most recent of the Abrahamic religions to emerge on the world stage. Monotheism in general, and specifically as it developed in the Dark and Middle Ages, in principle reflects extremely authoritarian regimes.

Theologically, it posits a cosmic or heavenly hierarchy with absolute authority in God, angels in go-between positions, and a fallen humanity in need of salvation at the base of the pyramidal power structure.

It is no surprise then that in the centuries wherein the Catholic Church was at its zenith of influence in the West, political power was held by kings, popes, emperors, and powerful nepotistic and despotic elite with huge economic chasms between the people and their rulers.

Obviously, these structures were not compatible with democracy.

Christianity and Judaism, being monotheistic, are no less inheritors of this stratified and centralized power paradigm, but unlike Islam these religions were effectively secularized and toned down during the century of the European Enlightenment.

Thinkers like Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Kant, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, and Hegel paved the way for Marx, Schopenhauer, Buber, and Sartre to challenge conventional approaches to religious ideologies and political formations.

Traditional monotheism, with its highly categorized view of man and God, may not in itself be wholly compatible with democracy, but modern Western monotheism gradually molded itself to new ways of thinking during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and was certainly forced to do so amid rapid scientific and technological advances.

The Islamic world enjoyed its own renaissance during the Islamic Golden Age (mid-8th to mid-13th century) with advances in the sciences, mathematics, and literature, yet the period declined and has never been restored to its former glory.

Where are Islam’s corresponding great modern philosophers and scientists who can pave the way for a similar transformation of both radical and even secular Islam in the Arab world?

In the Arab world today, the majority of its intellectuals are clerics, imams, and thinkers emerging from the core of Islamic values. Radical Islam simply does not routinely nurture free thinkers willing to brave the fires of what might otherwise become an Islamic Inquisition.

Is it even possible to transition from hierarchical religious authoritarianism to a modernized and even secularized form of Islamic democracy – one that accepts the separation of church and state?

While the possibility and harsh eventuality remains, this is a tall order since Islam, perhaps more than other monotheistic religions, invites itself into every aspect of social life. More specifically, Islam is inherently and by definition inconsistent with the separation of church and state.

It is instructive that the seeming separation between the two occurred under ruthless secular dictators such Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Hafez Assad’s family in Syria, and Qaddafi’s Libya. In all these instances, the authoritarianism seen in the rule of the Islamist Morsi was still there.

The Middle East is not the only place where religious ideology might compel people to vote against their own social, economic, and political interests. But history teaches that if there is any prospect in wedding Islam to democratic ideals, efforts to do so must concurrently work on religious, economic, and political levels.

Religiously, the concept of the separation of church and state has practically no hold in Islamic thinking. The idea is entirely foreign to most Islamic orthodoxy, and even if a political party were secular in name, they dare not forsake the basic tenets of Islam.

The strong religious identity currently imposed on the average citizen would effect a transposition of Islamic views on political affairs, thus nullifying this vital separation of powers and coloring political discourse.

Turkey provides us with a perfect example of the failure to wed Islam to democracy. While Erdogan was supporting economic advances and paying lip service to liberty, he was imprisoning journalists and drawing to himself more and more power, leading the country increasingly by Islamic ethos rather than democratic principles.

As such, Turkey under Prime Minister Erdogan’s stewardship, who claims to have found the perfect formula that balances Islam and democracy, provides a poor model that deeply disappointed the liberal-minded Arab youth who are now fighting against Islamic despotism in Egypt.

Citizens of the Arab world first require a change from the ground up in the way their religion is approached and instituted socially, politically, and economically.

With the rise of free-thinking youth and exposure to new ways of interpreting Islam, a secularized and modernized Islam adapted to modern democratic principles must emerge.

Second, the Arab world needs egalitarian economic development that distances itself from tribal, clannish, and centralizing hegemonic models and seeks to build a strong middle class provided with basic social support in education and health care.

Third, the Arab world needs, perhaps more than anything, time. We must bear in mind that it took centuries for the Western world to free itself from the bondages of religious ignorance and the divine right of kings.

But it won’t take centuries for Arab states to emerge from the past and grow into functioning democracies because unlike the West, it does not need to wait for the concurrent advances in social, physical, and political sciences that paved the way for the industrial revolution and the information age.

The Arab youth are already exposed to new technologies, thus accelerating their ascent to democracy and the supremacy of reason, not revelation, in political discourse.

But that acceleration comes with its own pitfalls, making the current situation doubly serious and potentially calamitous for millions of innocent men, women, and children who are already suffering heavy fallout.

Hence, it is not enough, in the long term, for a country to have just economic development, like Saudi Arabia, or just elections, like Egypt and Iraq. Without balanced development, extremism in even one of the three social institutions will, left unchecked, color the other two.

Even if elected democratically, radical Islamic parties invariably presume upon themselves forms of power reminiscent of tyrannical kings. They simply have few other models for their political might or personal manliness other than monarchical rule. Egypt’s Morsi and Iraq’s Maliki provide telling examples.

I disagree with the notion that the ouster of the freely-elected Morsi will encourage opposition Islamic parties throughout the Arab world to dismiss democratic forms of governing and violently pursue their socio-political agenda in the streets as they lose faith in a free electoral system.

On the contrary, Islamic parties that seek power will do well to learn from the Egyptian experience. Being elected democratically does not bestow authoritarian powers, and governing must be inclusive, representing all the people while equally caring about their welfare, regardless of any political affiliations.

Morsi was not ousted because he is a devout Muslim; everyone who voted for him knew that only too well. Rather, by acting from a radical Islamic bent, he betrayed the premise of a freely-elected leader, which requires accountability, inclusiveness, and the responsibility to live up to the spirit of the revolution.

Moreover, Morsi failed to separate between his Islamic instincts and the democratic principles by which he was empowered to govern.

Morsi repeatedly rejected appeals from the military, the U.S., and even the Salafists to form a new inclusive government to end the crisis.

Intellectuals as well as ordinary Egyptians want their country to be modern, pluralistic, and outward-looking, and do not wish to replace one dictator with another, albeit elected.

Indeed, the blame falls squarely on Morsi’s shoulders; he subordinated politics to religion and succumbed to the conservative and religious branch of Islamists who view political Islam as the answer to centuries of deprivation and of injustice.

He worked tirelessly to consolidate his powers while doing next to nothing to save the economy from pending collapse. He placed himself above judicial review and largely appointed fellow Brothers into key posts while allowing Brotherhood hooligans to beat up liberal opponents.

If this was not enough, he undermined the core of freedom of speech by intimidating the media and failing to build democratic institutions. Moreover, he pushed for a new constitution fully reliant on Sharia law, expanded blasphemy prosecutions, and supported discrimination against women.

To be sure, Morsi surrendered to Islamic siege mentality and authoritarianism in a time when the nation was demanding inclusiveness and political freedom, which was the essence of the revolution against his predecessor in the first place.

Yes, political Islam and democracy can work, but not by pushing for early elections. A transitional government, led by a respected leader who is not shackled by a strong ideology and who can cultivate consensus and has wide public appeal, must take at least two years to allow secular and Islamic parties to develop their political platforms and make the public fully aware of their socio-economic policy and other urgent issues facing their nation.

In the interim, a new constitution should be written based on freedom, democracy and equality with separation of church and state constitutionally enshrined. Any new constitution written in Egypt that does not clearly separate church and state will be doomed to fail, potentially ushering in yet another revolution.1

Brighter days will yet come to Egypt as long as Tahrir Square remains true to its name, “Liberation Square.” The Egyptian people have now acquired the ultimate weapon that prevents despotism–be that military, religious, or secular–from rising to power. Those who seek to lead will do well to remember that.

1. This point will be expanded in a following article, which will model a separation of church and state in Egypt that still provides a prominent role for religion in daily life.



-----------------------

Facts & Arts is a platform for owners of high quality content to distribute their content to a worldwide audience.

Facts & Arts' objective is to enhance the distribution of individual owners' content by combining various types of high quality content that can be assumed to interest the same audience. The thinking is that in this manner the individual pieces of content on Facts & Arts support the distribution of one another.

If you have fitting written material, classical music or videos; or if you would like to become one of our regular columnists, a book reviewer or music reviewer; or if you wish to market or broadcast a live event through Facts & Arts, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we have to recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version of Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars, but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition – a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Is it not extraordinary that in a country that claims to be as enlightened and advanced as ours, the combined wealth of three individuals – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett – exceeds the total wealth of the bottom half of Americans? One has to return to the days of the pharaohs of Egypt to find a parallel to the extreme wealth inequality that we see in in America today." ...... "The top tax rate remained above 90 percent through the 1950s and did not dip below 70 percent until 1981. At no point during the decades that saw America’s greatest economic growth did the tax on the wealthy drop below 70 percent. Today it is somewhere around 37 percent. President Biden’s American Families Plan would increase the top tax rate to 39.6 percent – a fairly modest alteration, albeit in the right direction. It is true that there was a time when the top marginal tax was even lower than it is today: in the years leading up to the Great Depression it hovered around 25 percent."
Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Although the Fed is considering tapering its quantitative easing (QE), it will likely remain dovish and behind the curve overall. Like most central banks, it has been lured into a “debt trap” by the surge in private and public liabilities (as a share of GDP) in recent years. Even if inflation stays higher than targeted, exiting QE too soon could cause bond, credit, and stock markets to crash. That would subject the economy to a hard landing, potentially forcing the Fed to reverse itself and resume QE." ---- "After all, that is what happened between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, following the Fed’s previous attempt to raise rates and roll back QE."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Today’s economic challenges are certainly solvable, and there is no reason why inflation should have to spike."
Aug 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, they have focused on their agenda, which is totally misguided—not by our own account but by the account of the majority of the American population, who view the Republican party as one that has lost its moral footing to the detriment of America’s future generations, who must now inherit the ugly consequences of a party that ran asunder."
Aug 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Now that so many sad truths about Afghanistan are being spoken aloud, even in the major media – let me add one more: The war, from start to finish, was about politics, not in Afghanistan but in the United States. Afghanistan was always a sideshow."--- "....the 2001 invasion was fast and apparently decisive. And so it rescued George W. Bush’s tainted presidency,..." --- "Bush’s approval shot up to 90% and then steadily declined,..."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Taliban’s virtually uncontested takeover over Afghanistan raises obvious questions about the wisdom of US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US and coalition forces from the country. Paradoxically, however, the rapidity and ease of the Taliban’s advance only reaffirms that Biden made the right decision – and that he should not reverse course. ...... The ineffectiveness and collapse of Afghanistan’s military and governing institutions largely substantiates Biden’s skepticism that US-led efforts to prop up the government in Kabul would ever enable it to stand on its own feet. The international community has spent nearly 20 years, many thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars to do good by Afghanistan – taking down al-Qaeda; beating back the Taliban; supporting, advising, training, and equipping the Afghan military; bolstering governing institutions; and investing in the country’s civil society. .... Significant progress was made, but not enough." ....... "That is because the mission was fatally flawed from the outset. It was a fool’s errand to try to turn Afghanistan into a centralized, unitary state. "
Aug 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "But even in the US, which is more lenient than most countries, the principle cannot be absolute. Inciting imminent violence is not permitted. Donald Trump’s speech on January 6, urging the mob to storm the US Capitol, certainly came close to overstepping this boundary. It was a clear demonstration that language can be dangerous. What the internet media has done is raise the stakes; “fighting words” are spread around much faster and more widely than ever before. This will require a great deal of vigilance, to protect our freedom to express ourselves, while observing the social and legal bounds that stop words from turning into actual fighting. "
Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "It seems that they are, as the last 18 months have seen a remarkable expansion of the central banks’ fields of activity, largely driven by their own ambitions. So they have moved into the climate change arena, arguing that financial stability may be put at risk by rising temperatures, and that central banks, as bond purchasers and as banking supervisors, can and should be proactive in raising the cost of credit for corporations without a credible transition plan. That is a promising new line of business, which is likely to grow. ---- Central banks are also trying to move into social engineering, specifically the policy response to rising income and wealth inequality, another hot button topic with high political salience."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."
Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "