Islam and Liberal Democracy

Is Islam by its very nature antithetical to the development of democratic institutions? A distinguished historian contemplates this difficult question, one whose answer is fraught with consequence for several troubled regions of the world
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Flashback: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Islam
Can democracy take root in a predominantly Islamic part of the world? Atlantic contributors from the early to the late twentieth century take up the question.

There has been much discussion of late, both inside and outside the Islamic world, about those elements in the Islamic past and those factors in the Muslim present that are favorable and unfavorable to the development of liberal democracy. From a historical perspective it would seem that of all the non-Western civilizations in the world, Islam offers the best prospects for Western-style democracy. Historically, culturally, religiously, it is the closest to the West, sharing much—though by no means all—of the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman heritage that helped to form our modern civilization. From a political perspective, however, Islam seems to offer the worst prospects for liberal democracy. Of the forty-six sovereign states that make up the international Islamic Conference, only one, the Turkish Republic, can be described as a democracy in Western terms, and even there the path to freedom has been beset by obstacles. Of the remainder, some have never tried democracy; others have tried it and failed; a few, more recently, have experimented with the idea of sharing, though not of relinquishing, power.

Can liberal democracy work in a society inspired by Islamic beliefs and principles and shaped by Islamic experience and tradition? It is of course for Muslims, primarily and perhaps exclusively, to interpret and reinterpret the pristine original message of their faith, and to decide how much to retain, and in what form, of the rich accumulated heritage of fourteen centuries of Islamic history and culture. Not all Muslims give the same answers to the question posed above, but much will depend on the answer that prevails.

The Prod of Weakness

On December 14, 1909, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V, in a speech from the throne delivered to the Ottoman parliament, spoke of the commitment of his administration to "constitutional and consultative government ... the way of security and salvation prescribed by the noble shari'a and by both reason and tradition." The content of the speech and the manner of its delivery reflected the new situation after the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 and the suppression of the counterrevolutionary mutiny in the spring of 1909. Under the restored constitution the Ottoman Empire had become a constitutional monarchy, and the speech that the Sultan presented, British-style, to his parliament was written for him by his ministers, whose policies it expressed. The language used is interesting and revealing. "Constitution" is mesrutiyet, a term coined in the nineteenth century to denote a new procedure; "consultation" is mesveret, an old term with many associations derived from both Ottoman political usage and Islamic political literature. The Islamic association implied by the use of this term is made explicit by the citation of "the noble shari'a" and of "reason and tradition," akl ve-nakl, a formula commonly used by Muslim theologians. The desire to borrow or imitate Western institutions perceived as useful, and to present them as somehow representing a return to authentic and original Islamic principles, is characteristic of most nineteenth-century and some twentieth-century Islamic reformers. The desire for such change arose in the main from a growing awareness of Western strength and wealth contrasted with Muslim weakness and poverty. The discovery or invention of Islamic antecedents was seen as necessary to make such political changes acceptable to the people of a proud and deeply conservative society with old and strong religio-political traditions of its own—these last including a profound contempt for the unbeliever and all his ways. It is not easy to accept instruction in matters as fundamental as the conduct of state from those one has long been accustomed to regard as benighted and unenlightened.

Muslim awareness of weakness and defeat first achieved significant expression in the early eighteenth century, following the disastrous failure of the second siege of Vienna (1683) and the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699), the first imposed by a victorious enemy on a defeated Ottoman government. There had been earlier defeats and setbacks—the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain, the ending of the Tatar yoke in Russia, the establishment of the Western European maritime powers in the Muslim lands of South and Southeast Asia. But all these were in a sense peripheral and seem to have had little impact on the heartlands of Islam and the Middle East, where the Ottoman Empire, the last and in many ways the greatest of the Muslim military empires, continued to perform its task as the sword and shield of Islam in the long struggle against Christendom. For a while the awareness of weakness was in the main limited to the Ottoman governing elite, the first to bear the brunt of the changed balance of forces, while the rest of the population was still protected from both invasion and reality by the armed might of the Ottoman state, even in its decline a formidable military power. The terms of the discussion were similarly limited to military matters, to weapons and training and military organization, since for some time it was in these alone that Muslims experienced the growing superiority of the West. The events of the late eighteenth centuries—the Russians in the Black Sea, the French in Egypt—made European superiority painfully obvious. This succession of military defeats was the more galling to the people of a religious society with a long history of political and military triumph, starting in the lifetime of its founder, and with a proud awareness of that sacred history.

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