Flashbacks January 2005

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.

Can democracy really take root in a predominantly Islamic part of the world? Because the concept of representative government originated in the West in accordance with a non-Muslim worldview, the question has long been up for debate. A number of Atlantic articles from the early to the late twentieth century have addressed the issue from a variety of perspectives.

In November, 1920, in an article entitled "Islam," Albert Kinross, a diplomat in the British Imperial Civil Service who had worked for several years in Macedonia and Egypt, described his impressions of Islam and his thoughts on the present and future prospects for Western-style government in the Middle East. In cynical tones, Kinross criticized Islamic and Christian cultures alike. Of Islam he wrote,

A religion that ignores the personal existence of an entire sex; that forbids the lending of money, and therefore places its followers outside that whole system of loans and credit upon which, for good or for evil, our modern civilization is based; a religion that is so full of exclusions as to make the murder or robbery of an Unbeliever a matter of little or no account, can hardly hope to survive outside the dark places of the earth.

But he also reminded readers that Christianity itself did not necessarily have a better track record as a civilizing influence:

We are very far from being immaculate, and it is only of recent years, as history goes, that the Highland clansman has ceased to murder and rob his neighbor, the French serf to lie and accept forced labor, the Virginian to own slaves, and the English Catholic or Protestant to burn his fellow Christian at the stake. I really dare not say that Islam is much worse than we have been.

At the time of Kinross's writing, the mighty Ottoman Empire had succumbed to Western conquest, and much of the Muslim world had become subject to the rule of Britain and France. Britain's goal in the region, Kinross argued, was not to continue to rule it indefinitely, but to "fit [the Islamic people] for self-government" and then leave them alone to run their own countries.

But the Muslim world, he warned, was as yet unready to accept Western theories of government. Far from admiring their Western rulers, he explained, the Islamic people were only grudgingly submitting to the infidel regime, biding their time until Allah would inevitably arrange for the Westerners' overthrow. And because Islam's imperial British rulers had not yet seen fit to grant the Islamic people the same kind of freedoms available to Britain's own citizens, Kinross warned that it would be dangerous to try to win the Islamic people over to Western theories of government prematurely: preaching the glories of liberty and equality, without yet being ready to demonstrate them in practice, could lead only to further frustration and distrust.

Islam in its present form, he argued, must give way to a new appreciation for rationalism if its people were to succeed in governing themselves. But that need not mean the obliteration of Islam altogether, any more than the modernization of the Christian world had meant the obliteration of Christianity:

Peoples who are ... fitted for self-government in the modern world will no longer be the peoples of Islam. Call themselves what they may, they will have accepted our ideals.... Islam of the plains, the valleys, and the cities will have ceased to be Islam; just as the Christianity of to-day has ceased to be the Christianity of the Crusades, the stake, the conquistadors, and the Inquisition.

Thirty-six years later, in "Islam Past and Present" (October 1956), Ishaq Husseini, an Atlantic contributor who was himself a Muslim, described his people's continuing struggle to reconcile Islamic belief with the exigencies the modern world. Because under Mohammed Islam had been established not merely as a religion, but as a polity with laws governing daily life, the concept of separation of Church and State seemed antithetical to the very essence of Islam. But in recent years it had become clear to many in the Muslim world, Husseini explained, that Islamic culture had fallen into "a long and wearisome Dark Age," with Islam in many respects now lagging behind other civilizations. If Islam were to compete in the modern world, he suggested, it would need to evolve:

The central problem facing Arab Muslims, and indeed all Muslims, today is how to find a new way of life—Islamic in character—which will be halfway between the East and the West and which will provide the internal stability necessary to enable Muslims to face their problems independently. The Arab World can borrow technology from the West but it must find the answers to its deeper problems within itself.

Though Husseini proffered no solutions of his own, he outlined the views of several Muslim thinkers who were then attempting to address the problem. The proposed solutions varied in their particulars, but all, in one way or another, advocated moving away from a literal, absolute application of Islamic law to a more liberal interpretation, enabling "a flexibility which allows ... the greatest freedom while still keeping the faith intact."

More recently, in "Islam and Liberal Democracy" (February 1993), Bernard Lewis, a renowned scholar of Near Eastern studies, again took up the question of Islam's suitability for democratic rule. "Is it possible," he asked, "for the Islamic peoples to evolve a form of government that will be compatible with their own historical, cultural, and religious traditions and yet will bring individual freedom and human rights to the governed as these terms are understood in the free societies of the West?"

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Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, TheAtlantic.com launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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