More on foreign affairs from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"The Crescent and the Tricolor" (November 2000)
France today has more Muslims than practicing Catholics, and couscous has arguably become the country's national food. By Christopher Caldwell
"Turabi's Law" (August 1994)
The nightmarish Islamic regime in Sudan may portend the real future of the Islamic world. By William Langewiesche
"The Intellectual Mission of the Saracens" (December 1886)
The author argues that Islamic culture saved the wisdom of the ancients from extinction during the middle ages. By Edward Hungerford
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Islam" (January 14, 2005)
Is democracy compatible with Islam? Atlantic contributors from the early to the late twentieth century take up the question.
Flashbacks: "Coming to Grips with Jihad" (September 12, 2001)
What are the roots of Islamic fundamentalist rage against the U.S.? How did Afghanistan become a hotbed of international terrorists? Four Atlantic articles look at the origins and consequences of jihad.
Interviews: "Islam Rising" (November 1995)
A conversation with Mary Anne Weaver, whose new book shows that there is much more to Islamic activism than guns and bombs.
The Atlantic Monthly | Feburary 1993
here 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.
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
by Bernard Lewis
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
n 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.
In time there arose some among the reformers who argued that European military superiority derived from nonmilitary causes, and two in particular—one economic, the other political. Some identified the sources of Western power more specifically as industrialization and constitutional government. The Arab failures in the struggle against Israel, particularly in 1948 and in 1967, revived the great debate on what is wrong with Arab and, more broadly, Islamic society, and what can be done to put it right. Like the Turks after their failure to capture Vienna, so the Arabs after their failure to capture Jerusalem began by seeing this as a primarily military problem for which there was a military solution: bigger and better armies with bigger and better weapons. And when these bigger and better armies also failed, there was a growing willingness to listen to those who sought deeper causes and offered more-radical solutions.
Fundamentalists and Democrats
here are many who see no need for any such change and would prefer to retain the existing systems, whether radical dictatorships or traditional autocracies, with perhaps some improvement in the latter. This preference for things as they are is obviously shared by those who rule under the present system and those who otherwise benefit, including foreign powers who are willing to accept and even support existing regimes as long as their own interests are safeguarded. But there are others who feel that the present systems are both evil and doomed and that new institutions must be devised and installed.
Proponents of radical change fall into two main groups—the Islamic fundamentalists and the democrats. Each group includes a wide range of sometimes contending ideologies.
The term "fundamentalism" derives from a series of Protestant tracts, The Fundamentals, published in the United States around 1910, and was used first in America and then in other predominantly Protestant countries to designate certain groups that diverge from the mainstream churches in their rejection of liberal theology and biblical criticism and their insistence on the literal divinity and inerrancy of the biblical text. The use of the term to designate Muslim movements is therefore at best a loose analogy and can be very misleading. Reformist theology has at times in the past been an issue among Muslims; it is not now, and it is very far from the primary concerns of those who are called Muslim fundamentalists.
Those concerns are less with scripture and theology than with society, law, and government. As the Muslim fundamentalists see it, the community of Islam has been led into error by foreign infidels and Muslim apostates, the latter being the more dangerous and destructive. Under their guidance or constraint Muslims abandoned the laws and principles of their faith and instead adopted secular—that is to say, pagan—laws and values. All the foreign ideologies—liberalism, socialism, even nationalism—that set Muslim against Muslim are evil, and the Muslim world is now suffering the inevitable consequences of forsaking the God-given law and way of life that were vouchsafed to it. The answer is the old Muslim obligation of jihad: to wage holy war first at home, against the pseudo-Muslim apostates who rule, and then, having ousted them and re-Islamized society, to resume the greater role of Islam in the world. The return to roots, to authenticity, will always be attractive. It will be doubly appealing to those who daily suffer the consequences of the failed foreign innovations that were foisted on them.
For Islamic fundamentalists, democracy is obviously an irrelevance, and unlike the communist totalitarians, they rarely use or even misuse the word. They are, however, willing to demand and exploit the opportunities that a self-proclaimed democratic system by its own logic is bound to offer them. At the same time, they make no secret of their contempt for democratic political procedures and their intention to govern by Islamic rules if they gain power. Their attitude toward democratic elections has been summed up as "one man, one vote, once." This is not entirely accurate, at least not for the Iranians. The Islamic Republic of Iran holds contested elections and allows more freedom of debate and criticism in the press and in its parliament than is usual in most Muslim countries, but there are exacting and strictly enforced limitations on who may be a candidate, what groups may be formed, and what ideas may be expressed. It goes without saying that no questioning of the basic principles of the Islamic revolution or the republic is permitted.
hose who plead or fight for democratic reform in the Arab and other Islamic lands claim to represent a more effective, more authentic democracy than that of their failed predecessors, not restricted or distorted by some intrusive adjective, not nullified by a priori religious or ideological imperatives, not misappropriated by regional or sectarian or other sectional interests. In part their movement is an extension to the Middle East of the wave of democratic change that has already transformed the governments of many countries in Southern Europe and Latin America; in part it is a response to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new affirmation of democratic superiority through victory in the Cold War. To no small extent it is also a consequence of the growing impact of the U.S. democracy and of American popular culture in the Islamic lands.
For some time America was seen merely as an extension of Western Europe—part of the same civilization, speaking the same language as the greatest of the empires, professing the same religion, damned by the same fatal flaws. Closer acquaintance revealed profound differences between American and Western European democracy, giving the former an attraction that the latter never possessed.
There is, of course, the obvious difference that the United States has never exercised imperial authority over Arab lands. A consequence of this is the less obvious but in the long run vastly more important difference that Americans in general—albeit with some well-known exceptions—have not developed the imperial attitude that colored, and to some extent still colors, human relations between Britons and Frenchmen on the one hand and the peoples of their former possessions on the other. This has made possible for Americans the kind of informal, equal, person-to-person relationships with Middle Easterners that were, and to some extent still are, rarely possible for Europeans.
American popular culture and mores have penetrated far more deeply and widely in Middle Eastern society than was ever possible for the elitist cultures of Britain and France. This kind of relationship is further encouraged by westward migration. There are now millions of Britons of South Asian, and Frenchmen of North African, origin. But it will probably be a long time before they achieve the level of integration and acceptance already achieved by new Americans from the Middle East. These have already become an important part of the American political process; they may yet find a role in the political processes of their countries of origin.
It is precisely the catholicity, the assimilative power and attraction, of American culture that make it an object of fear and hatred among the self-proclaimed custodians of pristine, authentic Islam. For such as they, it is a far more deadly threat than any of its predecessors to the old values that they hold dear and to the power and influence those values give them. In the last chapter of the Koran, which ranks with the first among the best known and most frequently cited, the believer is urged to seek refuge with God "from the mischief of the insidious Whisperer who whispers in people's hearts..." Satan in the Koran is the adversary, the deceiver, above all the inciter and tempter who seeks to entice mankind away from the true faith. It is surely in this sense that the Ayatollah Khomeini called America the great Satan: Satan as enemy, but—more especially and certainly more plausibly for his people—also as source of enticement and temptation.
n these times of discontent and disappointment, of anger and frustration, the older appeals of nationalism and socialism and national socialism—the gifts of nineteenth-and twentieth-century Europe—have lost much of their power. Today only the democrats and the Islamic fundamentalists appeal to something more than personal or sectional loyalties. Both have achieved some limited success, partly by infiltrating the existing regimes, more often by frightening them into making some preemptive concessions. Successes have in the main been limited to the more traditional authoritarian regimes, which have made some symbolic gestures toward the democrats or the fundamentalists or both. Even the radical dictatorships, while admitting no compromise with liberal democracy, have in times of stress tried to appease and even to use Islamic sentiment.
There is an agonizing question at the heart of the present debate about democracy in the Islamic world: Is liberal democracy basically compatible with Islam, or is some measure of respect for law, some tolerance of criticism, the most that can be expected from autocratic governments? The democratic world contains many different forms of government—republics and monarchies, presidential and parliamentary regimes, secular states and established churches, and a wide range of electoral systems—but all of them share certain basic assumptions and practices that mark the distinction between democratic and undemocratic governments. Is it possible 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?
No one, least of all the Islamic fundamentalists themselves, will dispute that their creed and political program are not compatible with liberal democracy. But Islamic fundamentalism is just one stream among many. In the fourteen centuries that have passed since the mission of the Prophet, there have been several such movements—fanatical, intolerant, aggressive, and violent. Led by charismatic religious figures from outside the establishment, they have usually begun by denouncing the perversion of the faith and the corruption of society by the false and evil Muslim rulers and leaders of their time. Sometimes these movements have been halted and suppressed by the ruling establishment. At other times they have gained power and used it to wage holy war, first at home, against those whom they saw as backsliders and apostates, and then abroad against the other enemies of the true faith. In time these regimes have been either ousted or, if they have survived, transformed—usually in a fairly short period—into something not noticeably better, and in some ways rather worse, than the old establishments that they had overthrown. Something of this kind is already visibly happening in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The question, therefore, is not whether liberal democracy is compatible with Islamic fundamentalism—clearly it is not—but whether it is compatible with Islam itself. Liberal democracy, however far it may have traveled, however much it may have been transformed, is in its origins a product of the West—shaped by a thousand years of European history, and beyond that by Europe's double heritage: Judeo-Christian religion and ethics; Greco-Roman statecraft and law. No such system has originated in any other cultural tradition; it remains to be seen whether such a system, transplanted and adapted in another culture, can long survive.
Leaving aside the polemical and apologetic arguments—that Islam, not Western liberalism, is the true democracy, or that Western liberalism itself derives from Islamic roots—the debate about Islam and liberal democracy has focused on a few major points.
very civilization formulates its own idea of good government, and creates institutions through which it endeavors to put that idea into effect. Since classical antiquity these institutions in the West have usually included some form of council or assembly, through which qualified members of the polity participate in the formation, conduct, and, on occasion, replacement of the government. The polity may be variously defined; so, too, may be the qualifications that entitle a member of the polity to participate in its governance. Sometimes, as in the ancient Greek city, the participation of citizens may be direct. More often qualified participants will, by some agreed-upon and recurring procedure, choose some from among their own numbers to represent them. These assemblies are of many different kinds, with differently defined electorates and functions, often with some role in the making of decisions, the enactment of laws, and the levying of taxes.
The effective functioning of such bodies was made possible by the principle embodied in Roman law, and in systems derived from it, of the legal person—that is to say, a corporate entity that for legal purposes is treated as an individual, able to own, buy, or sell property, enter into contracts and obligations, and appear as either plaintiff or defendant in both civil and criminal proceedings. There are signs that such bodies existed in pre-Islamic Arabia. They disappeared with the advent of Islam, and from the time of the Prophet until the first introduction of Western institutions in the Islamic world there was no equivalent among the Muslim peoples of the Athenian boule, the Roman Senate, or the Jewish Sanhedrin, of the Icelandic Althing or the Anglo-Saxon witenagemot, or of any of the innumerable parliaments, councils, synods, diets, chambers, and assemblies of every kind that flourished all over Christendom.
One obstacle to the emergence of such bodies was the absence of any legal recognition of corporate persons. There were some limited moves in the direction of recognition. Islamic commercial law recognizes various forms of partnership for limited business purposes. A waqf, a pious foundation, once settled is independent of its settlor, and can in theory continue indefinitely, with the right to own, acquire, and alienate property. But these never developed beyond their original purposes, and at no point reached anything resembling the governmental, ecclesiastical, and private corporate entities of the West.
Thus almost all aspects of Muslim government have an intensely personal character. In principle, at least, there is no state, but only a ruler; no court, but only a judge. There is not even a city with defined powers, limits, and functions, but only an assemblage of neighborhoods, mostly defined by family, tribal, ethnic, or religious criteria, and governed by officials, usually military, appointed by the sovereign. Even the famous Ottoman imperial divan—the divan-i humayun—described by many Western visitors as a council, could more accurately be described as a meeting, on fixed days during the week, of high political, administrative, judicial, financial, and military officers, presided over in earlier times by the Sultan, in later times by the Grand Vizier. Matters brought before the meeting were referred to the relevant member of the divan, who might make a recommendation. The final responsibility and decision lay with the Sultan or the Grand Vizier.
One of the major functions of such bodies in the West, increasingly through the centuries, was legislation. According to Muslim doctrine, there was no legislative function in the Islamic state, and therefore no need for legislative institutions. The Islamic state was in principle a theocracy—not in the Western sense of a state ruled by the Church and the clergy, since neither existed in the Islamic world, but in the more literal sense of a polity ruled by God. For believing Muslims, legitimate authority comes from God alone, and the ruler derives his power not from the people, nor yet from his ancestors, but from God and the holy law. In practice, and in defiance of these beliefs, dynastic succession became the norm, but it was never given the sanction of the holy law. Rulers made rules, but these were considered, theoretically, as elaborations or interpretations of the only valid law—that of God, promulgated by revelation. In principle the state was God's state, ruling over God's people; the law was God's law; the army was God's army; and the enemy, of course, was God's enemy.
Without legislative or any other kind of corporate bodies, there was no need for any principle of representation or any procedure for choosing representatives. There was no occasion for collective decision, and no need therefore for any procedure for achieving and expressing it, other than consensus. Such central issues of Western political development as the conduct of elections and the definition and extension of the franchise therefore had no place in Islamic political evolution.
Not surprisingly, in view of these differences, the history of the Islamic states is one of almost unrelieved autocracy. The Muslim subject owed obedience to a legitimate Muslim ruler as a religious duty. That is to say, disobedience was a sin as well as a crime.
Modernization in the nineteenth century, and still more in the twentieth, far from reducing this autocracy, substantially increased it. On the one hand, modern technology, communications, and weaponry greatly reinforced the rulers' powers of surveillance, indoctrination, and repression. On the other hand, social and economic modernization enfeebled or abrogated the religious constraints and intermediate powers that had in various ways limited earlier autocracies. No Arab Caliph or Turkish Sultan of the past could ever have achieved the arbitrary and pervasive power wielded by even the pettiest of present-day dictators.
Money and Power
he impediments to the development of liberal institutions were not merely political. The small-scale autocracy of the home, especially the upper-class home, founded on polygamy, concubinage, and slavery, was preparation for an adult life of domination and acquiescence, and a barrier to the entry of liberal ideas. Women—particularly the mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters of rulers—have played a much more important role in Muslim history than is usually conceded by historians. But they were until very recently precluded from contributing to the development of their society in the way that a succession of remarkable women have contributed to the flowering of the West.
The economic basis of Western-style liberal democracy was early recognized in the West. British, American, and French democrats alike insisted on the right to property as one of the basic human rights that safeguard and are safeguarded by free institutions. It also forms an essential component of civil society as conceived by European thinkers. For some time the rise of socialist ideas, parties, and governments weakened the belief in private property as a liberal value. Recent events have done much to restore that belief.
Islamic law unequivocally recognizes the sanctity of private property, but Islamic history reveals a somewhat different picture, in which even a rich man's enjoyment of his property has never been safe from seizure or sequestration by the state. This chronic insecurity is symbolized in the architecture of the traditional Muslim city, in which neighborhoods, and even the houses of the wealthy, are turned inward, surrounded by high blank walls. Marx and Engels themselves recognized that their canonical sequence of ruling classes defined by production relationships might not apply to non-Western societies. They sketched the theory of what they called "the Asiatic mode of production," in which there was no effective private ownership of land, and consequently no class war—just a simple opposition between the terrorized mass of the population and the all-encompassing state power, bureaucratic and military.
Like many of their other insights, this is a caricature, not a portrait, but also like their other insights, it is not without some basis in reality. Comparing the relationship between property and power in the modern American and classical Middle Eastern systems, one might put the difference this way: in America one uses money to buy power, while in the Middle East one uses power to acquire money. That is obviously an oversimplification, and there are significant exceptions on both sides. The misuse of public office for financial gain is not unknown in the United States; the use of money to buy into the political process is not unfamiliar in the traditional Middle East. But these are marginal, in the main small-scale departures from the norm. In the vast American political and economic system the money made through the actual exercise of power is relatively unimportant—no more than small-time peculation. In the Middle East money can buy only the power of intrigue, not of command.
Perhaps the most striking manifestation of this difference between the two systems is in the merchant class, and its place in the society and polity. Muslim societies, both medieval and early modern, often included a rich and varied industrial and commercial life, and evolved a wealthy and cultivated merchant class. But with brief and insignificant exceptions—as, for example, in a disputed borderland between rival states, or in an interregnum between the collapse of one regime and the consolidation of another—they were never able to match the achievement of the rising European bourgeoisie in the creation of the modern West. One reason is that a large proportion of them were non-Muslims, principally Christians and Jews, and therefore precluded from any decisive role in the political process. But far more important was the chronic, permanent insecurity, the sequence of upheavals and invasions, the ever-present threat of expropriation or destruction.
hese traditional obstacles to democracy have in many ways been reinforced by the processes of modernization, and by recent developments in the region. As already observed, the power of the state to dominate and terrorize the people has been vastly increased by modern methods. The philosophy of authoritarian rule has been sharpened and strengthened by imported totalitarian ideologies, which have served a double purpose—to sanctify rulers and leaders and to fanaticize their subjects and followers. The so-called Islamic fundamentalists are no exception in this respect.
Self-criticism in the West—a procedure until recently rarely practiced and little understood in the Middle East—provided useful ammunition. This use of the West against itself is particularly striking among the fundamentalists. Western democracy for them is part of the hated West, and that hatred is central to the ideas by which they define themselves, as in the past the free world defined itself first against Nazism and then against communism.
The changes wrought by modernization are by no means entirely negative. Some, indeed, are extremely positive. One such improvement is the emancipation of women. Though this still has a long way to go before it reaches Western levels, irreversible changes have already taken place. These changes are indispensable: a society can hardly aspire realistically to create and operate free institutions as long as it keeps half its members in a state of permanent subordination and the other half see themselves as domestic autocrats. Economic and social development has also brought new economic and social elements of profound importance—a literate middle class, commercial, managerial, and professional, that is very different from the military, bureaucratic, and religious elites that between them dominated the old order. These new groups are creating their own associations and organizations, and modifying the law to accommodate them. They are an indispensable component of civil society—previously lacking, yet essential to any kind of democratic polity.
There are also older elements in the Islamic tradition, older factors in Middle Eastern history, that are not hostile to democracy and that, in favorable circumstances, could even help in its development. Of special importance among these is the classical Islamic concept of supreme sovereignty—elective, contractual, in a sense even consensual and revocable. The Islamic caliphate, as prescribed and regulated by the holy law, may be an autocracy; it is in no sense a despotism. According to Sunni doctrine, the Caliph was to be elected by those qualified to make a choice. The electorate was never defined, nor was any procedure of election ever devised or operated, but the elective principle remains central to Sunni religious jurisprudence, and that is not unimportant.
Again according to Sunni doctrine, the relationship between the Caliph and his subjects is contractual. The word bay'a, denoting the ceremony at the inauguration of a new Caliph, is sometimes translated as "homage" or "allegiance." Such translations, though no doubt reflecting the facts, do not accurately represent the principle. The word comes from an Arabic root meaning "to barter," hence "to buy and to sell," and originally referring to the clasping or slapping of hands with which in ancient Arabia a deal was normally concluded. The bay'a was thus conceived as a contract by which the subjects undertook to obey and the Caliph in return undertook to perform certain duties specified by the jurists. If a Caliph failed in those duties—and Islamic history shows that this was by no means a purely theoretical point—he could, subject to certain conditions, be removed from office.
This doctrine marks one of the essential differences between Islamic and other autocracies. An Islamic ruler is not above the law. He is subject to it, no less than the humblest of his servants. If he commands something that is contrary to the law, the duty of obedience lapses, and is replaced not by the right but by the duty of disobedience.
Muslim spokesmen, particularly those who sought to find Islamic roots for Western practices, made much of the Islamic principle of consultation, according to which a ruler should not make arbitrary decisions by himself but should act only after consulting with suitably qualified advisers. This principle rests on two somewhat enigmatic passages in the Koran and on a number of treatises, mainly by ulama and statesmen, urging consultation with ulama or with statesmen. This principle has never been institutionalized, nor even formulated in the treatises of the holy law, though naturally rulers have from time to time consulted with their senior officials, more particularly in Ottoman times.
Of far greater importance was the acceptance of pluralism in Islamic law and practice. Almost from the beginning the Islamic world has shown an astonishing diversity. Extending over three continents, it embraced a wide variety of races, creeds, and cultures, which lived side by side in reasonable if intermittent harmony. Sectarian strife and religious persecution are not unknown in Islamic history, but they are rare and atypical, and never reached the level of intensity of the great religious wars and persecutions in Christendom.
Traditional Islam has no doctrine of human rights, the very notion of which might seem an impiety. Only God has rights—human beings have duties. But in practice the duty owed by one human being to another—more specifically, by a ruler to his subjects—may amount to what Westerners would call a right, particularly when the discharge of this duty is a requirement of holy law.
t may be—and has been—argued that these legal and religious principles have scant effect. The doctrine of elective and contractual sovereignty has been tacitly ignored since the days of the early caliphate. The supremacy of the law has been flouted. Tolerance of pluralism and diversity has dwindled or disappeared in an age of heightened religious, ethnic, and social tensions. Consultation, as far as it ever existed, is restricted to the ruler and his inner circle, while personal dignity has been degraded by tyrants who feel that they must torture and humiliate, not just kill, their opponents.
And yet, despite all these difficulties and obstacles, the democratic ideal is steadily gaining force in the region, and increasing numbers of Arabs have come to the conclusion that it is the best, perhaps the only, hope for the solution of their economic, social, and political problems.
What can we in the democratic world do to encourage the development of democracy in the Islamic Middle East—and what should we do to avoid impeding or subverting it? There are two temptations to which Western governments have all too often succumbed, with damaging results. They might be called the temptation of the right and the temptation of the left. The temptation of the right is to accept, and even to embrace, the most odious of dictatorships as long as they are acquiescent in our own requirements, and as long as their policies seem to accord with the protection of our own national interests. The spectacle of the great democracies of the West in comfortable association with tyrants and dictators can only discourage and demoralize the democratic opposition in these countries.
The more insidious temptation, that of the left, is to press Muslim regimes for concessions on human rights and related matters. Since ruthless dictatorships are impervious to such pressures, and are indeed rarely subjected to them, the brunt of such well-intentioned intervention falls on the more moderate autocracies, which are often in the process of reforming themselves in a manner and at a pace determined by their own conditions and needs. The pressure for premature democratization can fatally weaken such regimes and lead to their overthrow, not by democratic opposition but by other forces that then proceed to establish a more ferocious and determined dictatorship.
All in all, considering the difficulties that Middle Eastern countries have inherited and the problems that they confront, the prospects for Middle Eastern democracy are not good. But they are better than they have ever been before. Most of these countries face grave economic problems. If they fail to cope with these problems, then the existing regimes, both dictatorial and authoritarian, are likely to be overthrown and replaced, probably by one variety or another of Islamic fundamentalists. It has been remarked in more than one country that the fundamentalists are popular because they are out of power and cannot be held responsible for the present troubles. If they acquired power, and with it responsibility, they would soon lose that popularity. But this would not matter to them, since once in power they would not need popularity to stay there, and would continue to govern—some with and some without oil revenues to mitigate the economic consequences of their methods. In time even the fundamentalist regimes, despite their ruthless hold on power, would be either transformed or overthrown, but by then they would have done immense, perhaps irreversible, damage to the cause of freedom.
But their victory is by no means inevitable. There is always the possibility that democrats may form governments, or governments learn democracy. The increasing desire for freedom, and the better understanding of what it means, are hopeful signs. Now that the Cold War has ended and the Middle East is no longer a battlefield for rival power blocs, the peoples of the Middle East will have the chance—if they can take it—to make their own decisions and find their own solutions. No one else will have the ability or even the desire to do it for them. Today—for the first time in centuries—the choice is their own.
Copyright © 1993 by Bernard Lewis. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1993; Islam and Liberal Democracy; Volume 271, No. 2; page 89.