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?"

He considered the factors militating both for and against the success of such a government. Muslim theologians looking to find precedents for Western-style government within their own traditions, he pointed out, have noted Islam's traditional acceptance of plurality and diversity (which has enabled it to absorb a variety of races and cultures over time). Much has also been made of an old Sunni doctrine that calls for the election of a Caliph and characterizes the Caliph's relationship with his subjects as contractual. Moreover, "the Islamic principle of consultation," he explained, "according to which a ruler should not make arbitrary decisions by himself but should act only after consulting with suitable qualified advisers," itself seems already to be in keeping with the principles of democracy.

What Lewis saw as another promising factor was Islam's increasing interaction with American popular culture and with Americans as individuals. In his view, the fact that the United States (unlike Britain and France) had never directly ruled Arab peoples "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." The migration of many Middle Easterners to the United States, he suggested, further promoted such crosscultural exchange.

But this cultural rapprochement was problematic. Even at the time he was writing—years before our involvement with Aghanistan and Iraq—incursions of American influence into the Islamic world were felt to be deeply threatening by those who prized an unadulterated version of Islam:

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.

Indeed, to Islamic fundamentalists, the Muslim world's contemporary problems were not the result of a failure to modernize but, on the contrary, the inevitable result of Islam's falling away from a purer, more authentic original form. Previous failed efforts to implement Western-style governments, Lewis observed, had only ended up fueling anti-Western sentiment, making future efforts all the more difficult, and creating the possibility of a violent backlash:

To those who daily suffer the consequences of the failed foreign innovations that were foisted on them.... 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.

Finally, Toby Lester's description of controversial recent efforts by scholars to liberalize Islamic society by reassessing the Koran ("What Is the Koran?" January, 1999), implicitly suggests that Islam may in fact be able to adapt to such Western concepts as liberal democracy and self-determination.

[These scholars] feel that such an effort, which amounts essentially to placing the Koran in history, will provide fuel for an Islamic revival of sorts—a reappropriation of tradition, a going forward by looking back.

Conceiving of the Koran as an accumulation of stories handed down through the years from one generation to the next and eventually compiled into a single volume, such scholars believe, will enable Muslims to experience their faith as a living, evolving heritage which can adjust itself to new realities rather than as a static set of rules which must be unthinkingly accepted. One Egyptian scholar whom Lester interviewed described orthodox Islam as "stultifying" in that "it reduces a devine, eternal, and dynamic text to a fixed human interpretation with no more life and meaning than 'a trinket ... a talisman ... or an ornament.'"

One school of thought that many Koranic scholars have found to be of especial interest is that of "Mu'tazilism," which flourished in the Islamic world during the ninth century. The movement's proponents held that the Koran is a historical document rather than a God-given one and "developed a complex theology based partly on a metaphorical rather than simply literal understanding of the Koran." Though Mu'tazilism declined in the tenth century, many scholars and theologians interested in revitalizing Islam today have begun trying to bring the long-forgotten movement back to the fore.

How democracy will fare in a region where the West is viewed by many with hostility and suspicion remains to be seen. But as Lester points out, "Islam became one of the world's great religions in part because of its openness to social change and new ideas." If Islam can rediscover its innate capacity to evolve and adapt without losing its essential identity, then perhaps its followers may realize that Islam is in fact better equipped to encounter the West in a peaceful and enriching way than is currently imagined.

Sage Stossel