ISLAM & DEMOCRACY -- MUCH HARD WORK NEEDED:
Muslims Can Embrace Democracy, But I'm Not Optimistic
By Dr. Daniel Pipes
Present realities are far from encouraging, for tyranny disproportionately afflicts Muslim-majority countries. Swarthmore College's Frederic L. Pryor concluded in a 2007 analysis in the Middle East Quarterly that, with some exceptions, "Islam is associated with fewer political rights." Saliba Sarsar looked at democratization in 17 Arabic-speaking countries and, writing in the same journal, found that "between 1999 and 2005 … not only is progress lacking in most countries, but across the Middle East, reform has backslid."
How easy to jump from this dismal pattern and conclude that the religion of Islam itself must be the cause of the problem. The ancient fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc ("after something, therefore because of it") underlies this simplistic jump. In fact, the current predicament of dictatorship, corruption, cruelty, and torture results from specific historical developments, rather than the Koran and other sacred scriptures.
A half millennium ago, constitutional democracy reigned nowhere; that it emerged in Western Europe resulted from many factors, including the area's Greco-Roman heritage, rendering-unto-Caesar-and-God tensions specific to Christianity, geography, climate, and key breakthroughs in technology and political philosophy. There was nothing fated about Great Britain and then the United States of America leading the way to constitutional democracy.
Put differently: of course, Islam is undemocratic and non-constitutional in spirit, but so was every other premodern religion and society.
Just as Christianity became part of the constitutional democratic process, so can Islam. This transformation will surely be wrenching and require time. The evolution of the Catholic Church from a reactionary force in the Medieval Period into a democratic constitutionalist one today, an evolution not entirely over, has been taking place for 700 years. When an institution based in Rome took so long, why should a religion from Mecca, replete with its uniquely problematic scriptures, move faster or with less contention?
For Islam to encourage political participation implies a giant shift in approach, especially toward the Sharia, its law code. Elaborated about a millennium ago in quasi-tribal circumstances and operating within a vastly different ethos from today's, the code contains a range of features deeply unacceptable to a modern sensibility, including the anti-democratic ideas of the will of God prevailing over that of the people, military jihad as a legitimate means to expand rule by Muslims, the superiority of Muslims over non-Muslims, and of males over females.
In short, the Sharia, as classically understood, cannot be reconciled with modern life in general, constitutionalism and democracy in particular. For Muslims to achieve political participation means either rejecting the law's public aspects in total – as Atatürk did in Turkey – or reinterpreting them. The Sudanese thinker Mahmud Muhammad Taha offered one example of the latter, when he reread the Islamic scriptures and wholesale eliminated noxious Islamic laws.
Islam keeps changing, so it is an error to insist that the religion must be what it has been. As Hassan Hanafi of Cairo University puts it, the Koran "is a supermarket, where one takes what one wants and leaves what one doesn't want."
Atatürk and Taha aside, Muslims have barely begun the long, arduous path to making Islam modern. In addition to the inherent difficulties of overhauling a Seventh-Century order to fit the ethos of a Western-dominated Twenty-First Century, the Islamist movement, which today dominates Muslim intellectual life, pulls in precisely the opposite direction from constitutional democracy. Instead, it fights to revive the whole of the Sharia and to apply it with exceptional severity, regardless of what the majority wants.
Some Islamists denounce democracy as heretical and a betrayal of Islamic values, but the more clever of them, noting their own widespread popularity, have adopted democracy as a mechanism to seize power. Their success in a country like Turkey does not transform Islamists into constitutional democrats (i.e., people who show a willingness to share or relinquish political power), but demonstrates their willingness to adopt whatever tactics will bring them power.
Yes, with enough effort and time, Muslims can be as democratic or constutionalist as Westerners. But at this time, they are the least democratic and constitutionalist of peoples, and the Islamist movement presents a huge obstacle to political participation and the rule of law. In Egypt, as elsewhere, my theoretical optimism, in other words, is tempered by a pessimism based on present and future realities.
© Daniel Pipes 2010
Originally Published in the National Post, February 7, 2011
Republished with the Permission of Daniel Pipes
Reprinted from the Daniel Pipes Mailing List, February 7, 2011
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Author or co-author of eighteen books, Dr. Pipes is a regular columnist for National Review Online, Front Page Magazine, the New York Sun, and the Jerusalem Post. His analyses of world trends and of forces and developments in the Middle East have appeared in numerous North American newspapers, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He frequently appears on American network television, as well as at universities and think tanks, to discuss the Middle East, Islam, and the Islamist threat to the U.S.A. and the West. He also has appeared on BBC and Al Jazeera, and has lectured in approximately twenty-five countries.
Dr. Pipes is a Polish-American Jew whose parents fled Poland in 1939, immigrated to the U.S.A., and assimilated well into
American society and culture. His father is Richard Pipes, an American historian specializing in Russian and Soviet history
and serving as Professor of History at Harvard University from 1950 until his retirement in 1996. During the Cold War, the
worldview of Richard Pipes was strongly anti-Soviet and anti-Communist.
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