The Magazine

Faith in Democracy

How the debate over religion in the West distorts our understanding of freedom in the Middle East.

Nov 7, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 08 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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THE STIRRINGS OF A NEW wave of democracy are underway in one of the least probable regions of the world: the Middle East and Central Asia. Elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian territory, and Lebanon, together with rumblings of liberalization in Egypt, are tangible signs of a growing desire for democratic forms. While the ultimate prospects for success are uncertain--waves of democracy have been partly reversed before--all observers agree that the outcome will hinge in part on meeting the enormous challenges stemming from the interactions of faith and politics. The influence of religion, especially Islam, is considerable throughout the region, and it is impossible to imagine achieving a natural equilibrium between society and government without religion playing some role. Yet Western intellectuals have been strangely inhibited in honestly assessing, or even frankly discussing, the many dimensions of this issue, largely because they have been preoccupied with the role of faith in Western societies and with trying to discredit a growing influence of the religiously minded on American political life. Given all that is at stake in the Middle East, the tangle of this willful confusion deserves a closer look.

Much of the energy for the current wave of democratization has been supplied by Iraq, where the experiment is taking place under the most difficult of circumstances. The first Iraqi elections, held in January 2005, illustrated the importance of Islam in the local political cultures, when the religious-based Dawa party came out on top. Religious elements, working with other parts of Iraqi society, were also instrumental in navigating the long process that ended the other week in securing adoption of a new democratic constitution.

The importance of faith in the politics of the Middle East is likewise in evidence in the case of the one settled democratic Islamic nation, Turkey, where the current governing party--the AK, or Justice and Development party--now has a strong relationship to religious forces. To many in Turkey the inclusion of a religious party in the government, whatever problems it may pose, represents the beginning of a process of normalization following the imposition of an uncompromising secularism early in the 20th century. The acceptance of the AK promises to integrate Islamic forces into the political system, enabling them to participate along the lines of the many Christian Democratic parties that were once so influential in Western Europe and parts of Latin America.

Concern about the "religious problem" has long influenced Western judgments about the outlook for democracy in this region. From the West's own troubled experience with Christianity, analysts have worried about the twin evils of religious intrusion into political life (the so-called theocratic impulse) and sectarian conflict. Both problems are present in the Islamic world and have been regularly on display in Iraq, where on some days one has seen the menace of a theocratic movement led by the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, while on others there have been violent attacks by Sunni Muslims on Shia worshipers as well as persecution of Arab Christians. This sectarian conflict--like that in Ireland--has multiple sources, but religion adds fuel to the flames. As the 18th-century philosopher David Hume once observed, "For as each sect is positive that its own faith and worship are entirely acceptable to the deity, the several sects fall naturally into animosity and mutually discharge on each other that sacred zeal and rancour, the most furious of and implacable of all human passions."

Western concerns about Islam go deeper, however, than the parallel problems that once afflicted Christendom. Some argue that Islam, in contrast to Christianity, is at its core a religion of the sword, devoted to worldwide conquest. As the noted scholar Bassam Tibi, a German of Syrian origin, has explained this view, if non-Muslims refuse conversion, "Muslims are obliged to wage war against them. . . . Muslims believe that expansion through war is not aggression but a fulfillment of the Qur'anic command to spread Islam as a way to peace." If this is true, Islam will always be a breeding ground of fanaticism and intolerance. Others argue that the comprehensiveness of Islamic religious civil law (sharia) allows for little or no "space" for the formation of a political life that is independent of religious control. For this reason, many have concluded that there is an inherent incompatibility between Islam and liberal democracy. Accordingly, not much in the way of democratic development should ever be expected from this quarter of the world.