07 March 2011
Is Islam Compatible with Democracy?
Excerpt from my textbook The Science of Politics. An Introduction
(Oxford University Press, 2010)
A minimal democracy based on freedom and elections does not require an ideological commitment by the citizens, and should thus be compatible with any religion or creed. However, there seems to be a factual association between Islam and dictatorship in the current world. The vast majority of countries with a majority of Muslims, which are mainly located in North Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the former Soviet Union, have dictatorial regimes. Actually, more than half of all nondemocratic countries in the world have a Muslim majority.
However, the apparent incongruity between democratic politics and Muslim religion may not be more solid than the traditional wisdom that denied democratic capacity to the countries with a Catholic majority. A succession of democratic failures in Latin European and Latin American countries with a Catholic majority during most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave some ground to the suspicion that a redeeming and proselytizing religion such as Catholicism could not acknowledge legitimacy to governments not committed to its morals and doctrines. In fact, the Popes prohibited the participation of Catholics in elections and political parties until as late as 1931. There were a few previous experiences of parties and movements of Catholic inspiration that participated in liberal politics in France and Italy, but Christian-democratic parties were widely diffused only after the Second World War. From that moment on, however, not only did those parties become important components of democracy in a number of countries, but the Catholic Church itself helped processes of democratization in places such as Spain, Central America, and Poland.
At a second glance, one can see that the most brutal political regimes in the Muslim world are not religious governments, but military or personalistic dictatorships, occasionally using interpretations of the Muslim doctrine in some of their policies. In contrast, new Muslim democratic parties, somehow comparable to the old Christian-democrats, have competed in democratic elections and participated in governments in certain countries, such as Indonesia and Turkey. If, together with these, we count the Muslim minorities living in India and other countries, about one third of the 1.5 billion Muslims of the world may be living under democratically elected governments. If anything, this fact suggests that there may not be intrinsic incompatibility between individual Muslim faith and collective democratic rule. A viable democracy requires religion to be a private affair and the source of one opinion among others in the public debate and political contest.