Entries from August 1997

Islam And Democracy Don’t Mix Well

David Frum August 19th, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

In the past 20 years, democracy has spread farther and faster than ever before in human history. Now, in all the world, there remains only one large area of human culture to which democracy remains a stranger: the Muslim world, stretching from Morocco on the Atlantic to Indonesia on the Pacific Ocean. In all that vast expanse, there are today only two freely elected governments: Turkey and Pakistan. And in the heartland of Islam, in the Arab countries, there cannot be found a single freely elected government. Not every Arab government is despotic — Jordan, Kuwait, Tunisia
and Morocco are all quite mild regimes — but all are, when push comes to shove, ruled by a single man, family or party.

One of the hopes that was entertained by many when Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn was that an independent Palestinian state might become the first exception to this dismal rule. Having fought so hard for freedom from Israel, the Palestinians’ friends promised, there was no way they would submit to arbitrary rule by Arabs. Alas, that promise has been falsified — if Arafat’s rule has not been as totalitarian as that of Libya’s
Moammar Gadhafi, Syria’s Hafez Assad and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, it has been oppressive enough.

What is the problem? A fascinating new book by Bernard Lewis, the greatest living scholar of the Middle East, offers some clues. Lewis is a remarkable mind, a man fluent in Turkish and Persian as well as in Arabic, as familiar with the Middle East of Alexander the Great as he is with the Middle East of Norman Schwarzkopf. Nearing the end of his long career, he has pulled together his vast knowledge in a grand summation: The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. Without arguing the point, Lewis has this suggestion to make: the Muslim world’s problem with democracy is that Islam and democracy do not fit well together.

Lewis notes that Islam, in contrast to Christianity, forms a coherent system of rules for regulating human behavior in this world. Lewis cites a book by one of the first Muslim visitors to England, the 18th century traveller Mirza Abu Talib, and its horror at the sight of the House of Commons in action: ”Unlike the Muslims, (Talib) explains to his readers, the English have not accepted a divine law revealed from heaven, and were therefore reduced to the expedient of making their own laws… ” Of course, as Lewis acknowledges, the Islamic world made its own laws too. But ”the making of new law, though common and widespread, was always disguised, almost furtive, and there was therefore no room for legislative councils or assemblies such as formed the starting-point of European democracy.”

Islam not only inhibited the rise of democratic institutions; it prevented the emergence of the civic spirit that makes democracy work. A constitutional democracy is built on two beliefs: that the people must participate in government and that government must be limited in its powers. Muslim culture, according to Lewis, evolved in the opposite direction: participation is sinful and government’s power ought to be limitless. The Muslim clergy have taught from the earliest times that ”the state was a necessary evil, but one with which good men would not become involved.” Which meant that one had to accept that the state would be run by bad men. At the same time, because Islam never developed
a doctrine of separation of politics and faith — because it was the job of government to enforce and defend the faith — Muslim culture utterly rejected Western conceptions of personal freedom.

Is Lewis right? It is striking that even the exceptions to Lewis’ rule — Pakistan and Turkey – have been at best episodic democracies. Pakistan has an elected government now, but has been a dictatorship for most of the years since independence in 1947. Since the death of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, Turkey has had three military coups, each of them aimed at beating back Islamic extremists and restoring Turkey to liberal secularism. A fourth coup seems to be brewing now.

Secular-minded people minimize the importance of religion. But the evidence is strong: European democracy owes
more to Europe’s Christian heritage than we now like to admit, and the Islamic world’s autocracy is likewise in many ways attributable to its spiritual traditions. The devout Muslim may say that this is unimportant: if Islam leads one to salvation in the next world, who cares whether it is conducive to freedom here below? But for non-Muslims, Lewis’
observations are reasons for gloom about the political prospects of almost one billion of our fellow creatures.

Originally published in The Financial Post