Islam and democracy: the crucial questions

Published July 9, 2003

The Catholic Difference

At a recent conference on Islam and democracy, I was privileged to meet several of the brightest Muslim scholars in America – some native-born, some immigrants, all committed to developing an Islamic case for religious tolerance as a building block of civil society and democracy. My colleagues were also men and women of courage.

One woman had fled Iraq during the 1991 post-war persecution of the Shiites and was now active in shaping the post-Saddam future of her native country. Others had been under pressure here in the United States. One law professor’s UCLA faculty office had been ransacked by Islamist radicals. Others, teaching at upscale colleges, had had their credentials as Muslims challenged by students religiously formed (and malformed) in radical Islamist academies (here, not in Afghanistan). One specialist on Islamic just war theory explained that he had been expelled from the Muslim student association at Harvard during his graduate studies because his girlfriend (now his wife), another devout Muslim, wanted to join the discussions.

The aggressive intolerance fostered by the Saudi-based and Saudi-funded Wahhabi form of Islam now touches many of the complex worlds of Islam in the United States. There are things that can and cannot be done about this. That Wahhabi literature is frequently the only Islamic religious literature available in prisons is a problem that can be addressed; ditto for the dissemination of Wahhabi tracts in the armed forces. Christian and Jewish groups should not form interfaith alliances with Islamic groups that have not put theological, political, and financial distance between themselves and the Wahhabi network. The United States government must re-examine its blind-eye approach to the Saudi regime’s support for the international Wahhabi apparatus.

Still, over the long haul, the millenarian allure of Wahhabi Islam may best be countered by developing a more compelling Islamic argument for the free, prosperous, and virtuous society. What are the key questions on that front?

Princeton’s Bernard Lewis makes an important point when he notes that Muhammad was his own Constantine: Muhammad was both prophet and prince. Christianity, by contrast, emerged in the midst of another polity. So the early Christians had to develop a Christian understanding of the Roman Empire, meaning a Christian understanding of temporal authority and a Christian understanding of the difference between society and the state. In Islam’s formative period, however, an energetic religion convinced that it was the bearer of God’s final revelation had no experience of a “polity” of which it was one “part”- the religious community and the political community were one and the same. So Islam did not have to develop an idea of “polity” or “politics” in that crucial period of its existence, a period many Muslims now revere and imagine to be the Islamic ideal of the way things ought to be.

It’s often said that the crucial question for Islam in its relationship to democracy is whether Muslims can articulate, from within their religious and legal traditions, a persuasive Islamic case for religious toleration, and thus for pluralism. Muslims who wish to be democrats should not have to become Enlightenment liberals in the process, relegating religious conviction to the private world. The issue is whether faithful Muslims can construct a genuinely Islamic argument for this proposition: “It is the will of God that we be tolerant of those who hold different views about what constitutes the will of God.”

That would be an important development, which the Catholic dialogue with Islam should deliberately try to nurture. (Catholics, after all, took rather a long time to evolve a Catholic case for religious freedom, and there may be something our Muslim colleagues can learn from this experience). But I’m now wondering if, parallel to this development, another question has to be pressed: can Muslims make an Islamic case for politics, for the independent integrity of the political community, for a distinction between “society” and “polity” (or “state”)?

According to the Second Vatican Council, “The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified with any political community nor bound by ties to any political system.” Could Islamic religious authorities persuasively affirm something similar? A lot of 21st century history will turn on the answer to that question.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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