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Islamic Democracy: An Exercise in Futility?

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IN THE DEBATE THAT PRECEDED THE 2003 WAR AGAINST Iraq, neoconservatives spoke of making Iraq a showcase of liberal democracy for the Muslim world. They were confident that once the blessings of our form of government were visible to all, the states neighboring Iraq would rush to embrace liberal democracy as well.

When doves objected that democracy could not take root so easily in the Middle East, some neoconservatives accused them of racism for implying that Muslims, especially Arabs, are different from other people and not mature enough for democracy.

Unfortunately, many Muslims are indeed not ready for democracy, not because they are inferior but, on the contrary, because they are superior — at least in their own eyes. And, judging them by a long-ago standard of our own, in a sense they are superior. Not biologically, genetically, innately superior, but culturally so.

To understand why, one has to look at the historical and philosophical bases of liberal democracy.

Everyone is familiar with the characteristics of American-style “democracy”: the absence of a privileged class of aristocracy and clergy; the potential for people from all social circumstances to run for any office in the land; the participation of all adults in the process of selecting political leaders; the separation of church and state and the consequent freedom to worship, or not worship, as one pleases; the minimal role of government in private life; the settling of disputes by means of debate and voting rather than violence; the rights of minorities; the peaceful rotation of parties in power. In practice, of course, democratic countries have enacted (and continue to enact) laws that violate this theoretical sketch, but by and large liberal democracies hew to the aforementioned rules.

All of these characteristics of liberal democracy can be traced back to two metaphysical causes — egalitarian individualism and skepticism — that are partly rooted in Christianity.

The link between Christianity and democracy raises a red flag to Muslims, and not just on grounds that Christians are “infidels” who instigated the Crusades. Islamic suspicions of Christianity are more deeply justified, because liberal democracy is an offspring of Christian tenets that pose a severe challenge to traditionalist Islam. And it is precisely these traditionalist forms of Islam that dominate the Middle East.

To say that there are two opposed religions, and that democracy springs from one and not the other, is an oversimplification (one need only look at Islamic democracies like Indonesia). Nevertheless the two religions differ qualitatively, in that Christian Europe underwent a series of ordeals that Islam was spared: particularly the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. Democracy therefore is best characterized as the offspring of a traumatized and severely modified, perhaps even an effete and emasculated, Christianity, rather than of “Christianity” as such.


For most people, the main definition of liberal democracy is the one that hits home in their everyday life: our right to say whatever we want to say. Only gradually does it dawn on us that this right also means other people’s right to say things — and even to live in ways — that we believe are wrong.

The mature definition of democracy rests, then, on the assumption that your opinions are as valid as mine; in other words, it rests on egalitarian individualism. And, counterintuitive as it may seem to Westerners, egalitarian individualism is not self-evident or automatic; indeed, it has only a short history, as these things go. What prompted the rise of egalitarian individualism was Christianity, building on Jewish foundations — but leaving out the third monotheism of the Book, Islam.

Before the rise of Christianity, and in virtually all non-Christian societies since then, the inequality of human beings was, and has remained, a given. A division between aristocrats (or plutocrats) and untouchables (or slaves, serfs, or workers) has been the norm. Slavery continued for over a millennium even in Christendom, of course, but the new faith set in motion forces that would abolish that institution.

Whereas Judaism taught that every Law-abiding Jew was entitled to salvation, Christianity extended this notion, potentially at least, to every human being. Of course, this egalitarianism was reserved for heaven; back here on earth, elitism continued to flourish, albeit in a new guise. The Catholic Church was (and is) hierarchical, and claimed an intermediary role between God and the individual Christian. The Reformation, however, harkened back to the philosophical roots of Christianity in Judaism, removed all intermediaries between equal individuals and their Lord, and thus (contrary to the intentions of Luther) set in motion the egalitarian individualism that we have come to take for granted.

No parallel developments occurred in Islam. On the contrary, an influential injunction of Muhammad demands that the individual “not separate himself from the community” and its laws. In the words of Bernard Lewis, this makes “conformism and obedience basic religious obligations” of Islam, and rules out the “right” of individuals to dissent from those obligations. Other interpretations of Islam have emerged, but these, for better or for worse, do not hold sway over the Middle East.


No less important than the Reformation in fostering egalitarian individualism was the Christian doctrine of original sin.

All early societies presumed that the masses are unqualified to rule — even Athenians restricted suffrage to a minority of male inhabitants. This created, for ancient and medieval philosophy, the problem of determining who is fit to rule. Eventually, however, the attempt to sort fit from unfit rulers was rendered irrelevant by the doctrine that every last human being is depraved at heart.

Grant that assumption, and liberal democracy is — or seems to be — a logical conclusion. The belief that liberal democracy springs from optimism about the trustworthiness of the People is, in fact, the opposite of the post-Christian situation. As James Madison observed, if men were angels, government would not be necessary.

The liberal democracy embodied in the U.S. Constitution reflects the reality that men are at best mischievous and at worst malicious. By spreading and dividing power as widely as possible, pitting competing sinners against each other, liberal democracy may provide a less-than-ideal solution to the problem of original sin. But it remains, as Churchill reminded us, better than all the other solutions.

One can immediately see how hopelessly at odds liberal democracy is with the many Islamic societies in which ayatollahs, monarchs, or dictators tacitly claim exemption from institutional accountability by presuming to speak for, or in some way represent, the will of Allah or the welfare of society; and in which many people willingly grant that exemption, at least to the clerics.


An even more important Christian contribution to liberal democracy was skepticism.

Skepticism? Did not Jesus say, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”?

He did. But 1600 years later, the Reformation succeeded in creating a military standoff between the Protestant rebels and the Catholic Church, plunging Western Europe into an intellectual crisis.

Here were two camps, each claiming to stand for the Christian truth and consigning the other to hell. A sensitive Christian would have had to ask: 1. Which side is right? 2. How can I even begin to determine that? 3. If each side is so sure of itself, and one side is bound to be wrong, why may not both be wrong, since self-assurance obviously cannot be a guideline?

Thus did Europe come down with a bad case of metaphysical jitters, to which a revival of ancient skepticism seemed to be the cure.

Skepticism was further promoted by the Scientific Revolution.

The early modern scientists were devout Christians who thought they were honoring God by uncovering His natural laws. Eventually, however, the theologically friendly aim of science proved incompatible with the content of revealed religion. So, too, did the form of scientific inquiry.

The Scientific Revolution began when the new kind of scientist, notably the pioneering Galileo, discarded reliance on book, tradition, and authority and turned instead to experimentation. One did not need to be an expert on the interpretation of Holy Writ to perform an experiment to discover scientific laws. Not only the findings but the procedures of scientific experiments rendered written “revelations,” and their traditionalistic interpretation, irrelevant to the truth. Religious zealots who appeal to the words of the Bible as if these words prove anything now seem to be nothing more than credulous fools.

In traditionalist cultures, moreover, the Truth (whether Judaic, Christian, or Muslim) is not only unchanging, universal, and unconditional — therefore enforced against questioning — but it also encompasses all realms, visible and invisible. The skeptical scientist, however, can answer his ceaseless questions only through physical experiments. Truth becomes experimental and plastic, but is limited to the physical, experimentally pliable world. The old certitudes of metaphysics and ethics are consigned to the invisible, spiritual, supernatural realm whose “truths” are irresolvable matters of opinion. Science thus introduced an unbridgeable gap between the world of the quantifiable “is” and the purely speculative “ought” — the latter being the realm of theology, ethics, and aesthetics. The invisible truths of those realms lapsed into subjectivity: objective science can only describe, never prescribe.


The new intellectual order meant that, in politics, liberal democracy eventually replaced monarchy, aristocracy, and theocracy. The metaphysical basis of liberal democracy is that, in non-scientific matters, no one knows what the truth is, and every individual’s opinion is as valid as everyone else’s, at least pending experimentation. The additional, pragmatic basis for liberal democracy is a pessimism about claims to special knowledge made by original sinners who are not to be trusted.

What used to be unitary, unquestioned, and all encompassing in Biblical Israel, in medieval Europe, and even in Reformation Geneva is now a matter of subjective “taste.” In a world with only small and multiple truths, no single viewpoint can be allowed to prevail. Hence the need to avoid authoritarianism; and hence the need to separate church and state: we no longer have a way of ascertaining which, if any, of the contending claimants to spiritual truth is right.

Liberal democracy can flourish only where there is no overarching, predetermined, divinely ordained truth that is represented by a few self-appointed (or tradition-appointed) leaders. Accompanying the scientific shift from revealed truth to experimental measurement — measurement that can, in principle, be checked by any individual — is a shift from government by authoritative writings and personages to government by measurement, i.e., by counting heads. If science would have each person (potentially) experiment to discover the truth about the physical world, democracy solicits each person’s opinions about the supernatural and ethical realm about which science offers no guidance.

As to Truth, rather than opinion — that is none of democracy’s business.

Democracy does not know which religion is true, or which economic or social policy is best. Since the truth is the product of deliberations that, in different times and places, have different results, what Manhattan, Kansas, finds obscene will not appear so in Manhattan, New York, and there is no way to tell which of the two interpretations is correct. All truth is local, ad hoc, and untethered from any deeper or higher reality.

Democracy throws everything into the public forum for groundless and inconsequential “debate” followed by the only thing that counts: the counting of heads. The election results, however, yield only a ramshackle, gimcrack “truth” that enables government by consensus. If the consensus dissipates, the remedy is not long in coming: a new government, arising from a new headcount. This process comes close to being, or seeming to be, the political form of scientific experimentation.

To be sure, the object of the true scientific experiment is the establishment of something sound about the material world, while the object of an election is to establish what a majority of the voting population thinks is sound. In other words, ignorant supposition, propagandistic commonplace, and widely accepted truism replace verifiable truth. Democracy begins with skepticism about received wisdom, but ends with agreed-upon myths that, while having the appearance of facts, are actually based not on facts (whatever that might mean in a political context) but on fortuitous concatenations of appearances.

Yet these truisms are not seen as such by those who believe them: they are seen as true, but in a special sense akin to fiction. Participating in an election, like reading a novel, requires a willing suspension of disbelief; it is a process of making a truce among contending truisms that are seen by their believers as true — but not so incontestably true as to require enforcement against a recalcitrant majority, once heads have been counted and the minority’s “truths” have been rejected.


Now we can see how the neoconservatives’ confidence about bringing democracy to Islam was wrongheaded.

Much of the Muslim world, now in its fourteenth century chronologically, looks suspiciously like fourteenth-century Christendom. Revealed Truth is still dominant. A Golden Age akin to that of High Medieval Europe was not followed, as in Europe, by a Reformation to enhance egalitarian individualism, or by a Scientific Revolution to ensconce metaphysical skepticism.

Traditionalist Islam is securely in possession of answers to questions about the meaning of life — at the very time that a common lament in the West is precisely that those answers are gone forever. By no coincidence, the Islamic ideal remains imposition of the revealed law, sharia, heedless of any separation of church and state based on a division between opinion and reality. Religion and politics are, as they were for so long in the West, inextricable, and religious authorities exert influence that even Hasidic Jews and fundamentalist Christians do not advocate.

Yet, lacking our egalitarian and skeptical assumptions, all of this is good in the eyes of traditionalist Muslims. The West is a relativistic (and, in the resulting vacuum, a hedonistic) nightmare in the eyes of those who find themselves in possession of the revealed Truth.

Islam is superior, of course, only if one’s place in the cosmic scheme of things, as revealed in the Koran, is true; it is inferior if that presumed truth is merely an illusion. But what egalitarian skeptic can say what is or is not an illusion, when it comes to the ethical and the supernatural?

Compared to the Truth and its Laws, liberal democracy is a poor and contemptible thing. It is also vulnerable, because while a democracy is not as easy to topple as a top-down theocracy, it is easy to undermine democracy through the manipulation of public opinion. Enough bloodletting turns Western opinion squeamish, and enough repetition confirms as truths such dubious truisms as that “Bush lied” or that Democrats would “cut and run.” Meanwhile, the establishment of democracy in non-skeptical societies leads to the very opposite of the neoconservative dream: namely, the victory of theocrats, whether in Algeria, Palestine, or, as it seems, Iraq.

Neoconservatives often decry relativism without realizing that democracy institutionalizes it. Hindus are free to abstain from beef, Jews and Muslims from pork, pre-Vatican II Catholics from meat on Fridays, vegetarians from meat every day. That each group formally respects all the others publicly while disagreeing with each other in private is relativism in action. Murder, to be sure, is a universal absolute evil, but only because it violates equal, individual “rights.”

Relativism is the ultimate Western “truth,” and is the bane of Islam. What looks to us like noble openmindedness about other “belief systems” looks to traditional Muslims, with their confident possession of the Truth, like the spineless, ignorant toleration of evil. What looks to a liberal democrat like the blessed freedom to do what one pleases is, to Muslims, slavery to sin. In turn, what looks to us like Islamic obduracy on behalf of an illusion looks to Muslims like integrity on behalf of revealed truth.

Westerners tend to believe that liberal democracy is the best, nay the only, solution to social ills; Muslims believe that liberalism and democracy create those ills. To traditionalist Muslims, the rule of the majority is sacrilegious: How can the voice of the people be allowed to drown out the voice of God? And as for the liberal component of liberal democracy, how can there be a “right” to do what is wrong? The Western emphasis on personal liberty licenses alcoholic consumption, usury, and, of course, debauchery: sexual display and perversion, feminine autonomy and anatomy. All of this violates God’s law — in the Jewish and Christian view too, until those religions were subverted by individualist skepticism.

We are indeed in the midst of a clash of civilizations, but it is not a clash of Islam and Christianity. It is a clash between tolerance bred of relativism, and patriarchy bred of tradition. Islam can, in fact, justifiably be seen as upholding a venerable cause that Christians and Jews have fecklessly abandoned.

Let me be clear: this discussion has not been about Islamic terrorists and sociopaths; nor have I yet discussed whether the proper response to them is military or diplomatic. Such questions are matters of means, not ends. I am discussing the ends of traditional Islam, which used to be those of Judaism and Christianity: the ends established by God, enunciated by His prophets, and written in His books.

And I am discussing the ends of the post- Reformation, scientific West, which, as embodied in liberal democracy, are empty at best, non-existent at worst. Any end, any conception of the “Good” — any end but the equal freedom of all others to pursue contradictory ends — is treated in the West as a threat to the tolerant order, and rightfully so. Skeptical, egalitarian individualism has made claims to non-scientific truth (as opposed to mere opinions about non-scientific matters) seem arrogant and disrespectful of other individuals’ equal right to their own “truths.” This relativistic posture is the product of a highly specific path of Western historical development, and for those who have not been acculturated to it, it is unnatural and incoherent.

The neoconservatives, eager to bring the blessings of the West to Islam, made the highly questionable assumption that liberal democracy reflects natural and universal aspirations. Thus, they believed that people who lack liberal democracy will naturally welcome its establishment by us. But as wonderful as democracy may seem to those who have been taught liberal-democratic pieties, it seems an impious fraud to those who have not been so educated.

Obviously Muslims carry no anti-democracy gene. But the Muslim world is dominated by traditional Islamic culture, which sees democracy as a curse rather than a blessing. And from a non-relativist point of view about the ends of life — which a mere 600 years ago was our own view — the Muslims are right.

The evident inadequacy of military opposition to militant Islam has produced much talk of “public diplomacy,” meaning efforts to display the West’s tolerance of Islam — along with its tolerance of everything else. Such efforts are entirely beside the point, or even harmful, since they emphasize the very relativism that a non-skeptic finds so odious. If we are to defend liberal democracy, it will have to be on some other basis than that it allows for everyone to go to hell in his own handbasket. We will have to show the goodness of our way of life, for all its flaws.

Islam, which is undergoing a revival not unlike those in Judaism and Christianity, is better positioned than they are to retain its hold on the imagination of its people because it is still in its uncontaminated, medieval phase. Democracy in the Middle East therefore faces — to borrow a bon mot from Defense Secretary Rumsfeld — a long, hard slog.

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Manfred Weidhorn is a professor of English at Yeshiva University and the author, most recently, of The Person of the Millennium and the forthcoming An Anatomy of Skepticism.






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