Islamic Democracy: An Exercise in Futility?
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BY MANFRED WEIDHORN
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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
All of these characteristics of liberal democracy can
be traced back to two metaphysical causes — egalitarian
individualism and skepticism — that are partly rooted
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
No less important than the Reformation in fostering
egalitarian individualism was the Christian doctrine of
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
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
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
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 TRUE MEANING OF DEMOCRACY
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 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.
THE “SUPERIORITY” OF ISLAM
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
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
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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