Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

Is Liberal Democracy compatible with Islam?




by Raluca Csernatoni

The 20th century has witnessed three major waves of democratic expansionism corresponding to dramatic periods in the theoretical and empirical development of liberal democracy:

  • the first wave of Wilsonian democratization at the beginning of the 20th century, which stressed the advocacy and the spread of democracy, freedom and self-determination at an international level;
  • the second wave following World War II, which re-examined the prerequisites for stable and successful democracies under conditions of economic crisis, militarism and extreme nationalism (which were largely responsible for undercutting the interwar democratic process in Europe);
  • the third wave of democratic effervescence typical to the democratic transition period post-Cold War.

This last democratization wave could be envisioned as the most promising. Its aftermath was the supposed moral victory of liberal democracy as the uncontested political system coming out of the Cold War rivalry. At the time, the unilateral triumph of the Western world prompted Francis Fukuyama to boldly state that liberal democracy was to mark, in Hegelian terms, the end of history. The meaning behind the statement was that liberal democracy might be the final political system ever devised, without other remaining ideological rivals. There was nevertheless a sense of arrogance in proclaiming the absolute win of liberal democracy, especially in light of its many failures and due to the fact that its principles are not universal but actually dependent upon unique contextual and cultural factors such as the Enlightenment project.

Indeed, the unprecedented victory of the West after 1989 has paved the way for the peaceful transition of the emerging democratic systems, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. In these countries, democracy was gradually conquered: by the political mobilization of the masses from bellow; by rehashing pre-World War II liberal traditions swept away under half a century of Communism; emerging out of common and shared Western values and the international influence of both the NATO and the EU; or by an interactive and peaceful process of political negotiations between national elites – legitimizing certain groups and de-legitimizing others.

With the advent of the Arab Spring, the 21st century introduced the possibility of a fourth wave of democratization extended to other regions in the world that have been most resistant to democratic transformation. Could the democratization of the Islamic world be viewed as a forth wave, and if so, which are the best variables to analyse the particular implications of the new theoretical and practical problems that emerge out of this association? Nevertheless, it is too early to qualify the global effects of the emerging Arab awakening on liberal democracy, particularly in light of its post-revolutionary loss of momentum and the more recent upheavals witnessed in the Middle East.

As well, many arguments against the possibility of this fourth wave in the Arab world have often highlighted a series of indisputable impediments obstructing the creation of liberal democracies. They range from high democratic deficit levels in many Arab countries, the tribal tensions still fragmenting the regions due to the colonial legacy of artificial state borders, weak citizen rights, a high degree of human rights infringement acts, to the lack or low levels of women’s political participation. Some critics have went as far as to claim that religion, and in particular Islam, and liberal democracy are incompatible, for the most part in light of the rising waves of Islamic fundamentalism and radicalized violent movements that are becoming more and more appealing to a large number of disenfranchised groups.

The main question to be asked is whether liberal democracy is compatible with the Islamic Arab world. Could the commercial model of a political system such as liberal democracy be implemented as consequence of a Western-centric foreign policy strategies or as a post-conflict state-building strategy? Certainly, the term democracy-building connotes the direct cultural implications of imperialist practices, with international powers assuming a posture and doctrine of superior culture or purpose and asserting the right to intervene and impose a system of governance.

Liberal-democratic institutional capacity-building under international stewardship is not enough so as to ensure a real, political and substantive process that involves all sectors of society beyond national elites. Military power can force parties to the table, but it cannot secure an enduring peace or the substantive social and political transformation of a community. For that matter, it still remains to be seen whether liberal democracy it a viable solution in countries that traditionally have not belonged to a commonly shared intellectual and ideological heritage and that do not have cognate Western principles, similar ideological or religious legacies and world-views.

As demonstrated by the case of Afghanistan and the “democracy by force” international practices in the region, state-building in the name of liberal democracy is not always the best solution. One should engage critically with such practices and identify built-in conceptual biases – for example the belief that a functional liberal democracy presupposes a participatory, deliberative understanding of politics (Rawls, Habermas), in which the “rational” demos is taking an equal and substantial part in the public fora and it peacefully decides the future of the polity.

A cursory look at history suggests that the main obstacles that Islamic countries are facing in their attempts to achieve pluralistic, open political systems and democratic governments are: the difficulties in constructing such a “rational” demos and citizenry, the persistence of authoritarian political cultures, underdeveloped minority rights, the low levels of secularism, and the sometimes manipulated interpretations of the Koran.

Actually, there is an ongoing debate concerning the nature of an Islamist democracy model and whether liberal democracy per se comports well with the Islamic principles. Many have put forward the example of Turkey as the most successful implementation of what Islam can entail in a secular democratic polity. Nevertheless, in light of Turkey’s more recent authoritarian tendencies, the success of liberal democracy is put into question and it further demonstrates that the country’s proclaimed progressiveness can be easily overturned.

Some of the Islamist movement’s most influential ideologues seem to specifically oppose democracy because it invests political sovereignty in the people rather than in divine authority. Free elections are accepted, since leaders would do very well in polling ratings and electoral competitions. However, further reflection is needed for the cases in which illiberal democracies may arise and benefit from the large support of the population (sometimes in the detriment of minorities), in which cases they do not necessarily prioritize liberty over Islamic moral and legal categories.

This type of “democracy lite” limited to electoral processes does not comprise the broad array of liberties that most citizens of liberal democracies associate with democracy. It could be said that Islam promotes a specific format for politics and government beyond its religious role, most Muslim states being so far strictly founded on Islamic religious principles used also for legal and governing purposes. Islam chiefly prioritizes a sacred sense of community identity legitimized by the sanctified presence of the divinity, while liberalism gives precedence to a secular individual identity.

Beyond the levels of congruity and incongruity between Islam and liberal democracy, the prospects for democratic transition in Islamic countries can be best gauged:

  • by examining the development of their political culture (Almond & Verba) and the possibility for congruence between their political culture and liberal democracy;
  • by analysing both their institutional and cultural choices during their history, especially in cases concerning unsuccessful secular authoritarian political solutions in the Arab world;
  • by identifying the specific conditions that favour democracy or that trigger mass movements in favour of democratic systems;
  • by looking at how electoral patterns of preferences are formed and the ways in which elites negotiate political conflicts or cleavages;
  • and finally by evaluating how values can change (Inglehart) and adapt to new conditions.

The new democratic models that could emerge in the Arab world, from the endeavour to build pluralistic liberal democracies where none existed before, will certainly carry their own brand of originality. The new models will put forward variations of liberal democracy within Islam’s limits and liberal democratic structures struggling with sometimes incompatible and religion-dominated politics. One thing remains certain, Islam’s relation to liberal democracy has emerged as one of the most contentious topics in the international politics nowadays and it will certainly dominated the future agenda.

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