The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s brought on a wave of new ideas about the future of civilization and the roles that various cultures would play in this "postmodern" society. One of the most tenacious of these ideas is that of an unavoidable "Clash of Civilizations" as described by Samuel Huntington. According to his ideas, nation-state politics would eventually be overtaken by identity politics and that conflict would arise because of different "civilizations" rather than between countries. Many have taken his extremely simplistic ideas and interpreted them to believe that the "West" (America, Europe, and possibly Japan for some odd reason) would inevitably have to contend with "the Rest," or powers like China or the Islamic nations (which in his analysis were lumped together as one, since they apparently never fight among each other). Many scholars have criticized this idea for its complete disregard for nation-state politics and the general ignorance of lumping so many diverse (and often conflicting) cultures within what he believes will be the "dominant" cultures of the future. His narrative also seems to suggest that Islamic nations (and Islam in general) would be incompatible with adopting some of the same values as "Western" democratic nations. This week, let's break down some of these terms to determine how well these two ideologies can work together.
But first, what exactly is Islam? It's extremely hard to distill the dozens of different mainstream interpretations into one idea. But generally speaking, Islam tends to focus on personal improvement and communal cohesion. Unlike Christianity (or Catholicism at least), Islam does not have much of a hierarchical structure. Though renowned Islamic scholars are often held in high esteem, the local Imam tends to be the authority on religious interpretation. Most schools of Islamic thought place a large emphasis on community consensus, meaning that (in theory) multiple people need to agree on an interpretation to make it valid (as opposed to one person calling all the shots). Here we already see one avenue for a possible merger of an Islamically oriented community and the democratic process.
Islamism, on the other hand, is the phenomenon of Muslim religious interpretation entering the political process. This has occurred in a variety of political systems (autocracy in Saudi Arabia and democracy in Tunisia). Islamism has also occurred with tolerance of non-religious views (via the Tunisian Ennahda party) and intolerance of them (like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt). Like any other ideology, Islamism can contain a broad spectrum of interpretations that do not necessarily contradict "Western" democratic principles. But why does Islamism seem to persist when political Christianity seems less prevalent?
Well the roots of Christianity's division between religion and politics seem to come out of the Enlightenment. During these years, Rationalism tended to reject the notion of including religion in political and scientific thought. Some Christian scholars even agreed with this division, citing the parable of Jesus to "give to Caesar that which is Caesar's." The Muslim world, on the other hand, underwent its own scientific and political "golden age" at the same time as (and as a result of) its most successful religious period. The strict separation of religion and politics which is typical in the "West" was barely even a concept during the centuries of Islamic rule in the Middle East. In fact, much of human history saw religion deeply intermixed with traditional rule. The Ottoman empire oversaw the majority of the Muslim world throughout the decades of the Enlightenment, seeing little reason to change the established order (with the exception of the Young Ottoman and Young Turk movements). It was only the forces of colonization immediately after the fall of the Ottomans which attempted to impose a strict religion/ politics divide on the Muslim world. From this perspective, Islam barely had time to contemplate such a divide (and resented that it was forced on them by colonizing powers.
So where does Islamic law (sharia) fit into all this? Despite what mainstream Islamic extremism might say, the definition of sharia and the formula for using it in a society is hardly set in stone. Islamic scholars such as Abdullah Ahmed An-Na'im argue in Islam and the Secular State that sharia by its very nature cannot be imposed upon a society since it is designed to be a guide for personal and close communal living. Its judicial legitimacy is derived only from personal adherence (i.e. it is only meaningful when you hold yourself to those rules, not have them imposed on you). Within the context of consensus, sharia definitions must always be a fluid process (i.e. the rules of sharia can't be determined once and then never altered again). So having someone like ISIS come in and dictate "sharia" to a population violates nearly every definition of how sharia could be interpreted anyway! Of course, this doesn't even begin to deal with the fact that the "sharia" advocated by ISIS is extremely selective and takes the most literal and violent interpretation possible. Regardless, the interpretation of sharia as a guide to personal living (NOT to be imposed on other people) leaves room for interpretations that do not directly conflict with the open democratic process.
Ok, but how can political Islam and representative democracy work together? It requires a national administration that does not favor one religion over another. This, however, does not mean that the society itself must be secular. The society itself can be as religious as it wants and elect whoever regardless of official religious affiliation. But the actual intuitions of the nation (Parliament, the Judiciary...) would refrain from using religious arguments/ doctrine when making decisions. Not only does this protect individuals with minority beliefs, it also protects the religion itself from becoming co-opted by political leaders. In this sense, the separation of church and state goes both ways. Modern Turkey can serve as one example of how this separation could work within a very religious society.
But for this sort of change to occur, it must come from within, not be imposed by outside powers. Ultimately, the people of these societies must choose for themselves which path to take. Transitioning to representative democracy can be a very messy, destabilizing, and time-consuming process. And even then, "Western" style democracy still wouldn't immediately solve other major problems countries face such as income inequality, low rates of education, or high unemployment. Nor would it guarantee a stable and peaceful Middle East. After all, nations with "Western" values were still starting World Wars not too long ago. Perhaps the better question to be asking here is: do all societies need to conform to the "Western" democratic model? Or are there other systems which can still produce a stable nation with the same protections of basic human rights? In the end, maybe Islam doesn't necessarily need to be compatible with democracy in order for Muslim nations to cooperate with the modern global society.