A Reaction To "Is Islam Compatible With Democracy?"

The following reaction post comes to us from Stephen Howard, a recent graduate of South Dakota State University in Political Science with an emphasis on the Middle East.  You can find his other contributions to The Orientalist Express here.

In his most recent article entitled “Is Islam Compatible with Democracy?”, Nick Hayen has broached a very important question which may come to define the near and long term future of this planet. By most estimates, the percentage of people who consider themselves Muslim exceeds 20%. That’s about 1.6 billion people. If for some reason these people cannot cooperate in a democratic system, as some argue, it must spell massive problems for the future of the world. I say this, not out of some illogical pride in democracy as a form of government, but with the understanding that while greatly flawed it is the only truly macro level governmental system which can moderate and regulate an entire state with some semblance of equality.

 Now don’t be fooled, the majority of those who consider themselves “Muslim” already live in these very democracies. The 5 largest populations of Muslims in the world today are located in Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nigeria by that order. The next five? Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Algeria and Morocco. Out of those ten countries, roughly 7 are at least somewhat democratic – Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Iran, and Turkey. That equals about 907 million Muslim souls who reside in nominal democracies today. Put another way, at least 58% of all Muslims live in a democracy at this very moment. That doesn’t include those who live elsewhere in Europe, the Americas, Asia, Oceania and Africa.

What, then, are we truly talking about when we are forced by popular demand to discuss Islam’s compatibility with democracy? As we’ve now seen, the majority of Muslims already live in democracies! So, where is this question coming from?

In truth we are discussing four individual, but linked, issues which share the common thread of Islam. Those are Arab Authoritarianism, Sub-Saharan African Authoritarianism, the concept of militant non-governmental organizations, and most importantly, transitioning to democracy from authoritarianism. However, thinking that Islam can be related to each of these issues, and therefore IS the issue, exemplifies the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc in a very dangerous way.

The first two issues are irrevocably linked by colonial roots, great power politics, and strongmen. Much has been written about both elsewhere, so I won’t touch on them much in this article but to say that there are strong historical and structural pulls towards authoritarianism in both the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. The existence of such authoritarian states is not a product of Islam, just like the authoritarian tendencies of states in the medieval times was not a product of Catholicism. Authoritarians use whatever convenient guise is laying about to cloak themselves and their ambitions in, and they always will. Napoleon’s flirtations with Islam in Egypt are a perfect example of this pragmatic approach.

The next issue, what I call militant non-governmental organizations (MNGO’s) and what other people call “terrorists”, has saliency due to the fear it impacts on each of our lives across the globe. Much of this fear is unjustified. For instance, those in the United States who believe that the self-proclaimed Islamic State is an existential threat to their lives. In no way does IS pose an existential threat to anyone outside the Middle East. It makes a good headline to say so, but ends up being an anti-intellectual argument, ignoring all reality and theory in one fell swoop of ignorance. The fear of these groups is justified in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Libya, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and a host of other states which have endured a wave of extremism though. Each of these countries have a large Islamic population, and in each case the radical Islamist violence is directed mainly against those same Muslims. Further, the majority of the violence is occurring in either in non-democracies, failed states, or proto-democracies, but not in, with few exceptions, established democracies. Yes, there are isolated attacks in India and other established democracies, but if democracy itself was such an anathema to Islam, why aren’t Syria-Libya type slaughters taking place in established democracies? Why aren’t the Muslims rising up to overthrow India, Turkey, Bangladesh, or Indonesia in massive bloody uprisings in an attempt to install state run Sharia? Why is it only happening in repressive dictatorships? Advocates of democratic incompatibility often overlook this gaping hole in logic.

That brings up the last point, the problems with transition to democracy from authoritarianism. Shadi Hamid in his book Temptations of Power introduces the idea that the democratic process radicalizes Islamic parties in formerly repressive countries. The idea goes like this: In repressive pre-revolution Syria-Libyaesk countries political parties and public organizations are generally banned, and the only social structure that can continue to exist is the system of mosques and other religious institutions. These institutions end up performing duties that are commonly associated with, but abated by, the government including giving people a civil meeting center, giving them food and education, and giving the people a sense of belonging. In this repressive system the religious social structure tends not towards politics, but instead works to help its members avoid persecution by regime forces. If/when the regime falls, though, this civil organization becomes one of only two organizations to exist in the ensuing vacuum of power. The other organization is composed of the remnants of the oppressive government, usually with a “sympathetic” spokesperson from a highly visible sector like the military taking charge of it. These two groups end up being the only ones in the country with enough connections to make their presence nationally felt, and thus become the only two effectual political parties in the state.

So far, so democratic, right? Two parties, which both vow to undergo elections for the future of democracy in the country, like the majority of first past the post voting systems. Actually, this is where the proto-democracy destroys itself.

All democratic systems must have parties. (Yes. They. MUST.) All parties must pander to their bases. This is the natural way representative democracies work. The base of the former regime party will be those who did well in the previous government, such as the military and other officials who were high enough to be well connected but low enough to survive the post authoritarian purge. The immediate visceral fear that will plague most of these constituents will be that of losing everything they had built up in the former regime. Land, money, prestige, privileges. The most effective way to not lose anything from that former regime is to entrench themselves again in the upper levels of the civil government, military, and political system, and ensure nothing substantially changes in the country.

The Islamists also have to pander to their base, those being the Salafists and other ultra conservative Muslims who are skeptical of the efficacy democracy but fear a return to the former regime. However, as all Americans are aware, pandering means concessions, and the originally moderate Islamist party begins to take on platforms which are more and more conservative. If the Islamists refuse to adopt conservative positions they risk the ultra-conservatives and Salafists either not turning out to vote, and thus ensuring the Islamists lose to the former regime officials, or worse that the already skeptical conservatives will actively work to undermine the new democracy. However, taking these conservative positions angers and scares moderates in the country, who then begin to take sides with the former regime officials for the sake of “stability”. The Islamists, believing (accurately) that if the regime officials take power the lives of their countrymen may be forfeit, double down on holding onto power and begin to actively co-opt the Salafists to maintain numbers given the fleeing of the moderates. This leads to a situation like that in Egypt, where each side becomes unrelentingly repressive which leads to fighting and political cleansing on a massive scale. That ends the democratic experiment, as either side which emerges will have been taken over by their base.

This tragedy may seem to vindicate the idea that Islam and Democracy are incompatible, but that’s untrue. What it highlights is the problem with transitioning from an authoritarian system to a democratic system, completely unrelated to Islam. If Islam had not been the social structure that underwent these trials, it would have been Christianity. Or Hinduism. Or Shintoism. Or some other non-religious civil society structure. The fact is that it would happen no matter what, no matter the presence of a religion or not. We need to not only understand, but accept this. This becomes VITAL, because right now we are prescribing solutions for the Middle East which proscribe Islam and at best aggravate the real problem. At worst, we are laying the scaffolding for further bloodletting and misery on all sides.

There is no doubt that there are some strains of Islam, as Nick pointed out in his original article, which are incompatible with democracy. The fact is that these strains are incompatible with Islam itself, and exist as a pseudo-hegemonic theory made to dominate all those in their path, including other Muslims. This is political domination cloaked in religious garb. In practice, the absolute majority of Islam is not incompatible with democracy. It will surprise and might scare some to learn that Sharia is already being practiced in the United States by reliable, intelligent, and patriotic Americans who believe in democracy. They practice it in the comfort of their own home, just as my mother practices Catholicism in the comfort of hers, and many readers practice another religion in the comfort of theirs.

Everyone understands that the famous study which linked Autism to vaccinations was not just bogus, but actively harmful to public health. Many are willing to speak out on this issue. It is now time to realize, and do, the same when it comes to the sham that Islam is incompatible with democracy.