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Democracy and Islam ─ Friends or Foes?

Islam, the religion of over 1.2 billion people today, was founded by Mohammad during the latter half of his life in the late 6th and early 7th centuries. He did not conceive of the faith as a new venture, but sought to reform the prevailing religious ideas and center man’s worship on One God. This return to a mono-theistic expression of faith eventually took root in the Arab tribes that scratched out a living in the arid landscape of the Arabian Peninsula. Life was hard for the men and women of 6th and 7th century Arabia, and survival required strict adherence to codes of conduct. Education was limited and power was largely held by the senior male members of a given family or tribe. Hospitality was critical to survival in the harsh desert and as a means of wielding influence and expanding one’s holdings.

It was in this context that Islam took root and grew. Due to the aspirations of Islamic rulers, Islam spread rapidly across northern Africa and the Middle East in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries. By the 10th century much of Eastern Europe was under the Muslim control. In 1076, Jerusalem itself fell into Muslim hands. It was this state of affairs that prompted Pope Urban II in 1095 in Clermont, France, to raise an impassioned appeal for the rising of an army of Saints to come to the aide of the Byzantine Christian peoples and take back the Holy Lands (especially Jerusalem), thus launching the era of the Crusades.

Flash-forward almost 1000 years to today and the news from the Middle East sounds chillingly familiar to that of its past. Conflict remains, war between neighboring states continues. The quest for “power” along with “intrigue,” “jihad,” and “enemy” are part of every day’s news. So much of this involves Muslim lands that one cannot help but wonder, “Is it the nature of Islam to persist in conflict and violence?” Samuel Huntington, in his book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, says, “Muslims make up about one fifth of the world’s population, but in the 1990s, they have been far more involved in intergroup violence than the people of any other civilization. The evidence is overwhelming.”1

But are Arab-Muslim countries condemned to violence and hopelessness? Is there another way? In late 2010 and continuing on to today, a “hope for a different way” began pushing itself to the forefront in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. What quickly became known as the “Arab Spring” was largely a populist movement to remove strong-armed dictators in several Arab-Muslim countries and replace them with something else that would allow personal freedoms and improve economic conditions. For many in the West, this populist uprising appeared to be the sign that democracy would sweep the region, removing oppression, injustice, and violence in its wake. Many Western observers could hardly refrain from assuming that such a move across North African and the Middle East would effectively signal an end to Islam and its violent outbursts that have been too often in the news since 9/11.

Despite the wishes of the West, it is clear by now that the outcomes of the Arab Spring have not been the democratic utopia that was expected. And why is that? How does Islam relate to democracy? Is there, or was there, indeed, any real hope that the Arab Spring would usher in a new era of democratic rule with the personal freedoms that go along with such? As a partial answer to this question, I offer four conflicts between Islam and Democracy. Conflicts which I believe must be understood and resolved at some level if democracy of some sort is to be a possible outcome in these Arab Muslim lands.

Conflict #1: Democracy requires a participatory populace in which equality, opportunity, and diversity coexist. Islam calls for submission and obedience to an external authority.

First, it must be noted that Islam is a religion of authority. Allah, according to Islamic theology, rules unequivocally. He is the creator, giver and taker of life from whom all wisdom and authority emanates. Islam, by simple definition of the term, means “to submit” and the term Muslim means “one who submits.” The faithful follower of Islam, then, is one who submits to the authority and teaching of Allah as handed down to the Prophet Mohammad and preserved in the Qu’ran. A faithful Muslim obeys– the sign of his or her submission. The ultimate objective of Islam is the submission of the World to Allah. In this light, Islam is a “missionary” faith and seeks to spread its message in order to realize its objective: all the world a Muslim. And if it must use force to do so, it will.

Conflict #2: Democracy is the expression of the individual in the vernacular. Democracy values the diversity and contribution of each person. Islam limits the validity of non-conforming voices and requires participation in the language of the “ruling authority,” even if not understood.

This same line of reasoning with regard to authority nourishes the appropriate attitude towards the Qu’ran as well. Unlike the Christian faith which thrives on translations of the Bible in the vernacular, Islam is experienced in its purest form from within and by the use of the Arabic language. Translations of the Qu’ran certainly exist in many languages, but the true “word” is preserved only in its Arabic form. In keeping with this pattern, the essential prayer ritual, that which is central to the practice of the Islamic faith, is learned and practiced using the Arabic forms–even by the vast majority of Muslims who do not speak Arabic.

Conflict #3: Democracy looks forward and calls all its citizens to cooperate for a better tomorrow. Democracy raises women to equal status as men and expects the contribution of all to make it work. Islam looks backwards to its former golden age. Islam limits those who can participate, and keeps others “locked” out.

Social conventions in 6th and 7th century Arabia were tightly defined; and rightly so, as they served to preserve families and tribes in a unique context in history. In this context, men led, women followed. Men traded and fought and negotiated and provided for their families. Women were kept out of sight, caring for children and affairs of the home. Education, what there was of it, was passed down from parents to children, and it was limited to the knowledge that would guarantee survival and prosperity of the next generation.

Frequently, Islam is criticized for its apparent failure to keep up with the Modern World. Despite places like Dubai and Qatar which have used tremendous oil wealth to turn their countries into showrooms of technological and economic prowess, other Islamic entities such as the Taliban and Hezbollah seem to revel in a strange, anti-modern posture. Huntington urges the West to recognize that modernization does not equal westernization. But even if that is understood, why do Islamic groups that urge a return to a life from another time and place continue to emerge? In short, Islam longs for the days of its former glory– the “Golden Age” (mid-8th century to 13th century) of Islam when its ideology and force dominated much of the known world.2 As such, groups like the Taliban are convinced that pure Islam is the Islam that was lived during that so-called “golden era” when men ruled, women were kept “locked” away, and the militarized rule of and by the Qu’ran was the standard.

Conflict #4: Democracy thrives in an environment in which an empowered and educated populace comes together to think and solve problems together. Democracy recognizes the divine spark of reason and intelligence and seeks to harness it for the common good. Islam minimizes the value of individual thought, and suppresses the voice of the individual.

The success of Islam requires a fundamental commitment to guarding the purity of Islamic teaching and practice. To ensure the preservation of this purity, Islam and its teaching is considered immutable– not because it has demonstrated itself to be so–but by ruling out the practice of personal and textual examination that might bring evidence to the contrary. Borrowing from the idea of its authoritarian position with regards to those in authority: Allah, the Prophet Mohammad, the Qu’ran, the Imam, etc… one does not seek to understand by virtue of questioning and reasoning, nor does one seek application of the Qu’ran to one’s life situation (though there are myriads of teachings taken from the collected words and practices of the Prophet Mohammad which can serve as a directive for any number of choices and situations), one simply obeys. Likewise, one doesn’t learn the Qu’ran as one learns the Bible; one memorizes it and recites it. Islam does not permit critical scholarship. It discourages and even sanctions independent thought.

Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this submit-obey principle is found in the practice of education in Islamic countries. In Islam, educational philosophy can be summarized as follows: man’s basic problem is lack of knowledge. The solution is to learn (by memorizing) that which Allah has already revealed. In this light, classroom learning is devoted to rote memory of facts, formulas, and the learning of routines which serve to give the student the necessary knowledge. Furthermore, students are not taught to think for themselves but to mime the acquired knowledge. With this pattern ingrained from childhood, adults are left without developed skills in processing the merits of competing opinions and making reasoned choices, all things critical to the democratic process. Recently a friend from Algeria told me, “We don’t want democracy in Algeria, at least I don’t, because we know what we’ll get–the Islamic Party! Despite the fact that the Islamic Party was behind a civil war that resulted in the death of

more than 100,000 Algerians in the 1990s, the people can imagine no other solution, and will choose to be ruled by them, if they are given the chance.”

For these reasons, I find that democracy, at least as it has been defined over the centuries in the West, is incompatible with Islam. Fundamentally, Islam is built upon principles and practices that do not permit its followers to engage in a process that is based on equality, which encourages and values diversity and competition, that demands the participation of all, and which is fueled by freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and freedom of choice. What I find intriguing however is that Muslims throughout the world express yearnings for the very things that democracy embraces: fundamental human desires. Could it be that the impassioned cries of Muslims will serve to awaken the masses to the fact that Islam cannot and will not respond to basic human longings? Will yearning for democracy become the breach in the wall of Islam as it turned out to be for communism not too many years ago?

Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson made significant contributions to the defense and propagation of democracy and democratic values around the World. Jefferson predicted that freedom would spread throughout the world “to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all.” Lincoln, when asked what sentiment was expressed in the Declaration of Independence said, “...it was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men.” Jefferson and Lincoln considered the spread of democracy throughout the world as inevitable. “Rivers of blood and years of desolation must first pass over,” but it is “irresistible...” in the words of Jefferson.3

Is democracy inevitable, as Jefferson and Lincoln suggested? Even for those cultures founded on values that appear to be in opposition to it? Will the whiff of freedoms that brought down the Berlin wall symbolizing the end of communism in Eastern Europe also signal the end of Islamic regimes and usher in a new era across the Arab World? And what will these governments look like if liberty rules the day? If Islam continues to hold sway over the peoples of the Arab World, is it possible to conceive of a sort of Islamic-democratic mixture which combines the core values of each? Will Islam be willing to sacrifice some of its core values to embrace democratic ones? One tentative effort to do just this exists in Lebanon–though the government wobbles considerably as a result of powerful factions that vie for power.

Even as we watch with interest the developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria we must not confuse temporal outcomes with eternal ones. Surely, we wish freedom and democracy for all, but even more importantly, we wish eternal life for every person. Perhaps the protests of the so-called “pro-democracy” crowds will yield gains for suppressed freedoms across the Arab world. But more importantly, may every Muslim’s heart cry find satisfaction in the One who truly sets men free. And in this we must be clear, the primary objective of the Church (the Church in the West included) is not the defense and propagation of our preferred political or economic system, or even our Judeo-Christian heritage and culture; the priority of the Church is the Gospel. We, then as members of the Church, must not confuse temporal structures (democracy) and outcomes (freedom of press, of speech, of choice) with eternal ones (salvation). Nevertheless, we stand behind those efforts and structures that encourage the expression of basic human needs–all of this in light of eternal outcomes for which we pray and watch.

Finally, how would things be different if, in place of military troops and weapons to assist the revolution, the Church sent evangelists and Bibles to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria? Instead of wishing for democracy, what if we prayed for salvation of many and the subsequent birth and growth of the Church in these lands? Ultimately, our role as members of the Body of Christ is not to propagate our own preferred economic or governmental model, but to be witnesses of Christ, the only and eternal hope for the world. The question we need to ask then is not, “Is democracy a possibility in these Arab-Muslim land?” but rather, “What role will I play in advancing the Gospel among these Muslim peoples?”

1 Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations: The Remaking of World Order, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996, p. 256.
2 During this era, Muslims contributed greatly to advances in mathematics, architecture, medicine, and the arts.
3 http://www.theoriginandpurposeofdemocracy.org/introduction.html (February 5, 2011).

(Rick Kronk has spent the last 20 years bringing the Gospel to Muslims and helping the Church understand the Muslim World. He is also the author of, Dreams and Visions: Muslims’ Miraculous Journey to Jesus, available from Amazon.com or directly from Rick’s blog: www.nouvelleoptique.wordpress.com)

Article Link: http://ccmusa.org/read/read.aspx?id=chg20120301
To reuse online, please credit Challenger, Jul-Sep 2012. CCMUSA.