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Might Muslims think democracy is immoral?

Paul Berman's lengthy essay on Sayyid Qutb (who Berman says wrote the book on Islamists' hatred of the West) makes one wonder: Would a people whose chosen religion also functions as a form of government, actually choose to govern themselves?

Democracy is important to America's push for regime change, because it offers a non-arbitrary answer to the question, Change to what? Somehow there must be a way to (eventually) pick the next cadre of political leaders, and to give them some credibility in the eyes of their people, and elections are the obvious political answer.

But politics isn't the only way to govern. If a person believes that the only genuine authority is religious (and more than a few Muslims do seem to believe this), couldn't he or she conclude, as Berman says Qutb did, that self-government — or government according to any principles other than those of the Koran, for Muslims — is morally wrong, and a violation of God's will, and therefore not for him?

March 27, 2003 11:24 AM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

A few religions in the world have big governmental traditions, each of which has had the very debate you outline, and each with a successful morphing (their governances) to what we'd consider "good, stable" democracies.

Judaism has a long, long traidition of theocracy, and an equally historically long debate on the subject. King Shaul was "elected" by the then Confederacy of Tribes, despite the rather nasty tirade against such by the then leading "imam" of their day. Not exactly democracy by today's standards, but the closest thing they knew of then.

This whole debate, still, rages in the State of Israel today. You have a whole class (heradim/"faithful") who refuse, in many ways, to recognise the legitimacy of the democractically elected State -- some even refuse to speak Hebrew, considering it a sacred language best kept safe for the day of theocracy's return. (don't hold your breath, thank G-d)

Puritanism. There was a day, in this blogger's neighborhood, when if you didn't show up in Church every sunday you were economically shunned, never mind a social misfit. But, somehow, the Bay Colony ended up a true democracy.

Anyone remember the Holy Roman Empire?

Look... This aint rocket science. This how how cultures mature. And, so too, will the Arabs.


Posted by rob adams on March 28, 2003 12:35 PM

I'm not saying Muslims will never wish for a democratic system of governance, just that it isn't necessarily so that they do now. In fact, it even seems unlikely -- no matter how inconvenient that may be for America's wish to rebuild Iraq (not to mention the rest of the Middle Eastern nations) as a democracy.

Posted by M on March 28, 2003 1:23 PM

I think it's a right and proper view to treat the current "fundamentalist" ground-swell within the Arab nation as a "best of poor choices", and by no means as a preferred vehicle of change for the populace. It's the best, most effective (if the only effective) one they've got.

For example: You may not agree with all of the tenets of the Nadarites, but a good many of us voted for him 'cause it's the best, most heard, (and perhaps) the most effective protest against the current set of ruling parties in the States.

Why are the Islamic fundemantalist parties the best and, probably, most effective protest and vehicle of change against the current set of un-democratic Arabic regimes?

Heritage vs Education
The vast majority of Arabs alive today can look back no more than 40/60 years and, for the most part, identify themselves with this or that nomadic and/or regional family-tribe. This would be akin to you and i being able to say our grandparents (or parents, even) were roaming the country side of Poland or Norway eeking out a herdsman's level wage eating marrow by the fireside for fun. In the same way Albania or Burkina Faso lacks a democratic tradition, so does the Arab nation, and thus vibrant democratic opposition party(ies) in a plurastic arena. Education changes that, but it takes a generation of university (which we now have).

Let's remember that even such staunchly democratically stable nations, like Germany, lack such traditions going back even 70 years. And, like Arabia, Germany found democratic institutions difficult to self-instill. Ultimately, we'll remember, it took an external force to exact a lasting change towards democracy in Germany. Fact. Comparing our efforts in Germany with that of Arabia is, actually, quite sound, no matter the hysterical, shrieking protests heard in the likes of the Berkley's or Brown's granola hordes. ("I hate Bush therefor all that comes from bush is bad." Oh, if the Logic Seminars were only a little more full than the Sex and Music Seminars.)

If fundamentalism enjoyed such true, lasting popular support in Arabia you wouldn't see so many of their children being allowed to study in Berlin or Berkley. They'd be sent to Pakistan or Medina for a good old proper "education." Why, they'd keep 'em home, safe, and away from our Sex in The City and interest gaining checking accounts if that's where their hearts really were.

Trust me, they're flocking to the one, best heard opposition they got. Give them a secular alternative, and it'll change everything.

But, then again, if Mubarak catches wind of such, he'll arrest them like he has all the rest -- cause a secular opposition is in his worst interests, the thug he and his cohorts are.

This is a turning point for America's value system, realising that sin can come not only from what we do, but what we have neglected to do.


Posted by rob adams on March 28, 2003 3:50 PM

Trust me, they're flocking to the one, best heard opposition they got. Give them a secular alternative, and it'll change everything.

But why should they see an immoral alternative -- one that violates their religion -- as necessarily a better one? That's the question I'm asking. Why should a Muslim believe that democracy is a good thing, when the Koran already offers him God's own laws of human governance?

And even if democracy really is in some sense better for a people than Islam, if the two are inconsistent (which is the question I'm asking), a reconciliation won't be quick. I mean, how long was it before the Church finally acknowledged that maybe the sun didn't in fact orbit the Earth?

Posted by M on March 29, 2003 2:08 PM

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