Can Islam Be Reconciled with Liberal Democracy?

August 24, 2016 | Malise Ruthven
About the author:

In Islamic Exceptionalism, Shadi Hamid examines recent attempts to establish modern states in the Muslim Middle East and argues that, while liberal democracy and Islam may simply be incompatible, it might be possible to reach some sort of compromise. Malise Ruthven writes in his review (free registration required):

Hamid persuasively challenges the idea—advanced by the activist and writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, among others—that Islam must undergo a reformation akin to the Christian one. As he writes, “lessons learned in Europe” are not necessarily applicable in the Middle East. There is a curious absence in his book, however: Iran, which for nearly 40 years has served as the clearest testing ground for political Islam. . . .

In Iran, which arguably boasts the world’s only Islamist government, clerical governance has led to a steep decline in religious observance; in 2011, the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance lamented that after more than 30 years of theocratic rule, only 3 percent of Iranians attend Friday prayers. (Prior to the revolution, the figure was almost 50 percent.) And yet Iranian society and governance have not liberalized in any meaningful ways. . . .

This poses a problem for Hamid’s view: put simply, the argument that political Islam can evolve into Muslim democracy would be more persuasive if the world’s most prominent Islamist country offered more impressive evidence of that possibility.

Perhaps a better way to rebut the idea that the Islamic world can follow only the European path toward modernity—that is, by way of reformation—would be to note that even Europe didn’t really follow that path, at least as it is often portrayed. The Enlightenment was the outcome not only of the Reformation but also of centuries of violent religious conflict, after which sensible people concluded that they were not improving their lots by killing one another in the name of God. That is the grim lesson that Muslims in the contemporary Middle East may yet find themselves learning from European history.

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