Islam and Democracy: Not Mutually Exclusive

Kerry and Morsi

By James Ferencsik.

When Abraham Lincoln declared in 1858 that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” the United States was on the verge of tearing itself apart, and its noble experiment in democratic governance appeared on the brink of failure.  Many Americans today forget exactly how messy, how painful, and how long the process of building a liberal democracy is.  Accordingly, the American government has approached the turmoil in Egypt with a sense of myopia that belies its own history.  When the military ousted the democratically-elected President Morsi, President Obama spared a word to condemn the violence, but he failed to advocate the maintenance of the democratic process and condemn the coup.  Why? The U.S. has an underlying fear that hard-line Islamic extremists will take over the government, turn the country against the U.S., and destabilize the region.  The premise of that fear is that democracy cannot develop in Islamic societies, so the U.S. should wait for liberal institutions, including religious freedom and modern capitalism, to first develop.  If the U.S. looked back at its own history and the root causes of the Arab Spring, it would realize that it ought, right now, to take a more vigorous stand in defense of democracy– even when the word Islamic is attached to it.

America’s history demonstrates that in a religious country with a religious majority some religion will inevitably spill over into politics.  Even after the “Establishment Clause” was codified, preventing the establishment of state religion, and officials like Thomas Jefferson declared there was a “wall of separation between church and state,” religion has still played a significant role in public life.  In 1954, the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance under President Eisenhower who claimed, “Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first, most basic, expression of Americanism.”  It was not until the Wallace v. Jaffree ruling in 1984 that teacher-led prayer was banned in public schools.  On January 20th of this year, President Obama with his hand on the Bible was sworn in for a second term.  Regardless of your opinion on whether this spillover is a good thing or not, America has developed liberal democratic institutions.  U.S. officials are no longer elected by white, property-owning men.  A black man can longer be called a slave, but one is called “Mr. President.”  There is a relatively strong middle class and ladder of opportunity.  So, why cannot the Middle East similarly develop more liberal institutions after democratic ones like the U.S.?

This question gets two pretty standard answers that focus on one point.  The politically correct answer argues that the influence of Islamic extremism and Wahhabism, an ultraconservative sect, will disrupt and possibly hijack the democratic process, drowning out the voices of moderate policymakers.  The politically incorrect answer points to the “fundamental flaws” of Islam as a religion.  Muslims inherently want Sharia law which puts anachronistic restrictions on society and prevents any form of democratic governance.  The underlying assumption in each answer is that Islam is the single most important driving factor in people’s lives.  While that may be true for some, politics, for many, is more about the pocketbook than the prayer book. 

The desire for democracy that we saw in Tahrir Square and the streets of Damascus is primarily economic in origin.  People were tired of unemployment, inflation, and corruption.  Even the spark of the Arab Spring, the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, was driven by economics.  After a government official beat him, tossed aside his produce cart, and confiscated his scales for not paying a bribe, he walked into a busy intersection in front of the Governor’s office, doused himself in gasoline, yelled “How am I supposed to make a living?” and lit the match.  Muslims throughout the Middle East see democracy as the best way to ensure a more prosperous and egalitarian society for themselves and their children. 

I am confident once democracy takes hold that these states will not devolve into caliphates as some irrationally conclude.  Yes, the process of forming liberal democratic institutions will take some time just as it took America.  Yes, Islamists will have tremendous influence in elections in the short-term.  However, it is highly unlikely that people in countries like Egypt and Libya will give up on the dream of democracy they fought so long and hard for.  There is, then, significantly greater downside to not strongly supporting the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East.

America’s primary source of international legitimacy is not that it is an economic and military superpower but that it is “the leader of the free world.”  This image suffers immense damage when it does not vehemently condemn a military coup or stifling political repression.  When Essam el-Eriam, the last major, free Muslim Brotherhood leader was arrested this week, the U.S. had no comment.  Rather than condemning Mohamed Morsi’s trial, Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Egypt to meet with interim government leaders the day before the trial began.  These actions create the impression that the “land of the free” is only interested in its own freedom.  This hypocrisy surrenders the moral high-ground to extremists and dictators.

This hypocritical reputation America has been carefully working to build will have serious, long-term consequences.  As groups in the Middle East clamor for democracy, they will not seek the U.S.’s support.  As some of those groups form governments, they will not ally their states with the U.S. This will ultimately weaken the U.S.’s influence in one of the most important regions, if not the most important region, in the world.  As nations like Iran try to assert their dominance in the region, this could adversely affect the fate of democracy in the region as well.  The U.S. must look beyond the “Islamic.” Although all democracies are not created equal, some democratic governance is better than none at all.

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