Democracy in the Islamic World
The comparatively bloodless revolution, in the name of freedom and democracy, which has occurred in Egypt the past few weeks, has held the world mesmerized and wondering: can true democratic freedoms and institutions take root and survive in the Islamic world?
This remains an unsettling question. Some may point to Indonesia, the largest of the world’s countries with a predominantly Muslim population as an example of a functioning democracy, but forget that the little part of Indonesia that was predominantly Christian (East Timor) had to, with UN help, secede in order to enjoy the freedom to be themselves. However, the exotic form of Hinduism still practiced on the island of Bali is tolerated by the Indonesians—but mostly only as a tourist attraction.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, Christians, as well as those more free-spirited forms of Islam that are considered deviant by the Muslim fundamentalists, are finding themselves increasingly under attack. And we all know what has begun to happen to Christianity in Iraq, as well as the murderous infighting that it still occurring between the Sunni and Shia Muslims as soon as the religious neutrality imposed by Saddam Hussein’s iron-fisted dictatorship was removed. Meanwhile, in tiny Lebanon, the careful democratic balance that once existed between the Christian, Muslim, and Druze populations has become increasingly dysfunctional—largely due to the influx and growth of the population of Palestinian Muslim refugees who fled north after the officially Jewish state of Israel was created in 1948. Nor is Israel itself a model of democracy when it comes to the treatment of it’s growing resident Muslim population or increasingly dwindling Christian one.
So what will happen in Egypt? Will another military dictatorship like that imposed by Mubarak have to be re-imposed to continue to make Egypt safe for its Coptic Christian minority, or even for tourists who wish to come to view the wonders of its ancient past? Or will the Muslim Brotherhood, which now claims to favor democracy, return, if it gains a majority influence, to its old dreams of restoring an Islamic caliphate? What happens in Tunisia, whose own bloodless revolution in January inspired Egypt’s, and Algeria, which is probably the next to explode, could be the clue. When both these former French colonies were given independence, attempts at democracy had to be given up when Islamicist fundamentalism turned lethal against the few remaining Christians and Jews. Nor what has happened in Iran (where democracy is a farce) or has long been the case in Saudi Arabia, where it was never pretended to exist, or Turkey, where loosening of tight military controls has favored the Islamicists, very encouraging. Overall, the picture within the predominantly Muslim part of the world remains discouraging for those who believe in religious freedom as a basic human right.
One can conclude, from all of this, that the concept of freedom of religion embodied in modern democracies and enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights still does not exist within a good part of the world. However, before we blame Islam entirely for this, we should not forget our own past, where Catholics and Protestants once enthusiastically killed each other, or together turned their backs on the murder of six million Jews. Nor should we blame religion entirely when we hear of Hindus, long believed to be the most tolerant of believers, attacking Christians and others who, often being better educated than themselves, they see as threatening their livelihood or jobs.
Nor should we forget that there are still those who wish to see the USA declared an officially “Christian” nation, even in the face of all the documentary evidence that our founders took great pains to make sure that this would not be the case. Instead, while they recognized that our population was overwhelmingly Christian, they insisted that for a democracy to function, the Christian religious opinions of the majority could not be imposed as the legal norms. Instead, the Declaration of Independence made an impassioned appeal to their belief in “Nature’s God” as a foundation for the equality of all persons and to the rule of laws based on reason alone. This does not mean that democracies need be secular in the anti-religious sense, but simply that they attempt to be neutral when it comes to particular beliefs.
While there are undoubtedly many sincere Muslims who also see this and believe that a modern democratic society requires that religion and state operate in separate spheres, the question is whether there are enough of them who think this way for religious freedom to prevail in their part of the world. The indications are that, at least from what we have witnessed the past few weeks in the streets of Tunis and Cairo, that this just might now finally be so. If nothing else, we should hope and pray, and give whatever assistance we can, to help make sure that this becomes the case.
R W Kropf 2/13/11 Democracy in the Muslim World.doc