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Is Islam compatible with democracy?
January 5, 2014 - Harry Eagar
I do not think so, but Bangladesh has been one of the examples tending to say I am wrong.
One thing Osama bin Laden succeeded in doing was destroying whatever small progress various Muslim polities had made toward modern popular government. It may have been that all he had to do was stick one in the eye of the dominating western paradigm to give new heart to the suppressed feelings we call salafist, but whatever the mechanism was, the status of Muslim governments has deteriorated steadily in the past dozen years. At the beginning of that period, perhaps 5% of Muslim-majority societies were failed or failing states. Now the proportion is much, much higher.
Bangladesh, once the east portion of Pakistan until a murderous war separated the states, had apparently followed a different course from (West) Pakistan, whose descent into chaos contrasted so strongly with that of secular India, independent from the same moment. The Bengali social experience, so different from that of the Pakistanis, seemed to account for some of the difference. And possibly the Ismaili form of Islam dominant in Pakistan was important \in the different courses the two Muslim states took.
In any event, Bangladesh did not threaten war with India all the time, and although it went through periods of military usurpation like Pakistan, by the '90s Bangladesh seemed to have emerged as a Muslim country with a functioning electoral mechanism for choosing governments.
Maybe this was not much, but it was different from the rest of Islam, described in 2001 by Bernard Lewis as showing "the cult, without the exercise, of freedom, and the almost universal holding of elections, without choice."
Since then, Turkey, never really the democracy it pretended to be, has become openly theocratic; and the false Arab Spring led merely to a summer of increasingly antidemocratic discontents. Now Bangladesh has joined the reversion to frank medievalism, if a BBC report is accurate, leaving only Indonesia as perhaps a Muslim-majority state showing a successful transition to modernity of some sort.
There are political atrocities in non-Muslim democratic or pseudo-democratic countries, but the form they take in Muslim states have a special flavor, hard really to imagine in, say, Belarus:
"The BNP and its allies - including the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party - have been conducting a violent campaign of strikes and countrywide road and rail blockades (to enforce a boycott of national elections).
"The protests have left more than 100 people dead in recent weeks.
"Scores of opposition supporters have died in police shootings and dozens of commuters have been burnt to death by protesters throwing petrol bombs at strike-defying buses."
In no other part of the world would burning potential voters alive be thought to be an effective party strategy, but I think the explanation is that the BNP does not care about votes or elections. Speaking specifically of Arabs, the political scientist Bassam Tibi stated flatly that Arabs are not interested in democracy. Events have shown he was correct, but events also suggest that it is Islam, not Arabism, that is the antidemocratic seed.
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