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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.


Article Comments



Jan-17-14 10:17 PM

"The history of Iran doesn't start in 1953. Before that, the US pushed the Russians out of Iran, and before that, the British pushed out a nazi shah, and before that was the failed attempt at constitutionalism in independent Persia in 1906."

Yep, western imperialism has been going on for quite some time, what is your point again?

"But what does any of that have to do with the turn away from democracy in Bangladesh?"

Well if you were paying attention to what I wrote, you might have learned that US interventionism in the Middle East is a major cause of fundamentalist Islam in the world. Every time a country attempts to be semi-independent of western imperialism and actually form a stable government they are destroyed using every means possible. Meanwhile, we also promote Wahhabism through our "great ally" Saudi Arabia.

I would argue that Islam is not the problem, it's western imperialism which should take most of the blame.


Jan-08-14 10:56 AM

The history of Iran doesn't start in 1953. Before that, the US pushed the Russians out of Iran, and before that, the British pushed out a nazi shah, and before that was the failed attempt at constitutionalism in independent Persia in 1906.

But what does any of that have to do with the turn away from democracy in Bangladesh?


Jan-07-14 8:21 PM

A better question: how can secular Islam live when the United States keeps destroying every secular government that comes to power in the Middle East and replacing them with theocracies? Our "great ally" Saudi Arabia spreads their form of Wahhabi Islam all throughout the Muslim world. Coincidence? 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. Our government favors Islamic governments, believe it or not. The evidence proves this conclusively.

Mossaddegh (Iran) -- Socialist Saddam (Iraq) -- Secular Dictator Gaddaffi (Lybia) -- Secular Dictator Bashar Al Assad (Syria)-- Secular Dictator

Notice a pattern here? In each and every case the "opposition" to these dictatorships has always been religious extremists. Our government can't afford for a strong, secular, stable government to come to power in the Middle East, as that would cut into our oil flows. Our government needs religious extremism, they call it "stability." But what it really promotes


Jan-07-14 8:13 PM

It's amusing because everyone seems to know about the "Iranian Hostage Crisis" but not one person knows what caused that situation in the first place. The Shah was overthrown because we were the ones who put him in power in the first place, after we overthrew their democratically elected Prime Minister for being a "socialist" and doing "socialist" things like not allowing British oil companies to rape their countries natural resources. The Shah fled to the United States and we refused to hand him back over, which is why they stormed the embassy. Recall that the reason we invaded Afghanistan is because the Taliban refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden (they demanded that we provide some evidence that he was responsible for 9/11, which we refused to do by the way). Keep in mind that the Shah killed far more people than Bin Laden ever did. He imprisoned and tortured countless more.

But I digress, don't google "Operation Ajax" and don't read the


Jan-07-14 7:57 PM

Since you and everyone who has commented thus far (indeed, a majority of American citizens as well, but we'll leave that for another discussion) seem to be totally ignorant about the history of US-Islamic relations, let me try to enlighten you.

In 1953 the democratically elected socialist Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossaddegh was overthrown in a CIA-lead coup known as "Operation Ajax." The reason for this was simple, Mossaddegh and his nearly-unanimous parliament decided to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now known as BP). The CIA and MI6 instigated the coup, ousted Mossadegh, and replaced him with non other than THE SHAH.

Of course, later this would culminate in the "Islamic Revolution of Iran." The Iranians were tired of decades of western imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism offered an answer. Screw the West! Death to America! Seems reasonable given everything we did to them, at least from the perspective of your average Iranian.


Jan-07-14 2:46 PM

Let us note that this distinction operates today in America: people who demand that forced Christian prayer be imposed on children in public school are behaving exactly as salafists who require all women -- Muslim or not, or strict Muslim or relaxed Muslim -- to cover their bodies.

Christian fundamentalists are, at bottom, antidemocratic. They know best for me and you. And are willing to impose their moral strictures on you, whether you accept their holy book or not.

For the most part, they are excluded from the civil space in America. And that is how it must be if democracy is to exist.


Jan-07-14 2:41 PM

We do not have to get into the question whether there is something in the doctrine of Islam that is incompatible with democracy. It is enough to observe that secular government and religion cannot occupy the same civil space.

Islam demands to occupy the civil space. Until recently, there was not even any conception that there was a separate civil space: the sultan and the caliph were the same guy up to 1924.

Islam is not necessarily different from Christianity in this respect. As long as churches claimed the right to occupy civil space, there were no democracies. And in the west, democracy came last to places, like Spain, where a church was able to control legisilation for all citizens, not just adherents of its cult.


Jan-06-14 5:40 PM

I agree with Harry in that "democracy" - if it is also associated with the right to freely and probably anonymously vote - allowed the Muslim Brotherhood under Morsi to come to come to power. Once in power, however, the victor is not committed to commonly accepted principles of democratic rule. Therein lies a dilemma.


Jan-06-14 5:36 PM

The United States is founded on Judeo-Christian principles, but institutionalized religion does not control civic life (except to some degree in Israel) in the way that Islamist states do (e.g. Turkey since the AKP came into power). It is a fallacy to equate individuals who proclaim to follow the Muslim faith with Islamists who believe that their interpretation of Islam or so-called Islam falls under the purview of government. Thus the separation of church and state in most if not all predominantly Christian countries (correct me if I'm wrong).


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