Is Islamic Democracy Possible?


In his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel P. Huntington confronts the primary problem facing the West today in its war against the Great Islamic Jihad: Is Islamic culture fundamentally incompatible with, and opposed to, the secular modernism of the West?

If Islam requires that there be no compromise, that the war with the infidels must go on until all are exterminated, converted, or reduced to dhimmitude, then the West will be forced eventually to take the battle to all corners of the Muslim world and fight until the believers are destroyed or completely subdued.

Today’s Belmont Club post touches on this topic. Commenter “wildiris” says:

Modern western constitutional democracies are now in a struggle to the death with the religion/culture of Islam. There can be only one winner in this struggle, since Islam, as a combined political-secular-religious worldview, can tolerate no competitors. The Protestant Reformation ushered in a century of bitter warfare. The wars of the second half of the twentieth century can be viewed as the struggle of western constitutional democracy to overcome the fascist forces of Marxism, Nazism, Communism and etc.

But is this true? Can Islam brook no competitors?

If the holy writ of the Quran is followed, no competition is allowed; it is the duty of every believer to wage jihad and expand the Dar al-Islam. However, in reaching modernity both Christianity and Judaism abandoned as literal truth portions of their sacred texts. St. Paul’s dictates on the status of women were jettisoned in order to create the modern secular state, for example. In order for modern science to develop, the descriptive cosmologies of the Book of Genesis had to be understood as allegory rather than absolute truth. The democratic state of Israel does not enforce scriptural rules concerning, among others, the cutting of side-locks or the treatment of non-Jews within Israel.

If Islam could develop in a similar way; if it could regard its texts as allegorical, as a guide to living righteously in the eyes of God, but without the requirement that every word be taken literally, then modernity for Muslims becomes conceivable.

But if the Islamic view of scripture remains that of antiquity, the West will have to win its victory on the terms of antiquity. And antiquity sets a harsh standard for victory: if we are to fight in seventh-century terms, able-bodied males must be slaughtered to a man, women and children must be enslaved, the holy cities razed, and the rubble sown with salt to make a wasteland for the rest of time.

Is the West capable of that? Not now, and not for the foreseeable future. But pray that Jihad never acquires nuclear weapons; once the radioactive crater appears in New York or Chicago, all bets are off.

22 thoughts on “Is Islamic Democracy Possible?

  1. Nice blog, interesting posts along the lines of thought I sometimes have. Would comment more, but it’s friday night and i shouldn’t be at a computer 🙂

  2. Matt: I’m discovering that there seem to be a lot of people thinking along similar lines. That’s why we need to get a big discussion going about all this; difficult times lie ahead.

  3. In class discussions (Both International Relations, and on Islam) Huntington’s work has come up.

    I haven’t read the book, only the article that preceded it. While Huntington predicts war only between different cultures, it fails to explain wars like, f’rinstance, the Korean conflict and the Japanese invasion of China. Or Iran v. Iraq in the ’80s.

    I’m not saying he’s wrong, just that his theory lacks significant predictive powers.

  4. Huntington is looking at the clash of cultures, and I don’t think Iran and Iraq count as different cultures. Their war would find an analogy in the clash between Britain and Spain in the 17th century: economic competition between neighboring countries having similar cultures.

    I’m not an Orientalist, so I’m not sure about Japan and China.

  5. Baron

    An excellent blog.

    You have good point in this post however I would like to pick a nit.

    You wrote

    However, in reaching modernity both Christianity and Judaism abandoned as literal truth portions of their sacred texts. and

    In order for modern science to develop, the descriptive cosmologies of the Book of Genesis had to be understood as allegory rather than absolute truth

    .Actually, Extreme literalist view of Genesis had very little popularity until the early 16th Century. While a modern person would read Genesis as Astronomy and Biology 101, a description of mechanical process, Earlier jews and Christians would have read it as explaning “why”. Any one with education knew that Genesis does not support Ptolemy’s cosmology. Thus the truth of scripture was understood in a way that did not conflict with the then current (if incorrect) scientific understanding. The result is that if Christianity and Judaism move to recover their heritage there is not a real problem between the Bible and a scientific understanding.

    Western science stands of the search for truth that developed in the pre 16th century Christian universities. The tendency toward a more literalist understand of the bible did not really disrupt this search but it did provide a nice straw man the Enlightenment thinkers. While it is not necessary for individual scientists to be Christian, as implied by Cardnal Pell’s speech that Wretchard was commenting on, it remains to be seen if modern science can survive in a non- or anti-Christian environment. The Social Scince departments seem to be having problems maintaining a scientific stantard against political correctness.

    Islam always was a religion that flowed from a very literalist understanding of the Koran, attempting to develop an Islam that is able to function in a less literalist manner can not be done by returning to Islams’s sources. Not to say this is impossible, but I’m not taking bets.

    Can the West fight on the standards of antiquity short of a mushroom cloud in major city? Who knows? The Christian West did at the Gates of Vienna and several other places. But worse, even without that sort of calamity, so long as it stays off Western television screens, I think are there are parts of the secular West who would not have a problem with a quiet little genocide. Not just for our sake but for the Islamic population we need to win some sort of peace before that happens.

  6. Huntington argues that war stems from a clash of cultures. He puts Iran and Iraq in the same culture.

    Hence, his theory not predicting that war. Same for the Korean conflict, and the Japanese/Chinese conflict.

  7. RE: the clash of cultures as the cause of war…

    The Shi’ites and Sunnis would claim that they differ in their allegiances and are therefore not the same culture. An outsider might put them in the same group, but if we do so in Iraq (or Iran)we do so at our own peril.

    Wars are about territory, whether that area be religion, land, resources or people. Wherever people invest meaning/value, and where they perceive a scarcity of what it is they value, there will aggression be.

    I’m no longer sure about the antecedents of the Korean Civil War. In our era, it quickly became the battleground on which we fought for ideas. In this particular case it was the Chinese Communists going up against the threat of Western capitalism.

    The Japanese/Chinese conflict is very ancient and, like the poor, will always be with us. Japan is hated in much of the Orient: an aggressive, intelligent and adaptable culture which is nonetheless xenophobic and hubristic. For them and the Chinese, hubris is a virtue.

    The tension of opposites in human culture can be difficult to maintain. Agression, fear of the Other, fight/flight are all hard-wired into each person and thereby in each culture–cf. Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. The task of each generation is to attempt resolution of these faults within the human psyche. They can never be “solved”; the Laws of Unintended Consequences produce effects no one could have foreseen. Thus, the European solution of simply dividing up the Middle East and walking away from it has left this generation to deal with it.

    Who knows what we leave to others? Whatever it is, very few will be able to tell ahead of time…what, for example, will be the consequence for the rapidly declining world population? When the results of that demographic play out, it will be in a new arena; a lack of people has never been seen before. As we are doing with the Musim crisis the generations before us staved off, they will be flying by the seat of their pants with this implosion of nations and cultures.


    The history of the literalist view of the J/C scriptures…first,there are two periods of history here–at least European history. The first, culminating in the high medieval age, would’ve seen the biblical narratives as working on several levels: the allegorical, the analogical, and the symbolic. Everything was fraught with meaning: flowers, colors, seasons, etc. Thus, the madonnas of Italian paintings are often wearing blue-the color of fidelity. Shakespeare’s use of medieval meaning in his plays would’ve been quite apparent to his cohorts in ways that are no longer immediately accesssible to present day readers. Not that the ancient meanings can’t be found by research. However, no amount of knowledge will create the resonant understanding Shakespeare had with his original audience.

    Then there is the fact that until Guttenberg, reading matter was scarce. Monks devoted their lives to copying books that would be, in later generations, printed by the millions. And printed in the common language, not in Latin–see the Vulgate bible. So those in the Middle Ages simply didn’t read Scripture; they couldn’t. They knew by heart the Mystery Plays, however, and they knew their many levels of meaning.

    The strands of the Renaissance can be picked apart for the sake of analysis, but at the cost of seeing the whole picture. In addition to printed matter, there were royally funded explorations (an unintended consequence of the Crusades), the bifurcation in the university between theology/philosophy and science. Religious rebellion, renewal and conflagration went on through many generations.

    Science began as alchemy (leaving aside Aristotelean science anyway) and has ended in our day as scientism. Religious faith has been replaced with scientific faith. The latter can be as much a repressive weapon in the hands of scientist orthodoxy as ever was any Papal Bull.

    My theology professor used to say that the books of the Bible weren’t written to show us how the heavens go, they were written to show us how to go to heaven. In other words, to give a transcendence to life that cannot be arrived at by any other path than the spiritual one.

    It is here, immersed in the blood bath of the cutting edge of science, that we finally part company with the Middle Ages: they saw meaning in everything and we see meaning in nothing. Rejecting a literalist interpretation of the Bible is the least of it.

  8. Thanks for the invite over. Being a family man, wife and kids and all that, is a full time distraction, so I don’t have time to blog. But the topic wretchard raised on his most recent post was one that I had been thinking about for a number of months, so the words came out fairly quickly. I’m not the most articulate writer and I was surprised by the number of comments that my post generated.

    The original motivation for my post at the Belmont Club comes from listening to various talking heads on radio and TV as well as posts on various web sites that refer to the potential for some kind of “Islamic” reformation. Being German by ancestry and raised in the Lutheran Church, I’ve been exposed to a lot more of the full history of the Reformation than apparently most people. And it’s clear that people are using the word “reformation” without the slightest understanding of its historical significance.

    The Reformation, as I have come to understand it, was not just a religious event, but a cultural/political tranformation of western European society that took several generations to work through. The important point, for the purpose of discussions here, is that the early Protestant Christians, by trying to return Christianity to its roots, brought back into being, a form of Christianity that was not only tolerant but fully supportive of the new political/social/cultural changes that were occurring across western European societies at that time.

    Once I started to think about the Reformation in this manner, it became clear that, unlke Christianity, Islam has no “there” there to go back to. In fact, just the opposite would be true, Islam by returning to its roots could only turn into an even more intolerant and hostile force against modern western cultural ways; which apparently is what is actually happening these days.

    I’m going to take some time now to read all of the back postings on this site. Maybe some time in the furture I’ll have something worthwhile to add to a discussion thread going on here.

  9. Dymphna-

    You and I couldn’t agree more. Iran and Iraq are definitely parts of two different cultures.

    However, in his article (the one I read) Huntington puts them in the same culture.

    Then he predicts that wars will come as a result of clashes between cultures.

    It seems clear that wars come as a result of clashes between cultures–see the Germans fighting against everybody in the ’40’s (and before), and others.

    Huntington’s theory would not have predicted Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, however, as they are within the same ‘culture’ as he defined them.

    Part of his problem was having only seven cultures…

  10. Eventually there will an annotated bibliography of sorts on this blog. It will consist of books we are reading/have read that we consider important.

    Stay tuned.

  11. Wildiris — Many people think that we are in the midst of the Islamic “Reformation” right now, with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda leading the believers back to the true roots of their faith.

  12. I’m not sure if I would distinctly locate the roots of Islam in UBL and Al Queda, although that is certainly a danger. Mohammed was not simply a conqueror and the sect that is the most closely related to the original religion of Islam is probably Sufism.
    There is ‘little that succeeds like success,’ our ever provoking (in every way but cerebral) friends in Hollywood would say. If Islam marches forward boldly into the past, they will feel the weight of progress’ boot on their necks, crushing them to the ground. If they pick themselves up and march to success, with the rest of us…well, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

  13. Vercingtorix — the question about Islam is: Will it repudiate the extremists like UBL, or will it allow them to represent it? If the moderate Muslim (assuming he exists) does not rise up and risk his neck by denouncing the terrorists, then the Jihadists by default become the exemplars of the faith.

    There are signs now, however, that moderate Islam is beginning to find its voice — I just don’t have the links to hand right now.

  14. Dymphana, point taken.
    I do think that it is important to identify the mover of public opinion though. Who speaks for Islam? Is it the clerics, who come a dime a dozen? Some, very, very few, oppose Jihad, some oppose certain characteristics of Jihad, some support it in most cases, some cede themselves to Jihad with true fanaticism. Is it the media? that institution that has so lied to the Arabs, every day, every waking moment? I think they will not soon forget how their victory over the crusaders became so much heartbreak and dust when the truth came out. Is it their governments, who ‘disappear’ their neighbors, their families?

    Three years ago, I agree, Islam was going to suffer so much pain in their own failures that they would hate us and that the clash of civilizations was our gift to our children. Now, if we force them to the ground, I think that there is a chance. A chance for the multitude’s voice to ring over the din of voices that claim them, the Arabs as their constituency.

    If not, then someone will have to explain the fictions away that cloud their eyes.

  15. The important question is: will they become aware that they are fictions before the mushroom cloud appears over one of our cities? The future course of the ummah very much depends on the answer.

  16. I think that the general distrust amongst the Arabs of the voices that propose that they speak for them is already there. The issue is that it hasn’t yet ‘broken’ the back of those monopolies. Competition might force that open though.

    NEW YORK (Reuters) – A new television channel that claims to be the first U.S. Muslim lifestyle network in English debuts next week, bringing to fruition an idea born in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

    Bridges TV founder and Chief Executive Muzzammil Hassan, who came to the United States from Pakistan in 1979, said on Friday his wife came up with the idea in December 2001 while listening to the radio on a road trip.

    “Some derogatory comments were being made about Muslims that offended her,” Hassan told Reuters ahead of Tuesday’s launch. “She was seven months pregnant, and she thought she didn’t want her kids growing up in this environment.”

    A former banker and marketing executive, Hassan drew up a business plan and raised backing from U.S. investors for the channel, which he says will have 50,000 initial subscribers by cable and satellite.

    He has signed a deal with Comcast, the largest U.S. cable operator to make it available nationwide.

    Hassan said the Buffalo, New York-based channel is focused on lifestyle and entertainment, and programs will include Muslim cartoons, educational shows and animated Koran stories. It will also have daily news and current events program and aims to offer more objectivity than its competitors.

    “Our target audience has told us some of the foreign channels are pretty one-sided and some of the domestic channels are pretty one-sided the other way,” Hassan said.

    The station will differ from popular Arabic satellite channels like al-Jazeera in that it is focused on life in America, in English and backed by U.S. money, he said.

    Hassan hopes the station will be watched by non-Muslims as well, but he said the station’s target audience of 8 million Americans of Muslim heritage is an affluent and well-educated group that should be attractive to advertisers.

    Annual household income is above average at $54,000 compared to $43,000 and numbers are rising at 6.2 percent a year compared to overall U.S. population growth of 0.9 percent, according to Bridges TV’s demographic studies.

    Hassan said the station’s name was chosen to emphasize its purpose of building bridges between American Muslims and other Americans.

    Is it too late…before Nuclear Terrorism…I hope not, but I know better than to entrust my expectations to my hopes. Maybe, just maybe, things like that can turn the tide.

  17. “it became clear that, unlke Christianity, Islam has no “there” there to go back to. In fact, just the opposite would be true, Islam by returning to its roots could only turn into an even more intolerant and hostile force against modern western cultural ways; which apparently is what is actually happening these days.”

    This, of course, is nonsense. Islam does have a ‘there’ to go back too – we need only look at the home a science, philosophy and civilisation in general during the European dark ages. If that’s not an Islamic ‘there’ we can hope to see recovered, then I don’t know what is.

    Know also, that the Christian, European Reformation also produced extremists and massacres. For example, read a little about the Anabaptist rule of Munster to see some of the horrors that were involved in breaking the stranglehold of the princes and bishops on power.

    Now, if we are going to make, in my mind spurious, connections between current events in Islam and a events in a different belief system taking place nearly 500 years ago, we at least ought to do it right.

  18. Andrew Bartlett — I realize that you are responding to a commenter and not to the main post, but I’ll still venture an opinion here.

    It’s true that the Islamic world was highly civilized in the late Dark Ages and early Middle Ages. It was indeed more civilized than Christendom, and was the most advanced culture on Earth at that time in terms of science and the arts.

    Christianity was barbaric in those days and committed the atrocities to which you refer, but its barbaric behavior was on the same general level as that of contemporaneous Islam. The important question is: why did the Christian (and Jewish) world progress to become modern Western civilization, while Islam did not?

    If Islam was more civilized then, why is it less civilized now? And why does a significant subset of it seemed determined to become more barbaric still?

  19. I was responding to comments that suggested that Islam needed to undergo a reformation similar to that undergone by Christianity 500 years ago. Now, I’m not sure that this is a perticularly enlightening model, but if we are to use it we must address the Reformation as it was, not as we’d like to imagine it. Similarly, we must look at Islamic history as it was, not as we want to see it.

    So, I replied to two points. A poster suggested that the Christain Reformation was a return to earlier principles of faith, and that, by comparison, Islam had nothing to go back to. That is plainly false.

    Second, a poster suggested that the barbarity and fundamentalism of some aspects of modern Islam implies that a comparable reformation is not taking place. I counter that massacres and gross abuses were a feature of the Christian reformation itself.

    Now, again, I don’t feel that the Reformation is a particularly good model for a different religion, culture and technological, geographical and economic landscape. But if we insist on drawing spurious comparisons, then there is nothing taking place that is out of keeping with [R]eformation.

    What tactics should we employ to prevent people sliding towards extremism? Well, perhaps we should learn the lessons of foreign intervention. Ho Chi Min began as a fan of America, asked for help to achieve independence, or at least representation. When colonialism, in effect proceeded, he, and the Vietnamese, were pushed towards more extreme ideologies. The people of Iran had the Shah installed as their monarch, rather than being allowed to have a socialist leader who would nationalise the oil industry. He wasn’t a communist, but British foreign policy pushed people away from moderate leftism and into the arms of the extremist who could deliver results. Castro in Cuba began as a socialist but not a communist. When he demanded that the wealth concentrated in the hands of a few families be distributed and enrich all of Cuba, America turned against him and pushed him into bed with Russia. When the King of Cambodia proclaimed neutrality in with regard to Russia and America, America effectively warned him that neutrality=hostility, and deposed him, forcing people, and eventually power into the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Or take the PLO, a secular organistion. Deal with these, there can be negotiation. Isolate them, people are pushed into supporting Islamists like Hamas, and the path to peace is much harder. Or Saddam. We could have supported the Communists, the only real, domestic and broad-based opposition to his tyranny. Instead, we sided with repression.

    We’ve got to make sure we deal with people where we can, even if we would rather that convenient regime hold power, pushing them further outside the boundaries of Western discourse.

  20. Andrew, please, you should keep in mind the actual sequence of Islamic (Bedouin) expansion when you gaze back onto that golden age. The great scientists were in many (most?) cases Greeks, or the next generations thereof, desc. of Alex’s city-drops, who’d sworn fealty to Islam on pain of death. Hardly an foundation of classicism for Islam to ‘fall back on’. And, too, the golden age of Islam is exactly sychronous with it’s geographical expansion, AKA the conquerer’s era, and once that had been brought to a halt, so too went the science and the intellectual development. You try to invent institutions where there were precisely none. The retrenchment did allow the development of beautiful architecture and design, but for some reason the cognitive breakthroughs ceased with conquest and foreign assimilations and then went immediately retrograde. Between then and now there is little but the Ottomons, and the one international bright light, Ataturk.

    As far as that list of anecdotes wrt USA having created its own enemies, that is the purest Marxist cant that I’ve seen presented with a straight face, or straight line of pixels, in some time. Without re-reading, let me just jumble around, the Shah had treaties with the USA, he was knocked over not because we didn’t embrace some phantom friendly commies buy because Jimmy Carter, who you prob. see as a great president, sat on his duff and did nothing when a well-organized ‘people’s movement’ composed of ‘nationalist students’ took direct aim at the Persian Gulf (and her ‘warm-water ports’, and oil). Sihanouk himself played both sides until he painted himself into a corner, there was never was a point to dump him in favor of another phantom mild-left group, do you seriously think a mild-left government could have stood off the red fascist armies? And what about the mistake we DID make, the assassination of Diem? You leave that out, though the ripples from that framed all our relations w/ Sihanouk. The meme that Castro was a simple agrarian reformer until Uncle Sam ran him Red is such worn-out 60s cant that I can’t believe you’d have the gall to put your name under it. It’s been debunked for 30 years through ex-Castroite testimony, and for a decade through released KGB docs. Granted, Batista, the mafia, and the sugar oligarchs were terrifically bad actors; who would miss them besides their business partners in Hyannisport? But, on Castro, puh-leeze!

    USA has some sorry history in the areas you list, but to cast her as just a giant idiot up to no particular good and blind to such facile solutions as you suggest were ready-to-hand, is a trifle boilerplated of you, comrade! 😉

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