Democracy and its interplay with religion
By Kai Sørlander, philosopher
In a comment on 2 May Asger Aamund states that if Islam and democracy are incompatible, then this must also hold for Christianity. He argues for this notion in purely historical terms and begins by pointing out that Christianity, at its inception, did not lead to democracy in any country. It was only when the Christian message met “the progressive political ideas of the Enlightenment“ that the modern democratic state was founded. Until this meeting, Christianity, on a daily basis, was a law-religion, but was thereafter “split in two whereby the law became part of the secular state and religion was left as a personal matter of faith“. It was because Christianity met a decisive opponent — the ideas of the Enlightenment — that it was forced to accept the secularization of its political aspects. And when Islam has not yet gone through the same process, it is because Islam has not yet been lucky enough to meet the ideas of the Enlightenment. So, in principle, there is no difference in the two religions’ inner potential to be united with a secular democratic order of society.
This is Asger Aamund’s account of the history upon whose shoulders we live our lives today. As stated, it builds on the notion that there is no reason to believe that the difference in content between Christianity and Islam has played any significant role in the different political developments in the Christian and in the Islamic world. To determine whether this assumption is correct we have to emphasize the difference between Christianity and Islam.
Basically it can be expressed like this: While Christianity builds on the life of Jesus and his proclamations, as rendered in the New Testament, Islam builds on the life of Mohammed and his proclamations as rendered in the Quran and the hadith. If anything is different, these two are. The life of Jesus as well as his proclamations diverge radically from the life of Mohammed and his proclamations. In his life, Jesus completely renounced any political power and in the end, without any resistance, he let himself be led to the cross. For Mohammed, on the contrary, there was no difference between religion and politics, and he was himself a religious, political, military, and juridical leader. There is no separation of power in his example. And regarding the proclamations, Jesus preached commandments like “love thine enemy”, “turn the other cheek” and “do not judge”. These commandments cannot be made into political laws because they, as such, will undermine any state power. What can be expected from an army which turns on the other cheek? Mohammed, on the contrary, was a pragmatic politician who gave commandments which can be implemented politically. He prescribed a concrete penal code, and he established some simple differences between men and women, and between Muslims and non-Muslims.
These differences between Christianity and Islam occupy a central place in the two religions. And if we take them seriously, we can tell a story that leads us to conclude in a completely different way from Asger Aamund why we, in our part of the world, have developed a relatively well-performing secular democratic order.
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In this new story, the Reformation plays a central role. The decisive factor is that Luther used the New Testament to remove the foundation for the Pope’s power. It is from Christianity’s own core, founded in the teachings and life of Jesus, that Luther got his arguments against the ruling church hierarchy. At first, the Reformation resulted in the transfer of power from the church to the king; but the same logic that leads to rejection of the Pope as a top religious figure must also lead to the rejection of the notion that the king can uphold such a function. At the same time, as a part of the Reformation, the Bible was translated into different national languages, and then by new printing technology was made available to the common man. Thereby making it possible for the people to actively relate themselves to the proclamations of Jesus and to evaluate their political leaders in this connection. It was, by all means, a radical foundation for a secularization of political affairs.
Against this background history does not resemble Asger Aamund’s account of it. Now we understand that it is not necessarily an established fact that Christianity has been forced to accept the division of politics and religion as a result of its meeting with the ideas of the Enlightenment. The same demand for the separation of politics and religion is actually implicitly rooted in the life of Jesus and his proclamation.
Seen in this light it becomes certain that one has to turn the relationship upside down and refer to Christianity to explain why the ideas of the Enlightenment actually provided their breakthrough in our part of the world. Then, the breakthrough in Europe happened because Christianity itself, as is revealed in the dynamic forces of the Reformation, contributed to the secularization of politics. And so the idea of the Enlightenment is only an expression of secularized Christianity.
As an extension of this, we also find the explanation of why the Islamic world never experienced a similar radical period of enlightenment. It is connected to the fact that the reform of Islam has a whole different political dynamic than the Christian Reformation. And that is once again connected to the radical difference between the life of Jesus on the one hand and the life of Mohammed on the other. Whereas a reformation which is rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus leads to secularization of politics, a reformation rooted in the life and teachings of Mohammed leads to an Islamization of politics. It is not because the Islamic world hasn’t had its reformation yet that it has not developed into a stable secularized democracy from within. It is because its reforms lead to Wahhabism and thereby Saudi Arabia rather than a secular democracy.
On this ground we end up with a different conclusion than Asger Aamund. We cannot state that because Christianity has actually allowed itself to unite with a secular democratic order then Islam can do the same. On the contrary, we have to acknowledge that a decisive part of the explanation of why our part of the world has evolved into secular democracies while the Islamic world has never, from within, developed in the same direction lies in this central inner difference between Christianity and Islam.
It does not automatically follow that it is therefore impossible for Muslims to become democrats, or that it is impossible for Islamic countries over time to develop in the direction of secular democracies. That development is just a lot more difficult for Muslims and Muslim countries. This is simply caused by the fact that if Muslims were to move towards a secular democratic order of society, they would have to oppose their own religion on decisive core issues; especially with the demand to decide about their society’s legislation. This is a problem which the Christian does not face. For him, the critique against special Christian legislation already comes from the life and teaching of Jesus.
This is why we have to understand that when we ask Muslims to become democrats — and to accept non-Muslims as equals — then we ask them to contradict some completely central teachings of their religion. They have to do something that a Christian does not need to do because their religion has a completely different central core. And now we know how difficult it is to bring democracy to countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. But what about Muslims who have decided to settle in the West?
I perfectly agree with Asger Aamund in his demand that they integrate according to the secular democratic order, and that as a result they abandon those parts of their religion that are incompatible with this order. But I am probably a little less optimistic about whether they are going to actually do that than Asger Aamund is. Here we are faced with a political assessment which it is dangerous to underestimate. And I am afraid that Asger Aamund’s simplified notion of the developments which have led to our secular democratic order of society will also lead to a situation in which erroneous boundaries for the defense of our way of life will be drawn.