A bad fit: Islam and democracy at home and abroad

Democracy presupposes a pre-political order, a set of preconditions, without which democratic elections will not work to produce what we understand as a democratic society

Who wags the democratic finger?
Vincent Cooper
On 19 October 2013 13:56

Can Egypt, or indeed can any Muslim state ever embrace democracy as we understand and practise it in the West? For many years now, a defining feature of Western foreign policy has been the promotion of democracy as a solution to political conflict throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

This is understandable as Western democratic states have shown remarkable peace and stability over the past 60 years. If Egypt and other Muslim societies were to become Western style democracies, the reasoning goes, they too would become stable societies. So the West supports the "Arab Spring" and democratic elections throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

The problem with this reasoning is that elections are not the basis of democracy. It is a common belief that elections define democracy. But in fact democratic elections are only the by-product, so to speak, of complex historical social values and institutions that are a prior necessity for elections to work. In other words, democracy presupposes a pre-political order, a set of preconditions, without which democratic elections will not work.

Islamic societies do not appear to have these preconditions. The most important difference in terms of political governance between Islam and the West is the historic recognition in Western culture of a distinction between the religious and the secular. As the New Testament has it, Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

This important distinction has resulted in the gradual development in the West of our secular law and institutions. The Christian West has always (sometimes with more than a little difficulty) acknowledged the legitimacy of a separate non-religious authority. Western secular governments can, and do, legislate to permit behaviour of which the Christian churches disapprove.

This secularisation of society has happened throughout Western history, particularly with the Reformation, and has today resulted in the universal authority of the democratic secular state. This means that all legislation in the West today is a matter of state, with the church (usually) a legal subject of the state and religion essentially a private matter.

Islam is different. Islam does not recognise a distinction between the religious and the secular. Islamic law, sharia, is a code that regulates all areas of social and personal life and is founded in divine command, not on secular authority.

Of fundamental importance here is that, unlike the Christian churches in the West, Islam, where it rules, is not a legal subject of the state, but is the state. As the British political philosopher, Roger Scruton puts it: “Islam has never incorporated itself as a legal person or a subject institution, a fact that has had enormous political repercussions. Like the Communist Party in its Leninist construction, Islam aims to control the state without being a subject of the state.” (The West and the Rest; page 6)

The comparison with the Leninist Communist Party is apposite. Islam is not a religion as we in the West understand the term. It has a strong political dimension and is, as the Canadian journalist Mark Steyn puts it, a political and even an imperial project. There is an obligation on Muslims to bring everyone within the dar al-islam, the house of submission.

Considering such historic differences between the West and Islam, can Muslim societies ever be democratic in the Western sense? More to the point, do Muslims want Western-style democracy?

Recently, president Morsi of Egypt was democratically elected. But, according to his critics, Morsi saw his election as authorising the remaking of Egypt as an Islamic republic. Unlike in the West, the opposition had no legitimate standing. The army intervened to replace him.

The fact is that Sharia is an important and integral part of what it means to be Muslim, and can be made subordinate to secular authority only with difficulty

For Western foreign policy, this has given rise to the “democracy paradox”: when Muslim societies vote, they tend to vote for Muslim parties with a strict religious agenda, not for Western-style liberal secular parties. That is what happened in Egypt, and it is a democratic rejection of the West’s “democratising” strategy. 

Western politicians and liberal intellectuals have always arrogantly assumed that the rest of the world would “naturally” adopt Western values, what Samuel Huntington calls Western universalism. But as Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations has shown, this view is catastrophically mistaken. Values that the West sees as universal, the rest see as cultural imperialism. Muslim societies, to the horror of Western liberals, do not want Western liberalism.

But this Western problem with Islam and democracy is not confined to Islamic countries. Whatever the West’s global geopolitical concerns may be about the Middle East and North Africa, we in the West really need to look closer to home.

Because of heavy Muslim immigration and higher Muslim birth rates, Britain and many other European countries may well, in thirty or fifty years time, develop some of the problems Egypt and the Middle East are having.

Because Islam has a powerful and unique political culture, the Muslim population of the West might not continue to vote along traditional Western Left-Right or conservative-liberal-socialist lines. These are Western political notions and values, not Islamic ones.

Very likely, as Muslim numbers increase in the West, they will form their own Muslim political parties advocating Muslim values. In fact, this is already happening in Belgium with the establishment of the Islam Party, which recently won two seats in municipal elections.

The Belgian Islam Party campaigned on three issues: serving of halal meals in public school cafeterias, the official recognition of Muslim religious holidays, and legalising the wearing of Islamic headscarves in public spaces. Mainstream politicians were shocked, but for Muslims in a democratic society, these are perfectly reasonable demands.

In Britain, the Respect Party is seen by some as a nascent Muslim party. Ed West of the Daily Telegraph has written: “The Respect Party is in effect a British Muslim party; the vast majority of its supporters comes from that community,”

Under George Galloway, the party won a parliamentary seat in Bradford West, ousting a Labour majority by securing most of the Muslim vote. For mainstream political parties, this is an ominous development. Bradford West could be the first of many.

With demographic projections of large Muslim populations in many of Britain’s cities within thirty years or so, British Muslims might well develop a separate political culture. Why not? After all, Islam is a highly political faith with a powerful sense of its own identity and would be democratically entitled to establish that identity. Does anyone seriously believe that Muslims in Britain will not eventually play to their demographic strength?

With increased Muslim demographics, the politics of Westminster could well be radically altered. A Muslim party or a Muslim-dominated Labour Party could eventually hold the balance of power, making it impossible to form a government without their support.

And the price of that support could well be official recognition of Islamic culture such as the call to prayer throughout the country, Muslim public holidays, sharia banking, fully operating sharia courts and major changes to foreign policy on Israel and the US.  

Mainstream politicians and the non-Muslim public might be shocked at this prospect, but judging by the evidence, that’s how Muslim immigration and democracy work. Calmly and soberly, this must surely be considered and discussed.

This was not a scenario ever envisaged by the traditional British political parties, or indeed by traditional Western political culture. The assumption was that the Western liberal secular project would always go unchallenged. Britain and the whole of Western Europe could have heavy, virtually unlimited immigration and the immigrants would naturally embrace so-called European Enlightenment secular values.

This view always had its critics—Enoch Powell, for example—but they were dismissed as ignorant bigots by the enlightened intelligentsia who knew that the future for everyone would be secular, liberal and godless.

This has not happened. It has not happened in Egypt, it has not happened with political Islam in Europe. With increasing demographic strength in Europe, Muslims will very likely exert themselves as a distinct political force.

From a democratic point of view, there can be no objection. Why should not Islamic culture become a main feature of British, French, Dutch, and other European societies, when the Muslim demographic weight supports it?

If an Islamic culture was not what the British or other European peoples wanted, they should have used their democratic weight to stop it. But they did not stop it. They allowed unprecedented immigration and thereby, at least implicitly, accepted it.

The result is now a large and highly confident Muslim population in Western Europe. With the UN calling for Europe to open its borders to easier African immigration to prevent illegals from drowning as they cross the Mediterranean, and the prospect (possibly remote of course) of Turkey joining the EU, that Muslim population is set to increase significantly.

The British philosopher John Gray has spoken of the history of ideas obeying a law of irony. Ideas and beliefs, he says, always result in unintended consequences. Western liberals relentlessly encouraged heavy immigration and multiculturalism. All would live in peace and harmony in the new, religion-free liberal utopia. How ironic if that utopia turns out to be largely Muslim.

Vincent Cooper is a freelance writer with a particular interest in philosophy, mathematics, and economics

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