Making Muslim Democracies

Muller_35.6_maritain Jan-Werner Müller in The Boston Review:

In the summer of 2008, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) narrowly escaped being banned by the country’s constitutional court. State prosecutors had alleged that the party which is officially committed to economic modernization, conservative moral values, and Turkey’s admission to the European Union was trying to breach the country’s notoriously strict separation of religion and politics, slowly Islamicize the state, and ultimately introduce theocracy.

Many local supporters of the AKP breathed a sigh of relief after the decision, as did non-Muslims who see the AKP as the prototype of a Muslim Democratic party that can appeal to believers while being fully committed to the rules (and values) of the democratic game.

At the same time, loud voices proclaiming that Islam and democracy are incompatible remain in Turkey, and, of course, are not limited to it. Their pronouncements are reminiscent of what many secular liberals in nineteenth-century Europe had to say about democracy and religion, though with an important and instructive twist: back then, Catholicism was deemed an insurmountable obstacle to liberal democracy. Leading French Republican Léon Gambetta famously exclaimed “Le cléricalisme, voilà l’ennemi!” in 1877. In fact, far into the twentieth century prominent politicians and social scientists asserted that Catholicism explained the persistence of dictatorship in Latin America and on the Iberian Peninsula. Catholicism, in the words of Seymour Martin Lipset, appeared “antithetical to democracy”; Pierre Trudeau claimed that Catholic countries

are authoritarian in spiritual matters; and since the dividing line between the spiritual and the temporal may be very fine or even confused, they are often disinclined to seek solutions in temporal affairs through the mere counting of heads.

And as with Muslims today, Catholic citizens were suspected of maintaining transnational ties and ultimate loyalties to spiritual institutions elsewhere—a suspicion that still mattered in John F. Kennedy’s election campaigns.

Yet during the second half of the twentieth century, Christian—which mainly meant Catholic—Democratic parties emerged and flourished in Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. These were—and in some degree remain—moderately religious parties. They advance political programs infused with select doctrinal values while firmly upholding democratic structures and respecting the separation of state and church.

This suggestive analogy between Christian and Muslim Democracy is not lost on Western politicians and intellectuals, but many of them have been at pains to reject it.