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[Editor’s note: the following article was originally published at the National Post.]
With anti-regime demonstrations raging in Egypt, and the possibility of a new government led by or involving the Muslim Brotherhood, many are asking whether Islam is compatible with democracy? The answer is yes, it potentially is, but it will take much hard work to make this happen.
Present realities are far from encouraging, for tyranny disproportionately afflicts Muslim-majority countries. Swarthmore College’s Frederic L. Pryor concluded in a 2007 analysis in the Middle East Quarterly that, with some exceptions, “Islam is associated with fewer political rights.” Saliba Sarsarlooked at democratization in 17 Arabic-speaking countries and, writing in the same journal, found that “between 1999 and 2005 … not only is progress lacking in most countries, but across the Middle East, reform has backslid.”
How easy to jump from this dismal pattern and conclude that the religion of Islam itself must be the cause of the problem. The ancient fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after something, therefore because of it”) underlies this simplistic jump. In fact, the current predicament of dictatorship, corruption, cruelty, and torture results from specific historical developments rather than the Koran and other sacred scriptures.
A half millennium ago, democracy reigned nowhere; that it emerged in Western Europe resulted from many factors, including the area’s Greco-Roman heritage, rendering-unto-Caesar-and-God tensions specific to Christianity, geography, climate, and key breakthroughs in technology and political philosophy. There was nothing fated about Great Britain and then the United States leading the way to democracy.
Put differently: of course, Islam is undemocratic in spirit, but so was every other premodern religion and society.
Just as Christianity became part of the democratic process, so can Islam. This transformation will surely be wrenching and require time. The evolution of the Catholic Church from a reactionary force in the medieval period into a democratic one today, an evolution not entirely over, has been taking place for 700 years. When an institution based in Rome took so long, why should a religion from Mecca, replete with its uniquely problematic scriptures, move faster or with less contention?
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