Taner Edis

Democracy vs Secularism in the Muslim World

The Muslim world is in crisis, and we know the remedy! Or so many seem to be saying these days.

Among Muslims themselves, “what is to be done?” is a perennial question. Around them they notice poverty, corruption, and humiliation in the face of Western military and commercial power. To solve these problems, some call for adopting Western ways in the most important practical aspects of life, reducing Islam to a personal belief—a mere cultural flavoring. Some dig their heels in, reject the modern world, and say a falling away from traditional Islam is the root of all Muslim misfortune. Most others, including those we call “Islamic fundamentalists,” try to find a way toward development without sacrificing their Muslim identity.

Westerners, however, also seem to be full of advice for Muslims. After all, we usually notice Islam as a problem. Islam always seems to be associated with terrorism, political instability, dictatorial regimes, oppression of women, or immigrant communities with extreme ways of life. So conservatives suggest Muslims had better adopt Western political and economic ways, especially freer markets. Some of our crazier commentators think conversion to Christianity would be the best solution to Muslim woes. Among more leftward-inclined thinkers, many hold Western imperialism responsible for the crisis Muslims face. If so, the first step to improving the lot of Muslims would be for Western powers to quit manipulating Muslim countries. Some leftists even admire Islamist rhetoric for its liberatory aspirations and its aura of cultural authenticity.

Humanists, not being a particularly large or powerful group, can do little to shape debate over the crises of the Muslim world. However, this does not stop us from being ambitious. After all, we think we have much to offer to humanity as a whole.

To begin with, political secularism seems a good prescription for Muslims.[1] Trying to run modern states while remaining shackled to medieval religious laws is a bad idea; theocracy is a dead end. Muslim countries, though they have had a later start than Western states, can surely come to acknowledge the virtue of allowing individual freedom in religious belief while preventing any one orthodoxy from prevailing in matters of government. Adopting secular government would be a giant step forward in improving human rights and the prospects for democracy in Muslim majority countries. Even devoutly religious people can accept that genuine faith flourishes when individuals are free to choose, without having religion imposed upon them by their government.

In fact, what many humanists would like to see is the Muslim world coming to embrace much of the European Enlightenment that we admire. Economic development, an expansion of individual liberties, democracy, an explosive growth in scientific knowledge and technological capabilities—these and a host of other benefits most Muslims themselves acknowledge as real achievements are what humanists identify as legacies of the Enlightenment. With the Enlightenment, we stopped priests from running the show and elevated the consent of citizens over the will of divinely appointed monarchs. Just as Christianity and Judaism were reformed and tamed in the industrialized West, Islam can also be modernized. And, we may add, Islam is in desperate need of a reformation.[2] The cultural climate in Muslim lands has to become more humanistic.

All this is very well and good, and perhaps in some ideal world it would even be good advice. However, Muslims bring a different history and social context to their encounter with the modern world; the historical accidents which secularized Western politics need not be repeated for Muslims. Today, the reasons many Westerners find to be ambivalent about our Enlightenment legacy resonate even more strongly in Muslim lands. And though many Muslims also desire freedom of conscience and democracy, in the Muslim world such ideals more often conflict with secularism than support one another in the way we have become accustomed to in the West.

Secularism From Above

Muslim-majority countries are in trouble. Most struggle with dire poverty; the exceptions are oil-rich states which are merely wealthy, not creative contributors to human culture.[3] They are either undemocratic in government or have the formal apparatus of democracy with serious imperfections in practice. Corruption runs rampant. Whenever they come into competition with Western powers, the results are dismal. Militarily, Muslim states are dependent, often negligible. In terms of scientific and technological productivity, tiny Israel is more significant than almost all Muslim nations. Many, even those sometimes considered relatively advanced like Turkey, are colonies in all but name.

This is not, however, a new crisis. Ever since their first encounters with a newly industrialized West, Muslims have come out on the losing side. “What is to be done” is a two centuries old question for Muslims.[4] And it has long been clear to many in the ruling elites that Muslim countries had to accept some degree of Westernization or risk enslavement if not annihilation. Having suffered lopsided defeats on the battlefield, military officers were typically at the forefront of reform. Starting from the mid-nineteenth century, they pushed their countries to adopt Western knowledge and institutions. They often faced significant opposition from traditional religious elites. The perception of the military and bureaucratic elites—probably an accurate one—was that without a concerted, state-organized effort to join the modern world, the crisis they were facing would become a much more complete disaster.

Part of the package of Westernization was secularizing government. Turkey, the remnant of the crumbled Ottoman Empire which had ruled over a good part of Muslim lands, took secularization to its farthest when the new Republic of Turkey took shape in the 1920′s and 30′s. Rapid modernization required a true cultural revolution, breaking the power of the religious leaders who presided over a peasant society. Catching up to the twentieth century meant repressing traditional religion, concentrating power in a superficially Westernized bureaucratic elite, and even trying to impose a reformed sense of religion from above. Turkish Republicans declared that Islam from now on would be a purely personal affair between each individual and their God, with no influence on affairs of state or indeed any important worldly concern. They even attempted to make this reformed religion an instrument of cultural modernization, bringing Islam under the tight control of a national Directorate of Religious Affairs, suppressing most other expressions of Islam.

The elites of many other newly independent Muslim states emulated Turkey, which they admired for defeating the imperial powers. But not a few also resented Turkey for trying to shed its Muslim character and join the West. So the new Muslim states typically did not go as far as Turkey; they retained a diminished role for Islamic law and acknowledged a vaguely “Islamic” character for the state. Nevertheless, modern secular politics appeared to have the upper hand. Up into the 1960′s and beyond, efforts to overcome the crisis in Muslim lands took their ideological flavors from nationalism or even socialism; political Islam did not appear to be a significant force. Secularization seemed to be taking root in public life.

It did not work.[5] Secularization from above had some partial success: it occasionally produced some enduring modern institutions and sustained ruling elites eager to join the modern world. Upwardly mobile men put on suits and ties and women uncovered their hair. However, the secularized elites, who were rarely immune to corruption, ruled over a resentful population who had never relinquished their traditional religiosity. Conservative Islam went underground; though its public expression was suppressed it never became a modern individualist religion on the model of an eviscerated Protestantism. All this might not have mattered much, if secular elites could have delivered on their promise that their form of modernization would overcome Muslim humiliation and bring prosperity and security. What modernizing Muslim countries like Turkey ended up with instead was a prosperous elite who were estranged from the conservative religious culture of the bulk of the population.

Re-Islamization from Above

Devout Muslims naturally resisted the secularization imposed upon them. Traditional peasant societies led by religious scholars, however, could not oppose the power of a modern state apparatus. So what developed out of the traditional, devout culture was not a reassertion of old-fashioned Islam, but what became known as Muslim fundamentalism. Fundamentalists are creatures of today’s world; from their new structures of religious authority to their urban constituencies, they are a distinctly modern way of opposing the Enlightenment ideals and political behavior humanists so often take for granted.[6]

Fundamentalism spawned political Islam. And in the 1970′s and 80′s political Islamists began to have serious dreams of attaining power. Many thought that since Westernization and secular government were imposed upon an unwilling population from above, the way to right this state of affairs was to take control of the state. This notion of “Islamization from above” has deep roots in Muslim history; the orthodox Islamic political ideal demands a state ruled by Muslims who implement Islamic law and provide the conditions necessary to propagate Islam in a population which need not be majority Muslim. However, the practical impetus to the dream of seizing state power came with the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Though Iran is not a typical case, and the circumstances enabling its revolution will not easily materialize elsewhere, many Islamists took heart that a revolutionary overthrow of their secular elites was possible.

Some Islamizers from above worked through the military; in places like Pakistan they even found partial success. Some took to terrorism and achieved nothing concrete, though government efforts to root them out usually took the form of massive repression and state terror, increasing the alienation felt by non-violent conservative Muslims. Some attempted to work through the political process, aiming to gradually take over the state apparatus. Their intellectuals denounced democracy as a Western abomination elevating the will of humans over the law of God; sovereignty ultimately belonged to God, not the people. This form of Islamist politics, however, was usually either defeated by entrenched secular elites, or else reached a stalemate.

Islamists Embrace Democracy

Islamization from below, however, worked much better. Islamic charity workers organizing social services for slum dwellers did not attract media attention like terrorist cells bent on overthrowing the government, but they were much more successful. By the 1990′s, the political landscape in most Muslim countries had taken on an overtly Islamic color, because the everyday culture in these countries had become much more explicitly and publicly Islamic. The more ambitious Islamist political movements were blunted, absorbed into the system, or simply defeated by force. In Turkey, Islamist hopes for taking over the government and imposing Islam from above were repeatedly thwarted by a military which had held onto its secularist tradition. But there were other developments which made it much more difficult for secular elites to impose their vision on the population at large.

One opportunity for re-Islamization of society came as an unintended consequence of economic globalization. In Turkey, as national-scale industries were gobbled up by multinationals and brands like Coca-Cola displaced what used to be indigenous consumer products, smaller, more regionally-based economic enterprises found an opening. These local suppliers to the giants were not only regional, but they were the instruments of upward mobility for a new elite which had much deeper roots in traditionally religious local cultures. Islamist politics united this new Islamic business class with the huge population of recent immigrants from rural areas in urban slums, papering over their conflicts of interest. Islamic political identities now had real muscle; they could not be as easily suppressed as before.

This muscle, however, did not prevent Islamist aspirations for taking over the state from repeated failure. As a result, many Islamist movements around the world have begun to emphasize their popular support. Instead of theologically purist fantasies of Islamic states, they play identity politics and present demands for democratic freedoms. Secular elites are not about to be swept away with a revolution. The distinctly Islamic form of economics Islamist thinkers have long been fantasizing about will not work in the context of global capitalism, which in any case has presented opportunities for a conservative Islamic elite. So Islamists have begun to make peace with democracy and with global capitalism. Many have toned down their anti-Western rhetoric, becoming content to act as administrators of a neocolonial order as long as they can represent authentic-seeming local cultural identities.[7]

Today, the new generation of Islamic thinkers rarely denounce democracy as a Western hoax. Instead, they raise the banner of democratic freedoms against an oppressive secular state. They demand their right to live as Muslims, to not submerge their religious identity when they enter the public sphere. Living a genuinely Islamic life means submitting to Islamic law, and when Muslim communities are forced to live by secular, one-size-fits-all laws, this is interference with their religious freedom. Furthermore, if a clear majority wants the laws they live under and their political life in general to express a shared moral culture, it is but the tyranny of a powerful elite that prevents them from attaining their goal. Indeed, secular elites have regularly had to resort to antidemocratic and even military means to prevent Islamic political demands from being realized. When Islamist activists complain of state-sponsored oppression, this is not imaginary.

The new democratic Islamic rhetoric reflects the success of re-Islamization from below, but also the failure of Islamist attempts to control the state. Politics in countries such as Turkey are often a heavy-handed identity politics, with raging culture wars. Partly this is because in today’s global economy, Muslim-majority states without oil wealth have very little freedom to adopt policies that are not dictated by financial markets and the IMF. Presenting different cultural options is about all that different political parties can do. But also, identity politics exploits a difficulty inherent to the liberal democratic political philosophy humanists take for granted. Since we set so much store in individual choice and the freedom to fashion one’s own identity and live according to it, the demands of communal ideologies can be presented as claims for individual freedom. Ensuring the secular nature of the state, however, is impossible without interfering with an individual’s desire to live according to the comprehensive norms of a religious community.[8]

We tend to portray secularism as a position neutral between religions. It is not. Most religions are not individualistic, and they come with substantive political prescriptions for the faithful. Secularism in government is only neutral between religions which conceive of people as liberal individual choice-makers. Religions which forge strong communal identities operate at a disadvantage in a modern secular state; secularism does privilege the nonreligious—and the liberal Protestant and the New Ager—over conservative Catholics or orthodox Muslims.

Muslim countries confront this difficulty, but it is not entirely unknown to democratic Western countries. Consider the problems of allowing space for tight-knit communities like the Amish, or orthodox Jews, in the US. In a large country, small groups such as these can be handled as exceptions; larger groups can be assimilated into a wider culture with a healthy dose of multiculturalist rhetoric which papers over the fact that even though their religions look superficially different, everyone is expected to aspire to the same bland suburban consumerhood. Nevertheless, multiculturalism and identity politics put a strain on liberal political systems and Enlightenment ideals even close to home. Europeans, in particular, have the very vexing problem of how to deal with large Muslim immigrant communities who demand the right to live according to their communal religious norms as a matter of individual liberty.[9]

Today’s Islamist politics, then, incorporate a genuine democratic impulse; their demands for cultural space and community rights are fully part of their democratic thrust. Even here in the West, the cutting edge of democratic theorizing has acquired a postmodern color, recognizing that a notion of freedom which covertly assumes everyone must be a liberal individualist consumer is too narrow, that it can easily become oppressive when it ignores the communities and non-negotiable, unchosen identities people bring to politics.

Unfortunately, the Enlightenment ideals humanists hold dear can best flower in a social environment not dominated by a small set of unchosen and usually religious identities. The Islamic vision of protecting communal freedoms from state interference has a way of leading not to a totalitarian theocracy but localized rule by the clergy of religiously delineated communities.[10] In fact, Islamists often advocate just such an arrangement. Western nation-states after the Enlightenment solved the problem of intercommunal conflict by separating government from religion, but Muslim multinational empires of the past also had to prevent strife. Their solution was very different. The Muslim ideal has usually been a limited overall government concerned primarily with keeping the peace, and where different communities live according to their own religious laws with minimal outside interference. While individuals live in a stifling environment dominated by their rabbis, mullahs, and priests, community members in such an arrangement are freer to live according to deeply felt religious identities than is the case under a liberal secular order.

What are the Prospects for Secularizing Islam?

Muslims have problems, but recommending our typical humanist vision of democracy, human rights, and a secular state as an immediate solution to these problems is at the least naive. An Enlightenment political culture took root in Europe as a historical accident. A stalemate in religious conflicts led Westerners to remove government from the dominance of any one theological point
of view, and the humanist impulse of the Enlightenment generally went hand in hand with an increasing democratization of political life. In Muslim history, secular government arrived as an imposition from above. It never grew popular roots. Where it survives, it is continually adulterated and kept in place by coercive means. As devout populations become better able to resist elite rule, as they are able to realize their hopes for more democratic self-expression, we can expect governments in the Muslim world to become less secular. For example, in Turkey, which has had the longest running experience with the deepest form of governmental secularism, democratization of politics has invariably meant religious conservatives gaining in power. Turkish secularists, now long accustomed to lacking popular support and being propped up by the military, wistfully speak of the “Anatolian Enlightenment” which flowered in the 1920′s and 30′s. If so, the Turkish experiment with the Enlightenment has failed. It has failed because the Turkish people, when given the opportunity, have indicated a desire for a state which explicitly acknowledges and supports at least a moderately Islamic identity.

This is not to say that humanist thought cannot contribute anything to the Muslim world, or that there is no prospect for humanist developments over a long enough term. However, any progress in this direction will not come from above through the hand of elites; nor can it be imposed on Western imperialist terms like the United States might attempt in connection with its ill-conceived recolonization of Iraq. Whatever limited prospects there are for secularization and humanist ideals have to be rooted in the hopes Muslims themselves harbor for a better future.

All is not bleak when we look in this direction. After all, though Muslims remain exceptionally devout by Western standards, religious skepticism is not completely unknown in the lands of Islam. And the desire to keep spiritual beliefs at a remove from daily politics is even more common, despite the present dominance of the view that Islam is a comprehensive way of life which does not separate the religious and the worldly.

One impetus toward secularism comes, curiously, from Iran.[11] Their experiment with clerical rule has been dismal; many Iranians who grew up after the Islamic Revolution would like to move towards a less explicitly religious form of government. This is particularly significant because Iranians have always been intellectual leaders in the world of Islam.

Another source of humanism is indigenous religious heterodoxies in Islam. For example, the Alevi sect in Turkey has always been a kind of religious humanism, very different in belief, attitude and practice from orthodox Islam. Though commanding the allegiance of only about a quarter of the population, and certainly as supernaturalistic as any religion, Alevism at least means a ready-made constituency for secularism if only as a way of preventing orthodox Muslims from totally dominating public life.[12]

Islamist movements themselves can be secularizing forces in the long run, because they are so much a product of modern life. While any Islamist success in its from-the-bottom, democratic incarnation will mean more religion in public life, taking the turn of identity politics also means Islamists have to acknowledge the legitimacy of other communities, backing away from making claims to order social life for everyone. The critical question is whether Muslim cultures will change in the direction of more fragmented identities for individuals, so that religious or ethnic affiliation is not as determining as it still is. The pressures of modern economies and urban life make this a distinct possibility.

These are only examples which indicate that there are opportunities for a humanistic approach to take hold in Islamic lands. There is nothing inevitable about this, and today the best bet is that conservative religiosity will continue to dominate the scene for generations. Nevertheless, there are things Western humanists can do to help with the crisis of Muslim countries. Restraining the imperial ambitions of our own political and religious conservatives would be a good start.

Perhaps what is more important, however, is our ability to uphold Enlightenment political and social ideals as something people from different cultural backgrounds might want to adopt. There is nothing more heartening to Muslim conservatives than signs that the Enlightenment is faltering in the West. The international bullying that the United States is engaged in certainly makes few friends among Muslims. Curiously, however, Islamists can also point to the public devoutness and bellicose fundamentalism that is so influential in the United States as a positive development—an illustration that secularism is failing even in the West, that worldly power and a rampant religiosity go together.

We cannot meaningfully intervene in the Muslim world, only present a good example. We first have to get our own house in order.



[1] Roy Brown, “Opposing Political Islam,” Free Inquiry 24: 1, p. 49 (2003).

[2] This is not only a humanist wish; some liberal Western Muslims also call for reform. For example, Irshad Manji, The Trouble With Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2004).

[3] UN Arab Human Development Reports, 2002 and 2003.

[4] Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[5] L. Carl Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

[6] Gabriel A. Almond, R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan, Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

[7] Ali Bayramoğlu, Türkiye’de İslami Hareket: Sosyolojik Bir Bakış (1994-2000) (Istanbul: Patika Yayıncılık, 2001).

[8] Liberal notions of democracy and secularism can clash, especially in a Muslim context. Nuray Mert, Islam ve Demokrasi: Bir Kurt Masali (Istanbul: İz Yayıncılık, 1998).

[9] At the time of writing, the Muslim female head covering in educational settings was generating controversy in France and Germany as well as in Turkey (where it is a continual flashpoint in the culture wars). The French were considering banning both teachers and students from displaying such religious symbols in public schools.

[10] L. Carl Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000). It can be tempting to call traditional Islam “totalitarian” (Ibn Warraq, Why I am Not A Muslim [Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1995], chapter 6), but this is not strictly correct.

[11] See Abdolkarim Soroush, Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[12] There is even a leftist literature which describes Alevism as a kind of secular humanism; e.g. R. Yürükoğlu, Okunacak En Büyük Kitap İnsandır: Tarihte ve Günümüzde Alevilik (Istanbul: Alev Yayınları, 1990). Though exaggerated and historically incorrect, such writings at least indicate the presence of a humanist constituency.

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