Can Islam Accommodate Democracy Or Democracy Accommodate Islam? by Benjamin Barber is one of the offerings this weekend from Arts & Letters Daily. Barber was known to me mostly for his 1995 book Jihad vs McWorld, of which you may form some idea from this 1992 Atlantic Monthly essay of the same name, which I read at the time. Subsequent events have made it more relevant.
The picture on the left and the quotation on the right below are from Barber’s site, linked at his name above.
The essay from A&L is a paper presented by the author at the Istanbul Seminars organized by Reset Dialogues on Civilizations in Istanbul from June 2nd to the 6th 2008.
There is a powerful rhetoric around today that claims Islam – not just fundamentalist or Wahhabist or Safalist Islam, but Islam itself is a religion hostile to democracy. Hostile not only to liberty, pluralism and the open society, but to modernity itself as it is defined by liberal values. The attitude evident in Samuel Huntington’s discredited notion of a “clash of civilizations” in which the West and the rest are locked in a struggle for survival, so foreign to discussions like our here in Istanbul, in fact remains ubiquitous in Western politics and media.
It is found not only in Bush’s zealous conduct of a disastrous war on the “axis of evil,” or Donald Rumsfeld’s assertion that Islamic fundamentalism is a “new form of fascism;” or in right wing paranoiac events like David Horowitz’s “Islamofascism Awareness Week,” but is reflected also in writings of liberals like Paul Berman who talk about how the West is “beset with terrorists from the Muslim totalitarian movements who have already killed an astounding number of people;” or in scholars like Bernard Lewis who announce in hushed tones of sympathy that “the world of Islam has become poor, weak and ignorant;” or in Muslim apostates like Ali Hirsi who combine a seemingly liberal appeal to feminist values with a total rejection of not just fundamentalism but Islam itself.
These arguments may in their polemical zealotry beyond rational rebuttal, but Professor Habermas would I think prefer that they be rationally confronted and refuted. That is certainly my view if we wish to get on with the difficult work of crafting democracy in societies that take religion seriously – nearly all societies. I want to offer six straightforward arguments, some historical, some sociological, and some philosophical – all reasonable and commonsensical in the broader sense of rational – that suggest why it is absurd to think that Islam cannot accommodate democracy or that democracy cannot accommodate Islam…
It would require a separate essay to suggest how deeply perverse the typical American understanding of democratization is when it comes to “helping” others achieve liberty.
The problem begins with the illusion that others can be helped, that democracy can be “given” or liberty “gifted.” No people have ever by liberated from the outside at the point of a gun. An invader may overthrow a tyrant, but cannot create a democracy by doing so. Overthrowing tyranny produces not democracy but instability, disorder, anarchy, often civil war; it tends to lead over time not to democracy but to a new tyrant. President Bush alludes again and again to World War II, but the victory of the Allies over the Nazi regime did not produce democracy. It took re-education, the Marshall Plan, the United Nations and the European Community to do that.
Nor can freedom be given to others; it must be won by those who seek it from the inside. And for them to establish it, it must be constructed bottom up not top down. First educate citizens and do the hard slow work of making a civil society; then build a political infrastructure on top of it. The Americans had a hundred years of experience with municipal liberty and citizen competence before they declared independence. Democracy takes time. The Swiss began in 1291 and gave women the vote only in 1961. The British grounded rights in a Magna Carta in 1215 and fought a Glorious Revolution in 1688 and are still saddled with a House of Lords and a monarchy. The Americans spent the first 80 years of their young Republic trying to figure out how to separate it from slavery, which they ultimately achieved only by dint of a bloody civil war. Yet pessimists expect Iran to get it right in two or three years, while optimists think Iraq needs only another six months…
Well worth reading, cutting through so many entrenched views, and lazy assumptions, from both right and left, and also from both religious and secular polemics. Give it careful thought.