Islam and democracy, like oil and water
The most ridiculous of George W. Bush’s constantly changing reasons for dragging our country into war in Iraq was to introduce democracy into the Islamic Middle East countries. The obstacles impeding such an impossible dream are virtually insurmountable. Like oil and water, Islam and democracy don’t mix well. The most formidable of the obstacles is that many of these countries already are, or seek to be, proclaimed Islamic states, giving Islamic law supremacy over any other law. Movements in many of these countries, instead of favoring a more democratic legal system, are demanding that all law must come from the Koran, and are dedicated to the reestablishment of Shari’ah, the harshest form of Islamic law. Among the horrors of Shari’ah are decreeing public stoning to death for a number of offenses, such as being the victim (instead of the perpetrator) of rape or appearing in public without covering the head, or wearing a “tent” that conceals all but the eyes, and institutionalizing the subordinate status of women and denying them education – even to the extreme of destroying schools and killing teachers.
The dream of democratizing the Islamic Middle East also fails to recognize the predominance of tribal and sectarian loyalties and the extremism and intolerance of those loyalties, which virtually precludes the success of any democratic form of government. How can democracy function in a society in which death to the opposition has been, and continues to be, the only way of settling the political and religious differences to which fundamentalist groups fanatically adhere? Examples are the fatwa calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie for a book which contained comments critical of Islam, the assassination of Dutch commentator Theo van Gogh for verbal criticisms of Islam and the hate campaign against Denmark and Danes for the publication of some cartoons unflattering to Mohammed. This is not the way democratic societies resolve disagreements.The only example of a stable democracy in the Islamic Middle East is Turkey. This came about only through a rare combination of circumstances in the 1920s. The Ottoman Empire, ruled by Turkey, entered World War I on the side of Germany and Austria. With the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire by the French and British after its defeat in 1918, Turkey entered a period of economic and political uncertainty, into which stepped a charismatic figure, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (later known as Kemal Ataturk), who had a revolutionary vision for the future of Turkey. He recognized that the radical reform needed to bring Turkey into the 20th Century would be accomplished only by freeing the state from religion to prevent any interference by religious influence, which he saw as the principal obstacle to modernization. He therefor created a new revolutionary democratic constitution with complete separation of church and state. There should be a lesson here for those who are clamoring to remove the separation of church and state from our Constitution.
As the builder of the modern Turkish Nation, Ataturk totally reformed Turkish life, replacing the medieval and oriental theocratic Ottoman Empire with a modern progressive secular republic. Its provisions included the emancipation of Turkish women (including giving them the right to vote), universal public education for all, and replacement of Arabic writing with the Roman alphabet. He realized that such major reforms could be accomplished only through dictatorship as a temporary means for establishing the foundation for a liberal democracy in a population not yet prepared for it.We have to ask ourselves whether such a reform is at all possible in today’s fundamentalist Islamic states, and if a modern Kemal Ataturk figure should appear there, how long he would last before being assassinated as a traitor to Islam and an ally of the infidel Western nations.
Hal Sundin’s column appears every other Thursday in the Post Independent.
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