What History Says About the Prospects for Islamic Democracy

By: John M. Owen


Scholars, pundits, and journalists often look to Western history for analogies to help us understand ongoing dynamics in the Middle East: Jihadi terrorists are like European anarchists a century ago; the Arab Spring was like the European Revolutions of 1848; the spread of the Islamic State and the deepening Saudi-Iranian rivalry means that the region is entering its own version of the miserable Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648); and so on. As Yuen Foong Khong has written, analogies can be misleading, sometimes tragically so. However, when used judiciously they can be helpful, and my recently published book, Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past (Princeton University Press, 2014) is built around several such analogies. One particularly telling comparison concerns the prospects for Islamic democracy in the Middle East. 

Opinion polls routinely show that a majority of the region’s inhabitants want democracy. The popular demonstrations and movements of 2011, the Arab Spring, suggest that they mean it. Yet in most Middle Eastern countries, majorities also say Islam plays a strong role in politics. Islamic democracy seems, on its face, inherently contradictory. How can people govern themselves and also live under Islamic law? Surely Arabs (and Persians and Turks and Pashtuns and others) must choose one or the other. 

Here is where historical analogy can be useful. There was a time when many in the West also believed strongly that liberal democracy (the marriage of individual freedom and democracy) was an oxymoron. What if the majority wants to curtail individual rights? What gives way? Who decides? This contradiction vexed many European and American thinkers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher of the Enlightenment, made clear that his law-governed state could not be a democracy, because in a democracy there is no check on the popular will. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French social theorist whose Democracy in America (1835) remains a masterpiece, feared that democracy tended toward an egalitarian “tyranny of the majority” over the individual. John Stuart Mill, the English philosopher, was impressed with Tocqueville’s conclusion and argued that government should be elected by, and all but run by, the enlightened few. 

What Mill was doing, of course, was one version of what Britain, the United States, and dozens of other countries did over time: finding ways to join individual rights with majority rule in a stable regime. In a liberal democracy, neither liberty nor majority rule is maximized. Liberal democracies have institutions that manage this kind of conflict, typically a legislature, a system of courts and a constitution defining the powers of each. Under these institutions, each generation in a country decides how much popular sovereignty to trade for how much individual freedom. In dozens of countries, this hybrid regime has proved not only sustainable but, to its citizens, normal and natural. Liberal democracy, once viewed as self-evidently impossible, is now broadly seen as normal, unexceptional, and desirable. 

Can Islamic democracy also come to seem normal and natural? The tension here is similar but different: What if the majority wants a law that contradicts sharia? In principle, institutions could do for Islamic democracy what they do for liberal democracy by empowering jurists (clergy), or interpreters of sharia, at some expense to the majority. Suppose an Islamic democracy had a freely elected legislature and a high court of Islamic jurists, with a majority of parliament wanting to relax divorce laws but a majority of the court believing that would violate sharia. The two bodies would need to have rules, tacit or explicit, designed to produce an outcome that would maintain the regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of a majority of citizens. Each generation would need to agree to these rules or renegotiate them. In this way, the supposed contradictions between religion and democracy could be managed, just as they are for liberalism and democracy. 

Unfortunately, analogies from Western history offer less hope for Islamic democracy in terms of existing conditions in the Muslim majority world today. The West’s past suggest that, for a hybrid form of government to spread and flourish in a region, it must take hold in a large and influential country that interacts significantly with that region and is manifestly stable, secure, and prosperous over time. In the late nineteenth century, British elites continued to fear the effects of democracy on liberty, particularly as socialism became increasingly popular. They saw a hopeful exemplar of liberal democracy across the Atlantic. A. V. Dicey, a British constitutional scholar, wrote in 1887, “The plain truth is, that educated Englishmen are slowly learning that the American Republic affords the best example of a conservative Democracy,” by which he meant a democracy that respects individual property rights. The British began to expand the franchise to include the laboring classes, just as the United States had done several decades earlier. 

Looking at the Middle East and its borderlands, it is difficult to find an exemplar of Islamic democracy. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh are all majority Muslim democracies, but their interactions with Middle Eastern states are too slight to qualify them as exemplars. Iran boasts of its Islamic republic but clearly is not democratic enough for many of its young citizens. Egyptian democracy looked so promising in 2011 but lies in tatters today. Turkey, in its first few years under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) governance, appeared the best model of Islamic democracy, but President Erdogan has been wrenching the country toward authoritarianism for the past two years. Only Tunisia qualifies as an Islamic democracy; but it is too small, and its democracy too precarious, to qualify as an exemplar worthy of imitation by larger states in the region. 

The good news from Western history is that Islamic democracy may well be a viable regime in the Middle East at some point. The bad news is that this point may yet be far in the future, as it must await the durable success of Islamic democracy in an Egypt, a
Turkey, a Syria, an Iraq, or an Iran. Today, the outlook for such a state appears bleak; and the main burden for improving those prospects lies not on the world’s liberal democracies—which, after all, worked out their own hybrid regime in decades past—but on Muslim-majority societies themselves.

John M. Owen IV is the Ambassador Henry J. and Mrs. Marion R. Taylor Professor of Politics and faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and an associate scholar with the Berkley Center’s Religious Freedom Project. 

This post, part of the “Islam and International Order” symposium, originally appeared in the Washington Post on June 3, 2015. It was later republished on January 20, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.