Magazine article Queen's Quarterly

Islam, Democracy and Alexis De Tocqueville

Magazine article Queen's Quarterly

Islam, Democracy and Alexis De Tocqueville

Article excerpt

Unlike Jesus or Buddha, Mohammed not only established a powerful spiritual tradition, he also spent the last ten years of his Life laying the foundations of an Islamic empire on earth. In the centuries after the Prophet's death in 632, the Islamic world expanded at an astounding pace from Iberia to the Far East. Since then, Islam's extraordinary resilience has seen it through many setbacks and genuine disasters, but the past century has presented it with a whole new set of challenges regarding politics, religion and imperialism. And, oddly enough, it may be that a nineteenth-century French aristocrat can prove the most useful guide in this uncharted territory.


FOLLOWING the tragic events of 11 September 2001, the relationship between religion and democracy has emerged as one of the most important and vexing questions of our age, particularly as it relates to Muslim societies. Most of the theoretical debate surrounding this relationship involves a discussion of Arab and Islamic political culture, secularism and the problems of separating mosque and state in Muslim political theory. A critical prerequisite for democratic development is the transformation of religion. This conclusion is implicit in the writings of one of the early theoreticians of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville. What lessons can democratic activists in the Muslim world learn from his observations of the early American republic?

At first glance the relationship between religion and democracy seems inherently contradictory and conflictual. Both concepts speak to different aspects of the human condition. Religion is a system of beliefs and rituals related to the "divine" and the "sacred." In this sense it is decidedly metaphysical and otherworldly in its orientation and telos. While religion may differ in its various manifestations, most religions share these features. It is precisely the dogmatic claim -- for which religions are infamous -- that they alone are in the possession of the absolute Truth and the concomitant shunning of scepticism in matters of belief that makes religion a source of conflict. Furthermore, religions tend to set insurmountable boundaries between believers and non-believers. Entry into the community of religion demands an internalizing of its sacred and absolute Truth.

Democracy on the other hand is decidedly this-worldly, secular, and egalitarian. Regardless of religious belief, race or creed, democracy (especially its liberal variant) implies an equality of rights and treatment before the law for all citizens without discrimination. Its telos is geared towards the non-violent management of human affairs in order to create the good life on this earth, not in the hereafter. Critically, unlike religious commandments, the rules of democracy can be changed, adjusted, and amended. It is precisely the inclusive and relativistic nature of democracy that separates it from religion and theologically based political systems.

ONE of the leading early writers on the relationship between democracy and religion is the nineteenth-century French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville. in the context of democratic theory, Tocqueville is usually remembered for his warnings on the problem of the "tyranny of the majority" and his observation about the "equality of conditions" in early America. It is generally forgotten, however, that he also wrote extensively about the connection between religion and democracy. In Democracy in America he observed: "On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention." (1) His ruminations on this theme are not only explored in several chapters of Democracy in America but are peppered throughout this work. What lessons can Muslim democrats today learn from Tocqueville on the relationship between religion and democracy?

Tocqueville describes religion in the United States "as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it. …

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