Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey: The Paradox of Moderation

By Güneş Murat Tezcür | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Muslim Reformism
in Comparative Perspective

The “Islam and Democracy” Debate

The idea that Islam by its very nature is inhospitable to democracy and pluralism continues to have some broad appeal.1 It is based on the assumption that Islamic religion, with its distinctive historical self-consciousness and value patterns, is a world set apart from Western civilization, with which it often engages in violent confrontations.2 Islam is argued to be antisecular by definition, and this implies that Muslims cannot support political secularism because of their religious identity. Bernard Lewis writes, “In such a society [Islamic], the very idea of separating church and state is meaningless, since there are no two entities to be separated.”3 The nature and composition of Islam has not, since its beginning, given any room to the development of the idea of the secular polity, which is indispensable for democracy. The sovereignty of God, which is central to Islamic political thought, stands in sharp contrast to the idea of the rule of popular will, the linchpin of democracy.4 The logical offshoots of this argument are the necessary exclusion of Islam from public life for democracy to flourish and preferably an enlightened and progressive statesman to provide leadership.5 The absence of such a visionary figure may justify the continuation of authoritarian rule in Muslim societies. While Fareed Zakaria avoids characterizing Islamic or Arab cultures as hindrances to liberalism, he argues that the current economic, political, and social crises of the Arab countries prepare the ground sufficiently for the rise of extremist and illiberal Islamism. The analogy he has in mind is the rise of fascism and Nazism in the interwar years in European countries. He concludes:

The Arab rulers of the Middle East are autocratic, corrupt, and heavy-handed.
But they are still more liberal, tolerant, and pluralistic than what would likely
replace them … The Arab world today is trapped between autocratic states and
illiberal societies, neither of them fertile ground for liberal democracy.6

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