A Research Note on Islam, Democracy, and Secularism

By Kuru, Ahmet T. | Insight Turkey, October 2009 | Go to article overview

A Research Note on Islam, Democracy, and Secularism


Kuru, Ahmet T., Insight Turkey


According to Freedom House, out of 193 countries in the world, 119 are electoral democracies. Yet among 46 Muslim-majority countries, only nine are electoral democracies. In other words, the ratio of democracies in the world is 62% while that in Muslim-majority countries is only 20%. (1) In addition to defining them as democracy or not, Freedom House also gives specific scores to countries to categorize them as "free" (scores from 1 to 2.5), "partly-free" (3 to 5), or "non-free" (5.5 to 7). Authoritarianism in many Muslim-majority countries is also reflected in their scores: only two Muslim-majority countries are currently listed among the "free countries." Moreover, the tables below point out that authoritarianism in Muslim-majority countries is a long-term problem, which has persisted despite the worldwide trend toward democratization. (2)

Some scholars point to the alleged theological lack of state-religion separation in Islam as the reason for authoritarianism in many Muslim-majority countries. According to Ernest Gellner, Islam is a secularization-resistant religion. (3) In his words, "Islam is the blueprint of a social order. It holds that a set of rules exists, eternal, divinely ordained, and independent of the will of men, which defines the proper ordering of society.... These rules are to be implemented throughout social life." (4) In "Islam and Liberal Democracy: A Historical Overview," Bernard Lewis claims that among Muslim countries, "Turkey alone has formally enacted the separation of religion and the state." (5) For him, Islam and Judaism are similar to each other, and differ from Christianity, in that they do not have clear and distinct conceptions of "clergy" versus "laity" and "sacred law" versus "secular law." Lewis thus defines the state-religion struggle as a "Christian disease" and secularism as a "Christian remedy." (6) Samuel Huntington embraced Lewis's approach and went beyond that: "In Islam, God is Caesar; in China and Japan, Caesar is God; in Orthodoxy, God is Caesar's junior partner. The separation and recurring clashes between church and state that typify Western civilization have existed in no other civilization." (7) Regarding democracy, Huntington concludes: "Whatever the compatibility of Islam and democracy in theory, in practice they have not gone together." (8)

In this paper, I will examine the three components of this claim: a) secularism, in the sense of state-religion separation, is a sine qua non for democracy; b) Islam theologically opposes such a separation; and c) therefore, Muslim-majority countries lack secularism and democracy.

Secularism: A Necessary and Sufficient Condition for Democracy?

As Alfred Stepan rightly emphasizes, (9) secularism, in the sense of a state-religion separation, is part of neither the narrow definition of democracy as a power transition through free, fair, and frequent elections with universal suffrage, nor the broader definition of democracy elaborated by Dahl's eight institutional guarantees: "1. Freedom to form and join organizations, 2. Freedom of expression, 3. Right to vote, 4. Eligibility for public office, 5. Right of political leaders to compete for support, 6. Alternative source of information, 7. Free and fair elections, 8. Institutions for making government depend on votes and other expressions of preference." (10)

This conceptual observation is confirmed by quantitative and qualitative analysis of actual cases. I previously prepared an index of state-religion regimes by examining countries' constitutions and the US Department of State's International Religious Freedom Reports. The index classified countries into four types:

1) Religious states, which institute religious laws and courts as the basis of their legal and judicial systems (e.g., Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan);

2) States with established religions, which recognize an official religion without making it the center of their legal and judicial systems (e. …

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