Catholicism's Lessons for Islam

The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Catholicism's Lessons for Islam


TEH SOURCE: "Making Muslim Democracies" by Jan-Werner Muller, in The Boston Review, Nov.-Dec. 2010.

IN 2008, TURKEY'S RULING Justice and Development Party (AKP) narrowly missed being outlawed. State prosecutors argued that the conservative AKP--whose official platform includes economic modernization and EU membership--was bent on Islamizing the secular state and moving toward theocracy. Some may see the AKP as the model of a Muslim party, appealing to believers while playing by democracy's rules, but many others within Turkey and elsewhere continue to fear that Islam and democracy are incompatible.

Concerns that religion and democracy do not mix aren't new, writes Princeton political theorist Jan-Werner Muller, nor are they confined to Islam. In the 19th century and far into the 20th, Catholicism was the big worry. Many blamed Catholicism for "the persistence of dictatorship in Latin America and on the Iberian Peninsula" and believed that Catholic citizens' deepest loyalties lay with the Vatican. (Memorably, this was a big issue for Catholic presidential candidate John E Kennedy in 1960.) Yet in the latter half of the 20th century, Christian Democratic parties (generally Catholic-based) informed by "select doctrinal values" but respectful of the church-state divide flourished in Western Europe and to an extent in Latin America. Couldn't Islam chart a similar course?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Many in the West object that this analogy is false. Some argue that European Catholics only embraced democracy on orders from the Vatican--and Muslims have no similar central institution. Others hold that the character of Christian Democratic ideas wasn't any more instrumental in Catholics' eventual political integration than a "specifically Muslim style of democracy" might be, because it is "the structure of democratic inclusion, not the distinctive ideas that inform it, that leads to moderation. …

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