Islam, Sovereignty, and Democracy: A Turkish View

By Yilmaz, Hakan | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Islam, Sovereignty, and Democracy: A Turkish View


Yilmaz, Hakan, The Middle East Journal


In this article, some conceptual and empirical relations between Islam, sovereignty, and democracy will be examined, with comparisons to Christianity. In the first part of the article, the historical conditions of the formation of the dualist (Christianity) and monist (Islam) political theories of the two religions will be examined. This will be followed by a conceptualization of the beginning and end of their respective "middle ages." It will be argued that the end of the Islamic middle ages was marked, in some Islamic countries, by the following phenomena: the building of a secular state apparatus; the replacement of "religion" by "nation" as the basis of the sovereignty of the new state; the deportation of Islam from the state to society; and the re-birth of Islam in the hands of the social actors as a political ideology aiming at re-capturing the state it had lost. In the final sections, the problematic relationship between secularization and democratization in the Islamic world will be examined, and the experiments with secularization in the Islamic world will be compared with those of France. It will be observed that what made secularization and democracy compatible in France was a combination of historical factors (the existence of the Church that controlled the social manifestations of religion; the state's success in nation-building; the efficiency of the secular judicial system; and the state's satisfactory performance in the area of socioeconomic development), which were largely absent in the Islamic contexts, with the possible exception of Turkey.

The issue of Islam and democracy has become, once again, a hot topic since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The issue has not been confined merely to academic debates. Indeed, bringing democracy to the Islamic countries of the Middle East has now become perhaps the most important US foreign policy objective in that region of the world. Although many observers argue that there is some sort of incompatibility between Islam and democracy, not everyone agrees on what exactly is the source of this alleged incongruity. Some scholars have pointed out the contradictions between the "text" of Islam (the holy book and the basic legal material) and the "text" of democracy. ' Some scholars have argued that democracy has been a particular product of Western "civilization" which has originated from Christianity and that a similar notion of democratic government has simply not emerged from Islamic "civilization."2 Yet other scholars have underlined socioeconomic, rather than cultural, factors as the underlying causes for the lack of democracy in the Islamic world, putting the emphasis on rentier states holding themselves in power with the help of the immense oil revenues and the political and military support given to them by their Western patrons.3

In this article, some conceptual and empirical relations between Islam, sovereignty, and democracy will be examined, with frequent references to the experience of Christianity. The examination will proceed in four stages. In the first stage, it will be observed that Christianity was born in society and Islam in the state, and this difference between the historical contexts in which the two religions first emerged helps explain the political dualism in the doctrine of the former and the political monism in that of the latter. In the second stage, the concept of the "middle ages" of a religion will be introduced and defined as the period of doctrinal and institutional stability between the "end of philosophy" and the "age of reform." Based on that definition, the distinguishing characteristics of the middle ages of Christianity and Islam will be compared. In the third stage, it will be pointed out that in some Islamic countries, such as Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Iraq, and Syria, the major outcome of the end of Islam's middle ages by the early 19th century was a political reform in the form of the building of a modern state apparatus by the secularist-modernist forces, the banishing of Islam from the state to society, and the consequent emergence of Islamism as a political ideology in the midst of society, aiming at recapturing the state from which it had been banished. …

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