In your book, "Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy" you write about Muslim societies and democracy. What do you tell people that categorically state that Islam and democracy will always be at odds because of Islam's supposed inherent anti-democratic nature?
Nader Hashemi: I tell these people two things: First, you need to study history, and second, you need to overcome your Islamophobic prejudices. It should be remembered that not long ago similar arguments were advanced that claimed that Catholicism had an "inherent anti-democratic nature" and thus Catholic-majority societies could not democratize. How many people would make this claim today and be taken seriously? These arguments, if you think about them seriously, are spurious because they are based on the unexamined assumption that religion, in this case Islam, is fossilized and unchanging.
The claim, therefore, that Islam is not subject to evolutionary transformation and development – like all religious traditions obviously are – ignores what really matters: the changing socio-economic and political context, which is all important in shaping how Islam/religion manifests itself in different regions of the world, at different moments in time.
Moreover, Islam does not exist in the abstract but it is constantly interpreted by Muslims living in specific historical circumstances. Islam does not exist in a vacuum – there are human agents, i.e. Muslims, that are constantly interpreting and reinterpreting their religion, i.e. Islam. Thus, the proper question is not "what Islam is" but "under what social conditions can Islam be compatible with democracy?"
Where, for example, has Islam proven to be compatible with democracy?
Hashemi: According to most recent rankings by Freedom House, a respected non-governmental organization that monitors global democratic development, over half of the global Muslim population – about 800 million – is located in countries that are listed as "free" or "partly free". Indonesia, for example, the most populous Muslim country in the world, receives very high scores for both civil rights and political rights, a remarkable achievement for a country that about a decade ago underwent a democratic transition, after decades of authoritarian rule. A similar story can be told about Turkey today, which also gets very respectable scores from Freedom House for democratic development. Although there has been some backsliding in recent years by the AK Party.
What is especially noteworthy about these recent gains for democracy in both of these important Muslim-majority countries is that these recent gains for democracy have been as direct result of the political participation of Muslim intellectuals and religious-based parties. This fact shatters long standing modernization theory and Orientalist assumptions about Islam and the supposed inherent dangers of introducing Muslims values into politics.
The claim – which is still widely believed today – is that these traditional Muslim values were fossilized and unable to adapt to modernity and thus the only hope lay with overtly secular, pro-Western parties, institutions and intellectuals who could lead the Muslim world toward democracy, modernity and progress. The empirical evidence, as we enter the 21st century, suggests otherwise.
I would also like to point to the case of contemporary Iran. The leaders of Iran's Green Movement and its leading intellectuals are mostly religiously pious and practicing Muslims and by the standards of Europe they are very socially conservative. Nonetheless, they have all reconciled their understanding of Islam with secularism, human rights, democracy and gender equality.
The Arab Spring, I believe, will confirm this trend, as Islamist parties compete for political office and struggle to reconcile their ideological background and socially conservative political agenda with the demands of government complex and modern society. The positive role that Ennahda has played so far in Tunisia's democratic transition certainly gives one hope but of course there are no guarantees.
Interview by Lewis Gropp
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