SEMİH İDİZ > Is Islam compatible with democracy?

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Turkey is always highlighted when the question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy comes up. The reason is not hard to understand. For all its deficiencies, Turkey has had a working democracy which has weathered three actual and one “post-modern” military coup.

The fact that the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the 2002 general elections and went on to increase its support base in three successive elections is taken as proof that Islam and democracy are compatible. But these electoral victories happened in a Turkey whose system of government is staunchly secular, despite the country’s predominantly Islamic population.

The fact that the AKP emerged under this system is no proof in itself that Islam is compatible with democracy. What will really determine the truth or falsity of that contention for Turkey is whether the AKP, with all the political power it has mustered, will respect “democracy” as this form of government is defined by political science.

Unfortunately, for all the talk of introducing “advanced democracy” emanating from the AKP, the jury is still out on that question. To the contrary, there are developments prompting liberal democrats to fear that, far from “advancing,” Turkish democracy is in regression.

The way the government has been trying to impose its ideological outlook on society by means of education, by trying to interfere in lifestyles or family rights, or by subjective definitions of concepts like the freedom of expression or press freedom, feed this concern.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s self-declared antipathy toward the “separation of powers,” despite his attempts at backpedaling after his remarks, has caused a storm, and the ongoing efforts by the AKP to change the parliamentary system into a presidential one – with the president enjoying unencumbered powers – are other developments that fuel suspicions about this party’s real intentions.

Meanwhile, the developments in the Middle East and North Africa have not provided any evidence yet that Islam is compatible with democracy. All the elections in Egypt and Tunisia have spawned so far are governments led by the Muslim Brotherhood which have demonstrated that shariah is their main point of reference.

The manner in which the Egyptian Constitution was exclusively drafted and put to a referendum by Islamists does not bode well for democracy in that country. Media reports that Egypt’s top prosecutor has ordered an investigation into accusations that opposition leaders are inciting an overthrow of the regime, on the other hand, appears to reflect a copycat tendency, inspired by the Ergenekon and “Balyoz” (Sledgehammer) cases in Turkey, designed to silence the opposition.

Neither has Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, been inspiring much hope in democrats. He was quoted by Gulfnews.com saying that Islamist movements would eventually become the reference point throughout the Arab world.

Ghannouchi, who does not have an official position in the government led by his party, but is one of the most influential people in Tunisia, was also quoted recently by Al-Arabiya calling for flogging as punishment for people charged with slander.

His comments reportedly came after a female blogger accused his son-in-law of corruption and of engaging in an affair. It appears civil law is not sufficient for this Islamist who prefers Islamic punishment, thus reflecting a mentality whose logical conclusion is cutting hands for stealing and stoning for adultery.

In addition to all this there is hardly any indication to show that what will come out of Syria once Bashar al-Assad is toppled is democracy. The opposite is more likely. In the final analysis, deeds, not words, will show if Islam is compatible with democracy. So the answer to this question has yet to come.

But the indications are not encouraging for the Arab world, and worrying as far as Turkey is concerned.


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shaun thebrummie

10/22/2013 3:04:53 AM

islam is totally incompatible with western democracy.and comparisons with christianity and judaism is totally wrong.look at all the actions of muslims around the world..pakistan,egypt,syria,kenya,tunisia,indonesia,malaysia.there is wholesale slaughter of christians and any other non muslim you care to name.we had the dark ages in europe but progressed....turkey and islam apart from a short space of time stood still in the middle ages..running out or characters..no to islam..no to muslims...

Faruk Timuroglu

1/4/2013 12:28:24 AM

@Mike Taylor’s bewildering answer to the question adds a value to perfect analysis of Mr. İdiz. Abrahamic faiths restrict free reasoning of human mind. Faith intervenes in every aspect of social and private life and way of thinking. Galileo Galilei was trying to be free of restrictions posed by his faith to show physical truth. In fact, neither democracy nor science is compatible with religion. Thus, it is better to keep them separate.

Mike Taylor

1/2/2013 8:32:09 PM

the problem is, with the Abrahamic religions anyhow, that children are exposed to and programmed with their dogma and doctrines from before they even enter school, and their brains are essentially hardwired to their religions by the time theyre old enough to utilize the supposed free will all humans have, making them unable to be able to conceptualize the issues a citizen of a true democracy must understand in order for a democracy to work in the modern era...theres the answer, you're welcome:)

Ken Alden

1/2/2013 6:30:06 PM

@Rimon Tree - Thanks for your unbiased & thoughtful contribution.

Köksüz Kosmopolit

1/2/2013 12:06:41 PM

Islam is precisely as compatible with democracy as is Christianity. Only if religion is stripped of power can a free society tolerate it as the treasured private beliefs of many citizens. Paradoxically, exclusion from political power strengthens religion - look at the US, whose constitution separates church and state, yet is the most religious of all western nations. MKA gave Turkey a precious gift of secularism - Turks, do not let reactionaries destroy your inheritance of freedom!

Mike Newman

1/2/2013 4:23:38 AM

Ottoman caliphate was a ruler of the most Islamist, Jihadist, regressive, closed minded to science, technology and enlightenment ever since Islam came to being. Ottoman empire isolated the entire Northern Africa, the Middle East, Balkans, Central Asian Turkish peoples from the rest of the world, and was may be the only reason that caused them to fall behind the contemporary science, technology and enlightenment. Wahabism was a by product of Ottoman Islamism.

vural korkmaz

1/1/2013 8:39:59 PM

Islam is not compatible with democracy right now and will not be so as long as the main purpose of Islam remains the same which is to establish an Islamic Law (Sharia) based state and social structure. It will take a real enlightenment on the part of Moslems to make Islam compatible with democracy. In other words a real respect to basic human rights and freedoms.

Can Oz

1/1/2013 7:11:16 PM

There is no literal concept of democracy or tolerance in any Abrahamic religion. These modern values came thousands of years later. In that sense Islam is no different from Christianity or Judaism. What is different is that Islam has actually regressed, not progressed, in the era of globalization. After the fall of the Ottoman caliphate, Wahabis with their oil money filled the gap of Islamic jurisprudence. The world has greatly suffered ever since.

Robert Ellis

1/1/2013 2:41:43 PM

Prime Minister Erdogan's chief advisor, Ibrahim Kalin, let the cat out of the bag with his keynote speech at the Istanbul Forum in October. Kalin spoke of "a mental gap" between Islam and the West and concluded: "the European model of secular democracy, politics and pluralism seems to have little traction in the Arab and larger Muslim world." As Semih points out, we can already see this in Tunisia and Egypt and now in Turkey.

Richard Dickens

1/1/2013 2:02:25 PM

One-word-answer would do it, Mr Idiz:No! Islam (or any other religion) IS NOT compatible with democracy. If Turks wanna have a democratic country, they should change their mindset, unfortunately. By the way, the mildly islamist Justice and Development Party (Ak Parti) came to power in 2002, not in 1992. Thanks, though.
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