Examining Religious Democracy

NOAH FELDMAN – Religion and democracy can coexist in the Middle East. Just look at Iraq and Tunisia.

Amongst members of the United States’ diplomatic community, there often seems a propensity towards describing Islam and, particularly, Islamism as a single entity in reaction to which policy can be drafted. Has this view hindered American policymakers’ ability to understand the more complex origins and character of Islamists and Muslims in the Middle East?

That view conflating Islam and Islamism, and acting as though these two are the same, was characteristic of many American government thinkers in around 2000. The last decade has witnessed a slow but meaningful evolution of US Federal understanding of these issues. In Congress, however, one can still hear some version of this simplified definition of Islam, and certainly at the state level these views are prevalent. I do not think the situation is quite as universal as the question suggests. But among people who do have that simplistic view, it has been quite harmful to their ability to form coherent policy.

Islam is clearly not one thing but many. Like all great world religions, its meaning is deeply contested both from inside and outside the faith. There are well over a billion Muslims around the world, and an equally diverse range of opinions about what “Islam” means. Believers think of themselves as committed to a core truth, but there are many different possible truths to which they are committed.

In my view, Islamism is a political movement devoted to the idea that what it takes to be the values of Islam are central to not only religious questions but also to political questions. But even Islamism is extremely various. There are moderate Islamists, like the Ennahda Party in Tunisia or the AK Party in Turkey, who are governing quite moderately and reasonably. There are also Islamists — Salafists — who think more extremely, who have a much more reductive or fundamentalist sense of how Islam solves problems, and would like to see Sharia Law adopted broadly. There are also Jihadi Salafis, even further along the spectrum, who want to use violence  to establish their interpretation of Islam.

The more policymakers understand this enormous range in belief, the better policy they will draft.

When scholars speak of “religion” and “democracy” they often contrast one from the other. How can we define “religion,” and do there exist similarities between the fundamentals of faith and of free government that can be harnessed into a more comprehensive understanding of Islamism?

These are both tremendously flexible terms, but both have core elements that are not negotiable. Democracy, although deeply debated, does rest on free elections and enough free speech to make those elections meaningfully free. When scholars say“democracy,” they most often mean “liberal” or “egalitarian” democracy which means all citizens are treated equally — men and women, regardless of race — in their ability to participate in process of government.

As for religion, there are an enormous number around the world. Liberal democracy can take account of religious belief and value. It does not have to; there could be a secular democracy. But it needs not be secular, and indeed many of the world’s democracies are not, allowing individuals to draw on their religious beliefs when voting and making other political choices, but not when it comes to implementing policy. Others allow religion to be taken into account even during the formulation of official policy, and that is not at all uncommon. This is still a species of democracy provided that all citizens are treated equally.

It is very difficult to work such a system out in practice, but there is a possibility for real compatibility for differing forms of religion and democracy. This claim is contestable, of course. There are people who argue that democracy can only be secular, and there religious people that say democracy can never be compatible with religion. But there are numerous countries where the effort to make the two work together is underway.

 On the eve of the Iraq War, you gave a TED lecture describing how an “Islamic Democracy” might be established, yet you noted that the then-future conflict held grave implications for this model: The war could drive apart the two ideologies or it could bring them together. Has the War in Iraq caused these dangers to precipitate, and has the US played any positive role modeling such an “Islamic Democracy” in Iraq or the broader region?

My short answer is that the West did many things wrong in Iraq, and the country remains a very unstable political entity, but the problem with the state has not had to do with Islam and democracy. To he contrary, the two have worked together rather well in Iraq. Leading religious figures, including Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, were crucial players in making the Iraqi Constitution more democratic, not less. The governing party, the Da’awa Party, is an Islamist Party, but has nevertheless ruled democratically. Of course it has not ruled perfectly, and there are many instances when it appeared that they were infringing on individual liberty. However, these infractions were never committed on religious grounds.

Iraq showed that an Islamic Democratic government can function so well that many people forget that it is religious and democratic simultaneously. Subsequently, across the Middle East where spontaneous and self-generated liberation events followed by free elections — Tunisia is the best example, although Egypt is also a good test-case — people vote for Islamic-Democratic parties.

In Tunisia, the process is moving forward relatively well. The Islamic party formed a coalition with the secularists, and is now in the process of drafting a Constitution which will incorporate Islam in some form. In Egypt, the situation is trickier. The Islamic-Democrats were elected and tried to form a government, but the military has stood in their way. Nevertheless, the problem lies with the continuation of military autocracy and not with the Islam/democracy prong, which is capable of functioning well.

In some ways — although it would be much too optimistic to attribute this to what happened in Iraq — American policymakers do know that Islam and democracy can function together. When I said in 2003 that there was a real possibility for Islam and democracy to coexist, I was basing my statement on theory and not practical proof. Iraq now provides real evidence of that compatibility, and hopefully there are going to be more examples throughout the Middle East in the coming years.

In my interview with Joseph Nye, he stressed the difference between nation-building and state-building, with the former being the term used by US policymakers in Iraq, noting that “it is often hard to ‘nation-build,’ to get a group of people together…if they do not like each other, such as the Sunni and Shia after the 2003 Iraq invasion.” In Iraq, how were domestic religious divisions addressed when building the Iraqi state, and was a confusion between terms and their inherent goals a source of problems?

There is an important difference between nation- and state-building, but in Iraq both had to take place under complicated circumstances. Iraq had a state, but the Americans destroyed that state, and then that state had to be re-created. Iraq only really had the veneer of a nation. There was an official national ideology, but the Shia did not see themselves as part themselves as part of the Iraqi nation as defined by the Ba’ath Party, and the Kurds saw themselves as completely divorced from it. After getting rid of the Ba’athist regime, what existed was something that did not resemble a nation.

The goal of the constitution-drafting process in Iraq has been to create some functional, national  entity on top of the state. That has been met with mixed success. The Sunni -Shia tensions are still prevalent, and there was a low-level civil war between these two which was disastrous from the standpoint of creating a single Iraqi nation. But now there seems to be emerging something that resembles a functioning state, and in this environment perhaps a “nation” can also emerge. In some sense, the possibility of a real Iraqi nation is closer than it was before 2003. That said, it is optimistic to say for sure that such a nation will come into existence, and it is most likely that Iraq will have a strong state without an equally robust national identity.

When we speak of postwar nation building in Iraq, the debate centers on religious and civil-political theory. In Iraq, the US military seemed the principal instrument used to construct Iraqi democracy. Could the question then be not whether religion and politics can coexist, but rather what is the best tool with which such a relationship can be achieved? 

It is not fair to say that the US military was the key instrument used to construct Iraqi democracy. Iraq was under occupation, but that was necessary to create some basic stability in which a state could exist. Certainly the military presence was not helpful for emerging Iraqi democracy, but it was instrumental for stability. What the Iraqis wanted was to not be under occupation; they wanted their process of liberation to be self-inspired.

Religion and democracy can coexist, and what is needed is for political elites and ordinary people to see them as mutually compatible. And Iraqis do see them as compatible. That said, Iraq faces many challenges, but the problem of making the religion and democracy work together is not the most pressing, although it was imagined that it would be before the war.

Shifting gears to look at the Arab Spring, analysts argue whether the movement has been a “success.” How can scholars living in a region wherein religion and politics are, in theory, separate, define political and social success for countries where religion is often intertwined with government? 

It is right to suggest that success has to be defined by the residents of a country and not by external actors. If there is a functioning, peaceful government in a society that has undergone something like the Arab Spring, then that is beneficial for everybody involved. It is too soon to say that this goal has been achieved. In Tunisia this process is going better than everywhere else. In Egypt there is a seriously tense and tricky situation; it is impossible to say how things are going to turn out there.

Can foreigners really say what counts as success? No, but it is possible to look at a country like Tunisia, where politicians are negotiating over their constitution, the parties are in coalition, nobody is fighting, there is a relatively strong protection of free speech, and conclude that the outlook is good. One can also look at Egypt, which is in the middle of a constitutional crisis — the military has gotten the Supreme Court to disband Parliament — and say that the situation is very worrisome. Those are the kind of judgements that an outside can make, but in terms of the final outcome, that assessment has to be made by the local population.

It seems that Tunisia’s reform movement — the first to erupt — has proved stable, amidst countries where the Arab Spring has been less propitious. How might outside observers account for the progress in Tunis but not in Cairo or Tripoli?

First, it is too soon to see about Libya. They have just had an election, and it remains to be seen whether the newly-elected Parliament can conduct the business of government in a systematic way.

In Cairo, the problem was that the military did not step off the stage. It was the military, remember, that ultimately brought down Mubarak. They expected something in return, namely continued dominance in Egyptian society. There is now a deep tension between the elected Islamists and the entrenched holdovers from the military regime, and that is the source of the face-off today.

In Tunisia, the regime was not as much founded on the military. After the military took out the regime, it did not attempt to govern; it had no tradition of governance. Thus the transition went far better. The core difference has to do with the transition of the military’s role. And this analysis gives some cause for optimism about Libya, since the Qaddafi regime is completely gone, as was the situation for the ben-Ali regime in Tunisia, but in Egypt.

You were in Tunisia in July. What was the mood on the ground, and how was any optimism manifest in everyday life in the country? 

I would caution that spending a week in a country — as I did at the beginning of July — does not lend itself to a profound understanding of widespread public opinion. I would be lucky to fully understand the situation amongst the people with whom I was spending my time. Among the political class, especially those who are focused on the constitution — as they are my primary interlocutors — there is a modest, cautious sense of progress towards finding those points on which there is agreement, and confronting those on which there is meaningful disagreement. The secular parties are remarkably disorganized, whereas Ennahda — the Islamists — are extremely well-organized and disciplined; they are, in fact, frustrated that the secular opposition is not better organized.

The political class remains very concerned about the economy, because they do not have a magic fix. Opening the substantial human capital in Tunisia to greater entrepreneurial possibility is crucial, but leaders are not fully convinced. The Ennahda leaders especially are trained in political theory, not economics: They are idealistic dreamers more than business people.

I would like to add one vignette from my time in Tunisia. I went to the Carthage Music Festival. Although Carthage is a relatively empty suburb of Tunis, I did feel a kind of cheerful, friendly, relaxed attitude amongst the ten thousand people watching this performance of young Tunisian artists reviving old standards from the 1950s. It felt like a party; one of the Lebanese friends I was with turned to me and said, “you look at this, and it makes you think the Middle East could be normal.” And he was not wrong.

Tunisia today seems to showcase a relatively stable coalition of secular and religious political parties that might be a good example for surrounding nations. How might Tunisia also be a model for western policymakers to understand the “new” regional political matrix?

The main message for westerners is not to panic at the thought that Islamic democrats have brought public support. The fact that they are being elected does not mean that they will try to govern on their own or impose Sharia. They are quite capable of governing rationally and in coalition. It is crucial to for western policymakers to understand that Islamists are not a disaster for democracy. The contrary is true, and it has been for a decade. Tunisia gives the world a good opportunity to notice this truth.


NOAH FELDMAN is Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard Law School, and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and the Bloomberg View, as well as a Senior Fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. In 2003 he served as senior constitutional advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq under L. Paul Bremer, and subsequently advised members of the Iraqi Governing Council on the drafting of the Transitional Administrative Law, or interim constitution.

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