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'Islam does not live in the abstract'

Nader Hashemi, a leading scholar on Islam and secularism, tells Deutsche Welle that the two are far from being incompatible and that the West needs to do more to overcome its prejudices.

Nader Hashemi

Nader Hashemi

Nader Hashemi is Assistant Professor with the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and an expert on Middle East and Islamic affairs.

Deutsche Welle: In your book, "Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy" you write about Muslim societies and democracy. What do you tell people who categorically state that Islam and democracy will always be at odds because of Islam's 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.

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. As a friend of mine, Ebrahim Moosa, perceptively observed: "I've never seen Islam walking down the street, but I have seen Muslims walking down the street." 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?

According to most recent rankings by Freedom House, 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.

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 a 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.

I would also like to point to the case of contemporary Iran. The leaders of the 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.

In your book "Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy" you explain how religious conflicts in Europe took literally centuries to resolve. What can we learn about contemporary Islam, and Islamic societies, when looking at 17th century Europe, or England in particular?

The first thing we can learn is that there are no "quick fixes" when it comes to the question of religion's role in the polis. In all emerging democracies this topic is deeply divisive and it sometimes takes generations, if not longer, to develop a broad democratic consensus; Muslim societies are no different in this regard. Secondly, it is important to point out key differences between today's world and the 17th century. The role of the modern state in shaping internal societal debates is very different largely because the state, and the elites who control it, are more powerful than they were 300 years ago.

In [John] Locke's England, for example, there were no superpowers who could project their power across the world, invade, occupy and re-shape entire regions, including the internal make up of countries in the same way that the UK, France and later the USA have done in the Middle East during the 20th and 21st centuries.

Finally, the process of modernization itself - which is inherently destabilizing - in the context of Europe took place over a longer period of time. In the case of most Muslim societies they are still in the early phases of modernization which also carries with it common destabilizing effects that are a by-product of rising literacy rates, an expansion of information networks, migration from rural to urban centers etc.

I would also add that two inherently destabilizing processes are occurring in Muslim societies simultaneously - democratization and secularization, or the debate on the normative role of religion in government. This partly explains why there is so much political upheaval in Muslim societies today and why they are so vertiginous.

Critics in Israel voice concern that, just like the cedar revolution in Lebanon turned from a grass roots civil rights protest movement into the destabilization of the government that eventually lead to Hezbollah taking control of the country, this is what could happen in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco as well...

All political change entails a degree of risk. There are no guarantees that democratic forces will triumph. This applies especially to societies in the developing world that have been governed by authoritarian elites for decades. But the real question is - what are the alternatives? Retaining the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes? These regimes were incapable of reform and thus their demise is to be celebrated.

A comparison with Iran is instructive in this regard. The rise of political Islam in Iran in the wake of the 1979 Revolution made perfect sociological and political sense. What did you expect would emerge from decades of political tyranny that decimated progressive social forces?

The benchmark event of Iran's modern history was a 1953 CIA-organized coup that ended the period of democratic secularism and parliamentary politics Iran had enjoyed from 1941 to 1953.

It should be remembered that Mohammed Mossadegh, the charismatic and popular prime minister toppled in the coup, was a liberal, a democrat, a political secularist, and a strong supporter of international law - as well as a practicing Muslim. Imposed in his stead was the Shah of Iran who was as repressive and corrupt during the 1960s and 1970s as Hosni Mubarak and Zine al Abedine Ben Ali were in the 1990s and 2000s.

In short, in the same way that the forces of political Islam emerged from decades of political authoritarianism as the only credible and organized opposition in Iran, a similar but not identical situation prevails in Egypt and Tunisia today. To decry this state of affairs is to ignore the political consequences of supporting repressive authoritarian regimes. If illiberal and undemocratic forces emerge triumphant in Egypt and Tunisia - and I sincerely hope they do not - the West has to accept its share of responsibility for this state of affairs. 

Interview: Lewis Gropp
Editor: Rob Mudge

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