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The Coexistence of Secular and Religious Democracy

In the article “Islam and Democracy,” Asef Bayat reminds us of the persistent Western interpretation of the East (the Middle East in particular) as a society regulated by religious extremism and incompatible with democratic principles. Bayat suggests that this view originates from three sources: “The first is the continuing prevalence of Orientalist/essentializing thought in the West, the second element is the persistent authoritarian rule of the local regimes, and the third factor has to do with the fact that within the Muslim region, there has been an expansion of Islamist movements” (7). These three components continue to enforce the notion that Islamic government and democracy are incompatible. Therefore, a religious system that is portrayed as unwilling to embrace freedom while imposing its theological vision on its citizens can never thrive in justice and harmony.

“Islam and Democracy” challenges the definition of democracy provided by the West. The author suggests that “there is nothing intrinsic in Islam, and for that matter any other religion, which makes them inherently democratic or undemocratic” (10). Instead, those who interpret religion and assume positions of power determine whether or not democracy can coexist with religion. The author reminds us that democratic values have been interpreted in numerous ways and challenges the role of capitalism and its corporate emphasis in a democratic system. Bayat reminds us of the historical incompatibility of Christian values and democracy[1] and the transition that took taken place (approximately fifty years ago) in the West where Christianity and democracy are now viewed as compatible systems. In sum, the author suggests that religions are not necessarily incompatible with democracy, but those in political powers decide its compatibility.

In addition, Bayat studies the role that language and culture play in the interpretations of sacred texts. As he challenges Foucault’s emphasis on the power of words, Bayat argues, “power does not simply lie in words, in the ‘inner truth’ expressed in words, but primarily in those who utter them, those who give truth and power to these words” (13). Bayat suggests that the compatibility of religion and democracy is not subjected to linguistic and philosophical arguments only, but instead remains connected to the leaders running the political game.[2] Furthermore, the author implies that the reality of a world with divergent religious and political views generates resentment against those who seek to impose their foreign cultural values on those seeking to preserve their own. This imposition gives rise to Islamism which often rejects the Western presence in the Middle East. Bayat argues that within this radical movement, “freedom from foreign domination would take precedence over freedom at home” (15).

Bayat’s article explores the diversity of thought that is prevalent in Muslim “societies.[3] This study is of importance since it demonstrates the erroneous interpretations of the Muslim world offered through the Orientalist perspective.  For instance, Bayat reminds us that “many Islamist departed from their earlier totalizing discourse or violent methods, and began to develop a more democratic vision of their Islamic projects” (16). This reformation of Islamic values within Islamism does not incorporate secular or anti-Islamic principles, but instead seeks for the coexistence of faith and freedom. The willingness to change is at the core of Islamic traditions, yet it searches for a meaningful balance between society and God.

The search for balance between the secular and the religious is explored more in depth by political philosopher and theologian Abdolkarim Soroush, in the book Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush. Throughout Soroush’s writings, the reader continuously finds arguments exploring the relationship between the secular and the religious. The author describes the origin of the secular mind as he explains that secularism is born from two sources: “the growth of modern scientific thought and rationality and the profound changes in the meaning and relationship of rights and duties” (57). The first source refers to the development of a cultural resentment against the imposition of religious doctrines. The second introduces us to the fundamental differences between religion and the secular which lies primarily in the relationship between duties and rights. The second points is of significance importance since it demonstrates that religious people see their purpose in the world through a medium of duty and obligation to God while the secular one interprets our role in society as one where the humanistic vision must be preserved. Soroush’s conclusions lead us to the recognition that the secular and the religious can coexists through a medium of tolerance and understanding that balances the rational and the spiritual. Through this form of mutual respect societies can thrive and coexist within their differences.

The Western depiction of Islam as a religion incompatible with modernity undermines the divergent perspectives existing within the Islamic faith. The assumption that Islam is interpreted and practiced equally among Muslims ignores the historical efforts to adapt and reconcile modernity with spirituality. We can assume that the Western and Eastern world continuously struggle to adapt in order to uphold certain values; therefore, the actions of corrupt politicians along with the existence of radical movements do not reflect the true sentiment of a religious community seeking for a harmonious balance between the laws of god and the laws of men.

[1] “Many social scientists believed that Christianity and democracy were incompatible” (10).

[2] “The compatibility or incompatibility of a religion, including Islam, with democracy is not a matter of merely philosophical speculations, but of political struggle (13).

[3] “The designation ‘Muslim societies’ understood as plural and complete entities, allow a self-conscious Muslim majority to define their own reality in an inevitably contested, differentiated and dynamic fashion” (6).



9 thoughts on “The Coexistence of Secular and Religious Democracy

  1. Alfredo,
    I enjoyed reading this article. In this article, you seem to have touched on many of the key ideas expressed by the authors of this week’s readings. You also managed to weave these ideas together successfully into a single and cogent message that both engages the original content of these readings as well as touches upon many of the themes and ideas we have been exploring in this course, specifically your integration of the discourse on Orientalism, your explanation of the rise of Islamism as a distinct political ideology, and your examination of the compatibility of Islam with democracy. In response to your post, I can offer little critique as I find it to be a rather compelling and faithful presentation of the original material both in terms of content and spirit. The only question I would raise in response to this article would be regarding the exclusion of the role of Marxism in the formation of Islamism. In his article, Bayat attributes the successful spread of Islamism as an alternate ideology throughout the Muslim World to the perceived failures of both the predominant Western capitalist ideology as well as the failed experiments in Marxism and socialism throughout the globe (14). This is not a serious weakness for your overall article, but it would make your treatment of the material a little more thorough and thus stronger. Otherwise, as I stated above, this is a solid piece of writing in my opinion.

    Posted by woolmanjc | February 27, 2012, 8:35 am
    • Thank you for your comment and your critique. I believe that Bayat’s attempts to describe the positive components of Islamism borderline theology. Yet, it is necessary to argue against the numerous misinterpretations of the East and Islamism. We must acknowledge that just as there are good arguments on defense of Islamism, there are good arguments in defense of Marxism and socialism. To advocate for one as superior to the other simply falls in the realm of infallible truths.

      Posted by alfredo71 | February 27, 2012, 6:54 pm
  2. Dear Alfredo,

    I agree with WOOLMANJC. Your piece summarized many of the main points clearly and concisely. You display thorough knowledge of the texts, in particular the Orientalist attitudes that are still prevalent in the West. My only critique is on your concluding sentence. You state,
    “We can assume that the Western and Eastern world continuously struggle to adapt in order to uphold certain values; therefore, the actions of corrupt politicians along with the existence of radical movements do not reflect the true sentiment of a religious community seeking for a harmonious balance between the laws of god and the laws of men.”

    Posted by shannonwiese | February 27, 2012, 2:09 pm
    • I find this sentence to be a bit vague in the beginnng, for you never state what values you are talking about. Then, the last clause seems to harbor some essentializing notions about Islam in that there is a “true sentiment” in “a” religious community. You seem to be identifying one group of Muslims as true Muslims and all others (radicals, politicians that do not follow the same values) as unIslamic. I think this sentence could be refined to show that the the radical movements and corrupt politicians do not reflect the opinion of the majority of Muslims rather than stating that these people are not Muslim. Overall, however, I enjoyed your piece.

      Posted by shannonwiese | February 27, 2012, 2:15 pm
    • Shannon, I understand that your only critique originates from my concluding sentence, yet I am not sure I understand the nature of your critique. In this last paragraph, I simply seek to point out that although the West and the East hold divergent political views; both sides argue for the truthfulness of their vision while ignoring the possibilities for growth that resides in the other. Furthermore, as governments gain more power, the people they represent become forgotten by ideologies which must be enforced. In other words, instead of seeing ourselves as a nation of good, I argue that we must face and address the role we play in making the world a difficult place to live for many residing outside our geographical boundaries.

      Posted by alfredo71 | February 27, 2012, 6:34 pm
  3. You make many valid points about democracy and Islam, including the fact that they are capable of being compatible. While this is a significant part of the article and this misconception of democracy and Islam and how it needs to change there is one point you did not address. You write, “ The willingness to change is at the core of Islamic traditions, yet it searches for a meaningful balance between society and God.” A key point that we discussed in class was how it depends to what degree they are willing to change or accept democracy. This is an essential point that needs to be addressed because it will determine if democracy is accepted, but more importantly how democracy will develop and be adapted to Islam.
    You also do a very good job of making Abdolkarim Soroush, article clearer and more concise. You make another very good point about Islam and modernity and the Western worlds misunderstanding. Another point expressed is, “The assumption that Islam is interpreted and practiced equally among Muslims ignores the historical efforts to adapt and reconcile modernity with spirituality.” This is a key point because it shows how one sided the Western world’s view is of Islam, democracy and modernity. This one sided understanding continues to create even more, misunderstanding and problems. The lack of understanding and biased views will continue to be problematic this will persist until a new way of looking at Islam is cultivated, which no longer portrays it as monolithic.

    Posted by tealam12 | February 27, 2012, 5:32 pm
    • I appreciate your comment and I believe that you raise a good point. In my reflection I mainly question the Western depiction of the East as unwilling to change. I basically argue that the East is open to democratic values and the freedoms that originate from a system that thrives in openness rather than narrow-mindedness. Yet, our constant presence in the Middle East interferes with their capacity to find and define freedom through their own terms. Perhaps the East is not rejecting freedom, but it is simply rejecting the Western definition of freedom. Democracy and freedom must be defined and embrace by the people.

      Posted by alfredo71 | February 27, 2012, 6:44 pm
  4. I enjoyed your writing because I think you sum up the arguments of the two writers well but I am having trouble seeing the larger theme here, although you do touch on it at the end. You tell us that both writers see a need for balancing the sacred and the secular, and that there are multiple interpretations about Islam and politics. It would have been nice for you to open with some general thoughts on this instead of diving right into the material. It would have helped me to see where the authors and you were headed with the argument.

    Posted by cassidylp | March 19, 2012, 2:58 pm
  5. I am interested in your final paragraph primarily. You suggest (as do many authors) that the West treats Islam as a singular entity, and that this practice ignores the diversity of views held by Muslims. You then state that there have been attempts at integrating the modernist discourse with Islamic beliefs. I here would ask you, what use is it to consider, in scholarship, such a thing as “Islam”? If corrupt politicians can overgeneralize and create monolithic and harmful characterizations of Islam so as to advance their political agenda, why not break Islam up into subfields? We could discuss Modernist Islam and Traditionalist Islam and Progressive Islam and Democratized Islam as distinct modes of thought. Why say “Muslims are doing x” or “Muslims believe x”? It seems that this kind of breakup would disarm those politicians – it would no longer be legitimate to characterize “Islam” as a single thing if everyone agreed that there are distinct discourses within the community of Muslims. It seems our (western) discourse resists breaking up Islam. We seem to want to keep the conception of “authentic Islam” and then determine whether “terrorists” and “extremists” and “Islamists” can fit into that category or not. Who can be included among the community of Muslims, and where does one draw the line?

    Mostly unrelatedly, I’m interested in your statement concerning a “true sentiment” which is not being reflected (in your final sentence). After discussing the diversity of opinions, do you still think that there exists a “true sentiment”? What does that look like, and how do you establish the criteria for determining this “true sentiment”?

    Posted by fetheras | March 20, 2012, 7:03 pm

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