Jewish World Review Feb. 16, 2006/ 18 Shevat,
Islam's problem with democracy
Religion has always been linked to political power, often
controlled by kings and despots. In a democracy, there's a different
kind of link. Freedom allows everyone to raise questions, confront
dogma and challenge beliefs. That's why maintaining the complete
separation of church and state is crucial.
Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting the United States in the
early 19th century, identified this separation as crucial to
democratic governance. Religion gave support to democratic political
institutions because it restrained the exercise of liberties,
appealing to conscience and morality in lieu of imposition by the
De Tocqueville's words came to life in the controversy over the
cartoons satirizing Muhammed in the European newspapers, and Muslim
reaction threw in sharp relief the differences between East and
West. Cartoons in Middle Eastern newspapers depicting the Jewish
star placed across a swastika and Jews with hooked noses adorned in
Nazi helmets, slaying innocents, were widely reviled by Jews, but
Jewish mobs did not set out to torch embassies or to kill one
another in protest. So where is the outrage of "moderate" Muslims
over the way the suicide bombers invoke the name of Muhammed on
behalf of the slaughter of innocents?
The Frenchman was surprised by the pervasive religious atmosphere
he found here, and in interviews with both clergy and laymen, he
never met anyone who doubted that it was this separation of church
and state that enabled religious belief to flourish. In times of
enlightenment and democracy, he argued, the human spirit does not
readily accept dogmatic beliefs except through faith. ". . . [A]t
such times above all, religions should be most careful to confine
themselves to their proper sphere, for if they wish to extend their
power beyond spiritual matters they run the risk of not being
believed at all," he wrote in his classic, "Democracy in America."
The Founding Fathers certainly thought this to be true, which is
why G-d is invoked throughout our early history as the unifying
force for equality, without dogma intruding into the specific
details of government. The spirit rather than the letter of the law
says "we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable
rights." Like de Tocqueville, we cannot see into the secret places
of the hearts of those who express faith in their religion; the
benefit of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition is in its
inspiration for our small-r republican institutions.
A century and a half before Samuel Huntington expressed concern for
the "clash of civilizations," de Tocqueville identified the
difference between our inheritance of Western religious values and
the teachings of Muhammed that inspired Arabs in the Middle East.
Muhammed contributed political maxims, criminal and civil rules and
scientific theories to the Koran, mixing religion and politics,
whereas the Gospels deal only with the relationship between man and
God, and man and man: "That alone, among a thousand reasons," he
wrote, "is enough to show that Islam will not be able to hold its
power long in ages of enlightenment and democracy, while
Christianity is destined to reign in such ages, as in all others."
An "open civilization" once flourished under the rule of Islam, but
that was a long time ago, and the current incarnation of Islamic
rule is theocratic and usually despotic, demanding that all see the
world through the same lens. The Islamic scholar Ralph Ghadban,
writing in a Swiss newspaper, argues that "a marked retrogression is
observable in the Islamic world." He observes that the strict
blasphemy laws being introduced in Muslim countries are intended
less to protect Islam than to get rid of other religions. The
Islamists are eager to see whether they can transport their
theocratic bans to Europe.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch writer and politician who wrote the film
script for the movie that inspired an Islamist terrorist to murder
filmmaker Theodore van Gogh, told the Danish newspaper that first
reprinted the cartoons of Muhammed: "It's important to remember that
Islam hasn't undergone all the reforms and adjustment which
Christianity and Judaism have undergone over the past thousand
years." This controversy brings attention to the Muslim taboos that
are incompatible with democratic values. Subjugating women and
imprisoning writers is anathema to Western religions.
If religious institutions are to be capable of maintaining
themselves in a democratic age, observed de Tocqueville, "their
power also depends a great deal on the nature of the beliefs they
profess, the external forms they adopt, and the duties they impose."
This is history's challenge to Islam.
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© 2006, Suzanne Fields, Creators Syndicate