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Jewish World Review Feb. 16, 2006/ 18 Shevat, 5766

Suzanne Fields

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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 state.

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