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Answering Andy McCarthy

Andy McCarthy, responding to a post by me, writes this:

No serious person I know is saying Muslims aren’t up to democracy (and what we’re talking about here is a Muslim issue more than an Arab issue). This is not a question of ignorance or incompetence. They understand the principles of our democracy. They just don’t want them. Any democracy worth promoting is a democracy that runs afoul of key sharia-law principles. Muslims don’t want our democracy because they believe their civilization — including its law and desired political structure — is superior. I think they are terribly wrong about that, but it’s a considered choice and one that is theirs to make. What’s condescending is to insist that we know better than they do what’s good for them.

Andy is bright and knowledgeable, but in this instance, let me offer a dissent from his claims, which I believe are far too sweeping.

In arguing that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with democracy, Andy has to overlook millions of Muslim Americans, the vast majority of whom are quite happy with American democracy and fit in perfectly well. Moreover, his claim is undermined by hundreds of millions of Muslims throughout the world — including in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country on the planet and its third-largest democracy; in India, the world’s largest democracy and home to the largest Muslim-minority population in the world (in excess of 150 million); and Iraq, the only functioning Arab democracy (it includes multiparty elections and a relatively free press). There is also Mali and Turkey, which until recently was the only democratic secular state in the world with an overwhelmingly Muslim population. And during the recent historic uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, what has been so striking are the cries not for a theocracy and the imposition of sharia law but rather for emancipation and political liberalization.

Several caveats are necessary here. Democracies with majority-Muslim populations have different levels of maturity and stability; some are imperfect, and others are fragile. Some, like Turkey, are heading in the wrong direction. And Islamists will try to hijack the revolutions sweeping the Arab world. On a more fundamental level, there are factors within Islam that have inhibited the widespread development of liberal societies. James Q. Wilson discusses some of them here and here. “Separating religion from politics was the key to the development of liberal nations in the West,” according to Wilson, “and it will be the key to the emergence of such states in the Muslim world.”

Islam faces greater theological hurdles than Christianity when it comes to the emergence of liberal societies, in part because Muhammad and Jesus represented such dramatically different approaches to the relationship between faith and the state. Still, theological authorities in Islamic countries, like the Grand Mufti of Egypt, make distinctions between the ideals of sharia and their seventh-century cultural application. So while militant Islam is incompatible with a liberal society, it is not — as McCarthy seems to argue — the only possible and proper expression of Islam.

Andy bases his argument on the assertion that all Muslims want to bring about and live under sharia law. But that’s empirically false. Undoubtedly some Muslims/Islamic movements do, while other Muslims want to live under some type of modified sharia (sharia, after all, has multiple interpretations and implementations). But many other Muslims around the world don’t want to live under sharia and certainly don’t support government efforts to bring it about. In this regard, it is telling that there are actually very few nations whose governments are based on a fanatical interpretation of sharia law, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. And even they don’t reflect the will of many of their own people (see the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009).

There is also this: according to a December 2, 2010, Pew Global Attitudes Project report, “Many Muslims see a struggle between groups that want to modernize their countries and Islamic fundamentalists, and in five of the seven countries [Lebanon, Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Egypt, and Jordan] where the question was asked, more of those who see a struggle identify with the modernizers than with fundamentalists.” [emphasis added]

Boiled down to its essence, Andy’s argument, at least as I understand it, is that everywhere and always Islam = sharia = anti-democratic. This formulation is neat and clean. It’s also, I believe, wrong. It simply doesn’t add up in the light of global facts.


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