Commentary Magazine

Islam and Freedom

What are the prospects for the emergence of liberal societies in Muslim countries? Note my choice of words: “liberal,” not “democratic.” Democracy, defined as competitive elections among rival slates of candidates, is much harder to find in the world than liberalism, defined as a decent respect for the freedom and autonomy of individuals. There are more Muslim nations—indeed, more nations of any stripe—that provide a reasonable level of freedom than ones that provide democracy in anything like the American or British versions.

Freedom—that is, liberalism—is more important than democracy because freedom produces human opportunity. In the long run, however, democracy is essential to freedom, because no political regime will long maintain the freedoms it has provided if it has an ironclad grip on power. Culture and constitutions can produce freedom; democracy safeguards and expands it.

This is what lies at the heart of our efforts to make Afghanistan and Iraq into liberal states. Some on both the Left and the Right think it impossible to introduce democracy into the Muslim Middle East. One left-wing politician has condemned the effort as “gunpoint democracy”; a well-known leftist academic has pronounced it a “fantasy”; to a conservative journalist, open electoral systems in the Muslim world will only stimulate a competition among demagogues to see who can be the most anti-American. When it comes to Iraq, the columnist George F. Will has asserted that the country lacks both democratic citizens and a democratic culture, to say nothing of lacking George Washington, James Madison, and John Marshall. Even to hope for a “liberal” regime there, he argues, is like hoping in 1917 that the socialist leader Alexander Kerensky might continue to rule Russia after Lenin and the Bolsheviks arrived.

There are certainly grounds for pessimism. For centuries, only Great Britain and its former colonies—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States—could be called democratic. And even in those countries, the struggle to acquire both liberal and democratic values had been a long and hard one. It took half a millennium before England moved from the signing of Magna Carta to the achievement of parliamentary supremacy; three centuries after Magna Carta, Catholics were being burned at the stake. The United States was a British colony for two centuries, and less than a century after its independence was split by a frightful civil war. Elsewhere, Portugal and Spain became reasonably free only late in the 20th century, and in Latin America many societies have never even achieved the stage of liberalism. The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked that, of all the states in existence in the world in 1914, only eight would escape a violent change of government between then and the early 1990’s.

Nevertheless, liberal regimes have been less uncommon than democratic ones. In 1914 there were three democracies in Europe, but many more countries where your neck would be reasonably safe from the heel of government. You might not have wished to live in Germany, but Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Norway, and Sweden offered reasonably attractive alternatives even if few of them could then have been called democracies in the modern American or British sense.

As for the Middle East, there have been only three democracies in its history: Lebanon, Turkey, and of course Israel. Israel remains free and democratic despite being besieged by enemies. But of the two Muslim nations, only one, Turkey, became reasonably democratic after a 50-year effort, while Lebanon, which has been liberal and democratic on some occasions and not on others, is today a satellite of Syria and the home of anti-Israel and anti-Western terrorists; Freedom House ranks it as “not free.”

Is the matter as universally hopeless as this picture might suggest? Suppose, as a freedom-loving individual, you had to live in a Muslim nation somewhere in the world. You would assuredly not pick Baathist Syria or theocratic Iran or Saddam’s Iraq. But you might pick Turkey, or Indonesia, or Morocco. In what follows, I want to explore what makes those three countries different, and what the difference might mean for the future.


Turkey is the first, the best known, and almost the only democratic secular state in the world with an overwhelmingly Muslim population. It was created in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, who had become a hero by expelling the Greeks from the western part of his country after World War I.

By Atatürk’s time, Muslim thinkers and leaders everywhere had been struggling for centuries to find a solution to the catastrophic collapse of the Islamic world. Once the greatest empire ever known, with a remarkable record of military victories and cultural achievements to its name, Islam had been expelled from Spain in 1492; two centuries later, the temporarily resurgent forces of the Ottomans were defeated decisively at the gates of Vienna. The Ottoman holding of Egypt had been easily captured, first by the French and then by the English.

In the early 20th century, many who still dreamed of restoring Islam’s power thought the answer lay in acquiring Western arms and Western technologies. Atatürk had a different view. It was necessary, he believed, for a Muslim nation to do more than buy Western products; it must become Western. For him this chiefly meant turning to the principles of democracy and the teachings of science.

Speaking privately to a friend, Atatürk once remarked that “I have no religion” and “at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea.” As president of the Turkish Republic, he abolished the office of the Caliph and the Muslim religious courts, established a public-school system in which there would be no instruction in religion, legalized the sale of alcohol, gave to women the right to vote and to demand a divorce, instituted the compulsory use of the Latin alphabet, adopted a German commercial code, and allowed the selection of a Turkish beauty queen. Though for reasons of political prudence he allowed Turkey to be called an Islamic state, he revealed his true feelings on the matter when he converted Hagia Sofia, the great Byzantine cathedral turned Ottoman mosque, into a museum.

Atatürk favored democracy in principle but not much in practice. His followers dominated the government. Although at one point he decided there should be an opposition party, the experiment lasted only a few months before he ended it. But this is not to say that he was a dictator; instead, he was a tough ruler with a strong agenda, one who on occasion enforced that agenda by crushing dissidents and hanging their leaders, restricting press freedom, and closing down any organization or newspaper his government deemed subversive.

In 1945, seven years after Atatürk’s death, opposition parties were again made legal in Turkey; within four years, some 27 had been formed. In 1950 Turkey saw the beginnings of democratic government, with the first free elections. Thanks to Atatürk, who had made the Turkish army subservient to civilian rule, the military did nothing to prevent this development. But the army was, and has remained, determined to protect Atatürk’s secularism. Whenever some leader has veered too close to a religious orientation, the Turkish military has not hesitated to intervene, each time returning to barracks once the status quo ante has been restored.

The slow emergence of democracy has, however, led to modifications in the strict anti-religious stance established by Atatürk. In 1949, religious instruction was allowed on a voluntary basis. The year 2002 saw the first election of a party with a pro-Islamic leader who was not thereupon displaced by the military. This was Recep Erdogan, now Turkey’s prime minister, once a follower of radical Islam and indeed jailed for inciting religious hatred. So far, though, the path of “enlightened moderation” seems to be paying dividends.


Next, Indonesia. It has taken a half-century for this historically tolerant nation to move from independence, acquired in 1949, to free presidential elections, carried out earlier this year. Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, established a regime called “guided democracy,” which consisted mostly of guidance with very little democracy; in 1963, he proclaimed himself president for life. Thanks to economic mismanagement, however, combined with a rapid increase in the size and influence of the Indonesian Communist party and a disastrous decision to withdraw from the United Nations, he quickly began to wear out his welcome. In response to an attempted Communist coup d’état in 1965, the Indonesian military removed Sukarno from power and put down the revolt in a campaign that produced hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Sukarno’s successor was General Suharto, head of the military, who was repeatedly reelected to office by a large “consultative assembly” packed with hand-picked supporters. To ensure his reelection, Suharto banned most political parties. Although helping to redirect the Indonesian economy—by the early 1990’s, it was growing at a rate of 7 percent per year—Suharto practiced a crony capitalism that could not survive. When a severe financial crisis hit the country in 1997, he was forced to resign in favor of his vice president—who proceeded, rather surprisingly, to liberalize Indonesian politics. Scores of new political parties were created, a new election law was promulgated, civil servants and active military officers were banned from campaigning, strict limits were enacted on campaign contributions, and the presidency was limited to two five-year terms.

In the 1999 election, one major contending party was headed by Abdurrahman Wahid (popularly known as Gus Dur), the leader of a vast Muslim social organization and a moderate who favored a government without religious leanings. Another was headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri, or Mega as she is known; the daughter of ex-president Sukarno, she, too, supported a secular state with a democratic orientation. The consultative assembly picked Wahid for the presidency; Mega, whose party won more seats in parliament than any other, became his vice president.

Frail and soon blind, beset by financial scandals, ethnic violence, and a weak economy, Wahid was impeached by the legislature; his place was taken by Mega. Facing her was the need to deal with ethnic separatism in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jayah, massive political corruption, and a moribund economy. She had only limited success. Jihad extremists, though lacking political power, have become violent in Indonesia, in one case killing hundreds of civilians, and radical Islamic schools, akin to the madrassas of Pakistan, now number well over 10,000. Corruption is rampant.

Under Mega, as under her predecessor, the Indonesians had one great advantage: they could remove her from office. This year there were new elections. In the first round—for parliament—Mega’s party lost support in a vigorous contest with many other parties; in the subsequent balloting for a new president, Susilio Bambang Yudhoyno, a former military general who once headed the security services, won decisively, for the first time replacing a sitting Indonesian president by means of a popular vote. The new president has promised pluralism, tolerance, and a vigorous program of economic revitalization. One can only hope for the best.


Turkey and Indonesia are Muslim nations but not Arab nations. Morocco is both Muslim and Arab. After many centuries during which authority had been vested chiefly in tribal leaders, and then 44 years as a French protectorate, Morocco became a self-governing nation in 1956. King Muhammad V, who took undisputed power with the end of French influence, received the full support of local Islamic leaders; his son King Hassan II, who assumed office in 1961, made it clear that he spoke for all of Islam, proclaiming himself a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

Thereafter, and until his death in 1999, Hassan, a playboy who had been predicted to last all of six months on the throne, played a powerful role, surviving two army plots, a left-wing revolution, the opposition of radical Muslim fundamentalists, and the hostility of Algeria and Libya. Repeated internal turmoil did not diminish Hassan’s commitment to religious liberty. Though Islam is the national religion, proselytizing was forbidden, Morocco’s large Jewish population was protected, and nothing like the reactionary Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia was allowed to take root within the country’s borders. Unlike Turkey, Morocco has never established formal diplomatic ties with Israel; but the king conferred in secret with Israeli leaders in the 1970’s and welcomed Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres to Rabat in 1986.

Hassan tried to give his monarchy a legitimate basis by means of what he called “Hassanian democracy.” Various draft constitutions were put to a vote, each receiving the somewhat suspicious support of well over 90 percent of the population; each authorized personal freedom and parliamentary rule while also granting the king the right to rule by decree in an emergency. One law threatened criminal prosecution for anyone publishing anything the king deemed personally offensive.

Despite these restrictions, domestic security improved, the status of women was enhanced, and radical Muslim fundamentalists were contained. The king once remarked that “true Islam is tolerant” because “tolerance is the touchstone of civilization.” In the 1990’s political freedoms were expanded as Hassan sought membership in the European Union. A fifth constitution, approved in 1996, led to generally free elections, with no party winning a clear majority.

Upon Hassan’s death, his son assumed the throne as Muhammad VI. Announcing that he supported economic liberalism, human rights, and individual freedom, the new ruler backed up his words by granting amnesty to thousands of prisoners and overseeing elections in 2002 that were generally regarded as free and fair. Morocco has been closely attached to the West. It is formally associated with the European Union. It was the first Arab state to condemn Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Freedom House calls today’s Morocco “partly free,” ranking it ahead of its neighboring Arab states of Algeria and Tunisia and just behind Indonesia and Turkey. In freedom of the press, Morocco scores well above its neighbors. A recent survey of the status of women finds their position greatly improved, with women serving in parliament and holding an increasing share of jobs.

The country is not, however, problem-free. The 2002 elections created a governing coalition consisting of socialist and conservative parties and, troublingly, an opposition led by an Islamist party. In 2003, Islamic radicals carried out suicide bombings in the city of Casablanca. (The king responded that his country would “never accept that Islam” can be used “for the satisfaction of ambitions [to] rule in the name of religion.”) But Morocco’s greatest problem is similar to that of almost all Muslim nations: how to create economic growth.


There are other Muslim or Muslim-dominated countries, including Mali and Senegal, that provide some respect for individual liberty. Kuwait has improved personal freedom since it was liberated from Iraqi rule. Even Pakistan has expanded press freedom, so that today it ranks, in the opinion of those who survey these matters, only slightly behind India.

What general conclusions can we draw from this brief survey? The first element that most of the freer Muslim countries have in common is the effort to detach religion from politics. This they have done by being secular (Turkey), by constraining Islamic leaders (Indonesia), or by having a ruler who combines religious tradition with secular rule (Morocco).

To do any of these things, one needs a powerful and decisive leader. No one reading an account of Atatürk or Hassan can fail to acknowledge the force of their personalities and the enduring loyalties they managed to command. So deeply did Sukarno implant the commitment to Indonesian nationalism as a key ingredient of his regime that his successor Suharto continued to embrace the same secular national ideology, complete with its emphasis on unity and religious tolerance. For years, any Indonesian political party, including religious ones, had to endorse this doctrine (called Pancasila) or risk being banned.

Separating religion from politics was the key to the development of liberal nations in the West, and it will be the key to the emergence of such states in the Muslim world. By contrast, the autocratic rulers of the Muslim Middle East have either installed theocratic leaders (Iran, the Taliban), or suppressed religious dissent without allowing political freedom (Egypt, Syria), or done both (Saudi Arabia).

Many people wonder whether, in this respect, Arab states differ essentially from non-Arab Muslim states. It is a good question, but I do not think we know the answer. Even what constitutes an “Arab state” is a bit ambiguous. A country can be called Arab if its people speak Arabic or are descended from inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula, or if its government is part of the Arab League. Twenty-four countries have Arabic as their official language. Among them are Morocco, which has made substantial progress toward liberalization, and Bahrain and Kuwait, which have made a bit of progress. These are, admittedly, more than matched by the autocratic regimes we find in Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. But the picture among non-Arab Muslim states is mixed as well: although Indonesia and Turkey have become reasonably free, against them one must set the mullah-controlled regime in non-Arab Iran.

Another conclusion concerns the role of the military. In nations with strong but not autocratic rulers (Turkey, Indonesia), the army has stood decisively for secular rule and opposed efforts to create an Islamist state; when fundamentalist parties arise, the military has usually shut them down, sometimes imprisoning their leaders. In a place like Pakistan, by contrast, the military has been divided and has on occasion supported Islamic claims; the same goes for Morocco, where the military sometimes launched ill-conceived attacks on King Hassan but at other times waged a successful battle against rebels in the Western Sahara supported by neighboring Algeria.

The tolerably liberal regimes have enjoyed still other advantages. For one thing, none of them has had to struggle against a significant ethnic minority demanding independence. Indonesia is overwhelmingly Muslim (except on Bali, a Hindu island known not for any desire for independence but for its happy inwardness). There are Kurds in Turkey with separatist views, but with the exception of a violent fringe they have not challenged the sovereignty of Ankara. In Morocco, some see a difference between Arabs and tribal Berbers; over the last decades, however, this has produced few major political quarrels.

In none of these three countries, moreover, are there significant conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims—for the simple reason that there are virtually no Shiites to be found in them. This offers a striking contrast to, say, Iraq and Pakistan.


Finally, it is important to note the continuing impact of the West on Muslim political systems, both for good and for ill. Socialism was embraced by Sukarno in Indonesia, which led to economic chaos and his replacement by Suharto. Fascism is the basis of the Baath parties in Syria and Iraq, and in the latter it provided the basis for the quarter-century rule of Saddam Hussein. Another Western idea, liberal democracy, became rooted in Turkey, though it has taken over a half-century to do.

But in most Muslim countries today, the chief rival to autocratic secular rule has been not Western ideologies but Islam. On a purely institutional level, it is not hard to see why. Islam is organized into mosques, and many of these support charitable and educational organizations that provide services reaching deep into the society. Political activism gathers around religion the way salt crystallizes along a string dangling in sea water.

The Protestant Reformation helped set the stage for religious and even political freedom in the West. Can something like that occur in Muslim nations? That is highly doubtful. There is neither a papacy nor a priesthood against which to rebel; nor are mosques comparable to churches in the Catholic sense of dispensing sacraments. There will never be a Muslim Martin Luther or a hereditary Islamic ruler who, by embracing a rival faith, can thereby create an opportunity for lay rule.

Thus, although there are moderate Islamic leaders, the best-known voices are those of the radicals, who use language ominously resembling that of Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolutionary who captured Iran from the Shah. Abdessalam Yassine, described by some as the major Moroccan political alternative to King Muhammad VI, wants to create an “Islamic democracy” in which governance would be entrusted to “the wise, not the sly.” Rachid Ghannouchi, an exiled Tunisian leader, says he hopes somehow to preserve the Muslim faith while allowing personal freedom.

But Ghannouchi also decries the Western freedom that has produced “greed, deception, and brutality” and that believes in no “absolute value that transcends the will of man.” To him, a free man should be “God’s vice-regent.” Many religiously inspired Westerners might agree with this in a metaphoric sense, but the historical lesson of the liberal West is that freedom trumps absolute values. This creates a problem Ghannouchi cannot solve.

As I have noted, political freedom in the West emerged out of a centuries-long struggle between the Church and its religious opponents. Tolerance slowly emerged as the only feasible alternative to intra-religious conflict. After many centuries, such religious tolerance was converted into secular rule in England, France, Germany, and Scandinavia. It may therefore take a long time before the proponents of “Islamic democracy,” whatever that slippery term means, abandon their efforts and realize that no nation can be governed effectively simply on the basis of Islamic law.


How does all this relate to Iraq? Like Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, Iraq was created by European mapmakers after World War I. The borders of the new nation corresponded somewhat to those of Mesopotamia, a region once called the cradle of civilization. But when Iraq was created, as Margaret MacMillan points out in Paris 1919, a history of map-making after World War I, “there was no Iraqi people.” There was also “no Iraqi nationalism, only Arab.” The population was deeply divided, with Basra oriented toward India, Baghdad toward Persia, and Mosul toward Turkey. Creating one nation in that place was akin to creating Yugoslavia after World War II. It could only be done by a powerful ruler, like Tito.

Great Britain tried twice to bring strong central government to Iraq, and both times it failed. In the 1920’s the British army occupied the country; when that became too costly, the British withdrew, leaving behind a constitution that empowered King Faisal. When Faisal died and his son could not manage affairs, the country splintered along ethnic lines. Civil war erupted, with military officers emerging as heroes. By the 1930’s, the army controlled politics.

At the beginning of World War II the British Army once again occupied Iraq, in order to prevent Baghdad from forming an alliance with Adolf Hitler that would have jeopardized access to Iraqi oil. Britain also wanted to prevent the creation of an anti-British barrier between Egypt and India. This time the army stayed for seven years, ending with a failed effort to create a successful constitutional monarchy. As soon as its troops departed, the Iraqi army took power and initiated a reign that did not end until the American invasion last year.

Our chances of leaving an enduring legacy of freedom in Iraq are therefore uncertain. But uncertain does not mean impossible. An opinion poll taken in April 2004 suggests that, at least in principle, the Iraqi people do support liberal and democratic government. About 40 percent want a multiparty democracy like that found in most European nations, while only about 13 percent say they would prefer a theocracy of the sort found in Iran.

To be sure, support for a parliamentary democracy is unevenly distributed. Those who live in heavily Shiite areas are about as likely to want a theocracy as a democracy, while in the Sunni areas, where our troops have experienced the most attacks, and where the once-dominant but heavily outnumbered Sunnis fear majority Shiite rule, a parliamentary system is the most popular choice.

The good news is that, as compared with support for democracy, support for a liberal regime is very broad. Over 90 percent want free speech, about three-fourths want freedom of religion, and over three-fourths favor free assembly. Freedom is more important than democracy—a fact that might well have been true in America and England in the 18th century.

And here is where an important lesson lurks for us. Scholars at the RAND corporation have studied America’s efforts at nation-building in the last half-century, ranging from our successes (Germany and Japan) to our failures (Haiti and Somalia) and to all the uncertain outcomes in-between (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo). One of the most important things we should have learned, they conclude, is that “while staying long does not guarantee success, leaving early ensures failure.”

In order for freedom to have a chance of developing in Iraq, we must be patient as well as strong. It would be an unmitigated disaster to leave too early. Our Iraqi supporters would be crushed, terrorists and Islamic radicals would have won, and our own struggle and sacrifices would have been for naught.

Liberalism and democracy would bring immeasurable gains to Iraq, and through Iraq to the Middle East as a whole. So far, the country lacks what has helped other Muslim nations make the change—a remarkably skilled and powerful leader, a strong army devoted to secular rule, an absence of ethnic conflict. If we may nevertheless be cautiously optimistic, it is because of the hope that we will indeed stay there as long as we are needed.


About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.