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Islam and Pluralism

There is a thought-provoking article by Reza Aslan in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education. Entitled "From Islam, Pluralist Democracies Will Surely Grow," the article asserts that "it is pluralism, not secularism, that defines democracy," that "Islam has had a long commitment to religious pluralism," and that democratic change is therefore not as unreachable a goal as some might think.

Aslan is worth quoting at length:

For most of the Western world, September 11, 2001, signaled the commencement of a worldwide struggle between Islam and the West -- the ultimate manifestation of the clash of civilizations. From the Islamic perspective, however, the attacks on New York and Washington were part of a continuing clash between those Muslims who strive to reconcile their religious values with the realities of the modern world, and those who react to modernism and reform by reverting -- sometimes fanatically -- to the "fundamentals" of their faith. ...
When politicians speak of bringing democracy to the Middle East, they mean specifically an American secular democracy, not an indigenous Islamic one.
There exists a philosophical dispute in the Western world with regard to the concept of Islamic democracy: that is, that there can be no a priori moral framework in a modern democracy; that the foundation of a genuinely democratic society must be secularism. The problem with that argument, however, is that it not only fails to recognize the inherently moral foundation upon which a large number of modern democracies are built, but also, more important, fails to appreciate the difference between secularism and secularization.

Clearly, if the Western world itself had to wait for full and complete secularism in order to achieve even a modicum of freedom, it would still be waiting. But it is a key point, I think, to insist that the secularization of the Western mind took centuries and that such secularization has been a key ingredient in the evolution toward free insitutions. Aslan continues:

As the Protestant theologian Harvey Cox notes, secularization is the process by which "certain responsibilities pass from ecclesiastical to political authorities," whereas secularism is an ideology based on the eradication of religion from public life. Turkey is a secular country in which outward signs of religiosity, such as the hijab, are forcibly suppressed. With regard to ideological resolve, one could argue that there is little that separates a secular country like Turkey from a religious country like Iran; both ideologize society. It is pluralism, not secularism, that defines democracy. A democratic state can be established upon any normative moral framework as long as pluralism remains the source of its legitimacy.

I take certain issue with some of these claims, especially since the "normative moral framework" of an "Islamic democracy" might "force the rights of the community to prevail over the rights of the individual," when the individual's behavior (e.g., drinking or gambling) goes against "Quranic commandments." Alas, if prohibitions on drinking or gambling were the only thing to worry about from within the Islamic world, then it would not be much worse than old Sunday Blue Laws or gambling prohibitions in New York State. Still, I find this nexus of rights, pluralism, and secularization to be persuasive:

... neither human rights nor pluralism is the result of secularization; they are its root cause. Consequently, any democratic society -- Islamic or otherwise -- dedicated to the principles of pluralism and human rights must dedicate itself to following the unavoidable path toward political secularization.

Aslan thinks there is a certain inevitability in the democratic-pluralistic developments in the Muslim Middle East, but I'm not so sure. "It will take many more [years] to cleanse Islam of its new false idols -- bigotry and fanaticism -- worshiped by those who have replaced Muhammad's original vision of tolerance and unity with their own ideals of hatred and discord. But the cleansing is inevitable, and the tide of reform cannot be stopped. The Islamic Reformation is already here. We are all living in it," Aslan writes.

How might the United States encourage this kind of political secularization? It's one thing to introduce procedural democratic rules into countries like post-Hussein Iraq. But it's quite another to actually achieve some sort of liberal democracy, because, as Aslan suggests, political secularization is crucial to that achievement. There are hopeful signs that this process is underway in such countries as Iran, for example. But there is something to be said about a "laissez faire" U.S. approach to Iran under these highly volatile conditions. As Stephen Kinzer writes in "Clouds Over Iran," in the current issue of The New York Review of Books:

One of my Iranian friends, a graduate student in his twenties, recently wrote this to me: "The US government is helping Iran's government with its continuing hostility.... Every time the State Department or White House speaks about human rights conditions in Iran, our government uses this against reformers. It says that reformers are supported by the United States. Many reformers are in jail because of these accusations. Many newspapers have been closed. The United States should be concerned about Iran's problems, but this policy is hurting the reform movement. Non-intervention is the best help the United States can give to Iran's people." ...
There is every possibility that in time, Iran will return to the democratic course from which the United States so violently forced it in 1953. If Americans allow events there to proceed at their own pace, they will finally see the result for which they hope. It is also the result most Iranians want: an Iran that respects the will of its people and helps to stabilize a dangerously unstable region. ... Seeking to destabilize [Iran] will intensify its leaders' sense of isolation. Attacking it will turn its remarkably pro-American population into America-haters once again. Military intervention could set off a wave of patriotic indignation that will solidify the mullahs' regime rather than weaken it, and would probably set the cause of democracy back a generation. "Regime change" would probably not even turn Iran off its nuclear course, since most Iranians of all persuasions agree that their country has at least as much right to nuclear power as Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea. Treating Iran as a member of the world community with its own set of reasonable hopes and fears, however, might lead it toward responsibility, peace with its neighbors, and perhaps even democracy.

Alas, this might be wishful thinking. But it is certainly in keeping with many of my own observations (archived here) about the delicate evolution toward liberal democracy and cultural secularization that is required not only in Iran, but throughout the Middle East.

Cross-posted to L&P, where readers may leave comments. Comments can be read here, here, and here.