The Men of One Book
What is a Muslim democracy?
To the globalist, liberal intelligentsia in the West, it is the inevitable future of the Middle East. Once pesky things like sectarianism, culture, and primitive economic systems are (somehow) sorted out, they proclaim, market-based, secular societies will soon turn the Islamic world into an Arab United States.
To individuals skeptical of utopia and conscious of history, however, there is nothing inevitable about this change in direction. In fact, there’s nothing remotely likely about it. To many of them, “Muslim democracy” is a contradiction in terms by Islam’s own definitions.
We must always be wary of grand, inevitable predictions because they’re almost inevitably wrong—sometimes catastrophically so. Histories written at any time, on any continent, reveal Man’s love for drawing up great visions of a universe capable of fitting neatly in his thimble-sized mind. The only thing that can match the imagination of his predictions is his knack for getting them totally wrong. World history is a messy, complicated affair painted in crude, simple speech; yet Man’s prophecies are orderly, precise things drafted in august prose.
But sometimes these predictions fail at a rate that surprises even the most hardened skeptics, such as the late Arab Spring, a pipe dream conjured up in 2010 by Western hopefuls who swore they could see democracy flourishing in Egypt if they squinted hard enough.
Of course, those dreams were crushed under the Islamist boots of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, instituting a reign of terror, sparking civil wars and inspiring terrorist factions to action. Western observers were correct to identify it as the end of an era in the Middle East. What they incorrectly saw as budding democracies, however, was instead a return to the past.
The Islamic world was not robbed of its shot at democracy; it judged Western governments and found them wanting. Instead it chose to re-embrace traditional Islam in its many shades and hues. This should not surprise anyone familiar with Muslim history. For fifteen centuries Muslims have rejected Western institutions on the grounds that non-Muslim ideas and creations are by nature inferior to those of Islam.
That is no exaggeration. One of the consistent hallmarks of Islamic empires is a deep-seated suspicion of foreign inventions, overcome only when their (usually martial) qualities held unmistakable value to Mahomedan rulers.
Even the adoption of Western firearms by Ottoman sultans was treated with extreme dubiety by theologians and warriors alike, who held that no thing created by infidel hands can produce much good for devout Muslims. This was largely true of Arabs, Turks, Afghans, and Persians — peoples united only by their common religion. As late as the 19th century a European traveler observed,
“A Turk will concede without hesitation that the Europeans are superior to his nation in science, skill, wealth, daring and strength, without its ever occurring to him that a Frank [a European] might therefore put himself on a par with a Muslim.”
It should be noted that these were not medievals, but the haut monde elites of the most powerful, sophisticated, and affluent Muslim state in history. Ottoman Turkey in the 19th century may have been prodding at the limits of mortality, but in absolute terms its armies were far more deadly than those which conquered the last Romans in 1453.
So too was it in its most Westernized condition. A European-style constitution would follow in 1876, and like the Japanese of the same period the Ottoman Turks recognized the value of flooding European cities with young Muslim students eager to study the latest innovations in shipbuilding, gunnery, science, and medicine.
Compared to the paltry warlord states which dot the Middle East in our day, Western observers in the 19th century can perhaps be forgiven for believing Islam to be a dying force in the Ottoman world as modern nationalism and secularism found patrons in the palaces of Istanbul. They soon discovered, however, that ideas of liberal democracy found almost no following outside of the Ottoman elite. Westernization was a top-down failure.
Two generations after Turkish sultans imposed such policies upon the empire, it had generated only a small, educated, liberal upper class and little else. Average Muslims did not become the heirs of Locke and Montesquieu, nor of John Calvin and Martin Luther; they rejected them out of hand. Where it took root were in the Christian cultures of Greece and the Balkans, which eagerly adopted nationalist ideas from their Turkish masters and quickly revolted against Istanbul — hardly the outcome the Turks envisioned.
A century after the death of the Ottoman Empire, Western liberals continue to augur about Muslim democracy without recognizing one of the key reasons Muslim states have consistently rejected it: democracy as we understand it is foreign to Islam. That’s not to say Muslims cannot participate in democracies.
Rather it is a concept with no clear definition in their religion. Muslim theological thought is not confined to theology, after all — it is also fundamentally political. Islam has no central church, nor a true clergy (imams are religious teachers, not ordained priests).
This is by design. Muslim political leaders are intended to be religious heads as well as earthly princes, and the caliph is the ultimate fusion of theocratic and political power. This has no parallel in the West, where from the start Christianity established a place for secular institutions to operate alongside the Christian church.
It does no one any good to continue thrusting Western expectations on peoples which are decidedly non-Western. Their perpetual rejection is not born of ignorance. The Prophet Muhammad was born in an Arabia very much aware of pagan Romans, Greeks, Jews, and Christians; for centuries Arabs had traded with and contracted as mercenaries for Western powers. Islam was arguably created in opposition to Western Christendom and Judaism, an Arab religion for Arabs.
Even when the religion changed course and borrowed Christianity’s universal claims it almost immediately entered into a war of Christian conquest, not fraternity, and it didn’t halt for one thousand years.
The Islamic world did not discover the West in its adolescence — it rejected it from birth. We would do well to remember this when academic dreamers forecast the next wave of so-called “Muslim democracies,” for whoever emerges to rule them will almost certainly be men of one book: the Qur’an.