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  • Islam and Liberal DemocracyThe Limits Of The Western Model
  • Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi (bio)

Robin Wright and Bernard Lewis have a number of sensible and positive things to say about what might be called the “democratic credentials” of Islam. To their credit, both seem to recognize that Islam is not necessarily opposed to representative and accountable government. I begin with these words of praise in order to situate my criticism of their essays in its proper context. My goal is not to diminish their work, but to broaden understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially the non-Muslims of the West.

While Wright does not define democracy, Lewis pithily describes it as “a polity where the government can be changed by elections as opposed to one where elections are changed by the government.” I accept this definition without reservation. The problem is that Westerners tend to associate this definition with their own model of democracy, which is difficult to accept universally. It is often deemed dangerous to question Western democracy for fear of being labeled an antidemocrat; still, at least half of the world’s population does not adhere to this democratic model. Is it unreasonable to wonder if this suggests problems with the Western model itself?

Western intellectuals should take more seriously than they do the possibility that there are limitations to their brand of democracy. Consider the ever-increasing role that money plays in determining who can run for public office in the United States, let alone who can win. Money is so important in U.S. politics that it may in fact have more influence than the people themselves in choosing those who govern. Or [End Page 81] consider in how many countries Western democracy has failed to prevent racism toward blacks, or anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism, in fact, is a European product that could never have come about in the Islamic world, which is built on belief in the three main messengers of divine revelation—Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, peace be upon them.

Although most Western writers speak of democracy as a universal set of values, Western deeds tell a very different story. The French, for instance, behave democratically in France itself, but not in Algeria, where they have committed some of this blood-drenched century’s most horrific atrocities. This has also been the case with the U.S. government’s policies in parts of Central America and the Muslim world.

Nor are Western inconsistencies all that dampen the Western democratic model’s appeal. Not all societies stand to benefit from a multiparty system, for in some circumstances such pluralism might only serve to deepen existing tribal or sectarian divisions (Rwanda, the Sudan, Liberia, and even Lebanon come to mind). It is also questionable whether the rule of 51 percent is a workable solution for many African and Asian societies, which need the efforts of all political groups, not only the one that gains victory in an election.

On certain moral questions, moreover, Western democracy appears—not just to outside critics but to many Westerners—to be running amok. It is hard to see why lax Western mores that weaken or destroy the family—that most crucial of all social institutions—should be exported to the rest of the world under the banner of democracy. Indeed, I cannot foresee any Islamic country under any circumstances accepting certain social practices that until recently were not generally accepted in the West either, but have now become common there.

There is no chance for a constructive dialogue among cultures and civilizations as long as those who dominate public discourse in the West continue to see themselves as the upholders of political and moral standards for the entire world. Unfortunately, a bit of this self-satisfaction is discernible in the way in which Wright and Lewis insist on comparing tendencies of thought in the Islamic world today to the Reformation in Christian Europe five centuries ago. This fails to account for the huge differences in concepts and movements, and drives home the point that only by seeing the limitations of their own standards can Westerners look more positively and objectively at the histories and cultures of other peoples.


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pp. 81-85
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