Paul D. Miller, a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University, has argued in a recent essay in Christianity Today that Christianity is not necessary for democracy. Miller challenges “conservative evangelicals” who believe that “Christianity is necessary for a free society.” While admitting that Christianity played a significant role in inspiring America’s founding principles, Miller gives examples of non-Christian or fairly new Christian democratic societies to make the point that “Christianity and democracy are indeed separable.”
In response to Miller’s compelling essay, Trey Dimsdale presents a powerful rebuttal, highlighting significant concerns regarding Miller’s use of terminology. Dimsdale rightfully points out the confusing and inconsistent manner in which Miller employs terms such as “democracy” and “free society.” This inconsistency extends beyond semantics but points to a troubling trend as evidence indicates that not all democracies guarantee individual freedoms. In other words, the mere existence of electoral democracy does not automatically ensure the protection of individual liberties. Dimsdale further argues that Britain and France “imported” (or exported?) Christianity and democracy to their colonies and “the presence of any democratic institutions [in former colonies] points toward an essential link between the two [Christianity].”
Dimsdale also admits that there are some non-Christian or newly Christian parts of the world where human freedom is valued. He insists, however, that those parts have “absorbed Christian ideas into their religious and political systems naturally, by proximity, or by force merely by adopting democratic principles.”
The notion that colonizers disseminated democratic ideals fails to acknowledge the mechanisms employed by these powers to sustain their authority and subdue indigenous populations. For example, the British Empire’s civilizing mission was “reformist” in its claims, but in practice it was “brutal.” The violence took the form of “electric shock, fecal and water torture, castration … sodomy with broken bottles and vermin; forced marches through landmines; shin screwing.” Violence in the empire was not just an occasional means to liberal imperialism’s end; rather, it was “a means and an end for as long as the British Empire remained alive.” It would be naive to think that the colonizers were deliberately introducing Christian ideas or developing democratic institutions in the “Heart of Darkness.”
Moreover, while it is crucial to engage in discussions about the influence of religious concepts on the development of the modern world, it is troubling to limit the “importation” of individual freedom and the rule of law exclusively to a particular religious tradition. Embracing such reductionist approaches is not only ahistorical but also detrimentally undermines the pursuit of human freedom.
A Novel Idea
For all humans, and not just Christians, liberty is the highest ideal and democracy the form of government that best affords liberty by recognizing the dignity of every individual. The ideas of liberty and individual dignity cannot be ascribed exclusively to Christianity—or for that matter to any other religion—as they are inherent in human nature. In short, they are what it means to be human.
Ibn Tufayl, a 12th-century Arab Andalusian philosopher, known for writing the first philosophical novel, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān(Alive, the Son of the Awake), noted that it is in the very nature of humans to reach enlightenment through objective inquiry rather than merely their respective belief system or cultural lens. The protagonist, Hayy ibn Yaqzān, lives out the main idea of the novel, which is that true knowledge can be acquired through the process of reasoning and contemplation. Hayy’s extraordinary tale commences on a magnificent island in India, blessed with a climate of utmost harmony and perfection. Flourishing with exquisite flora and fauna, this island became the backdrop for the emergence of the first human, a baby boy named Hayy ibn Yaqzān.
The author presents two intriguing theories about Hayy’s origin. The first suggests that individuals could come into existence on this island through spontaneous means, without the involvement of parents. The second theory narrates the tale of a concerned princess from a neighboring island, who, like the biblical Moses, entrusted her baby to the sea in hopes of securing his safety on foreign shores. Regardless of his arrival, Hayy embarks on a solitary journey, finding solace in the care and nurture of a kindhearted gazelle aptly named “Mother the Roe.” As he grew up, he used his reason and observation to understand the working of nature, which ultimately enabled him to understand the principles of science, mathematics, and philosophy on his own.
It is important to note that such Enlightenment philosophers as Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and John Locke were all admirers of Ibn Tufayl’s work. Translated into Latin and English during the 17th century, the novel’s impact extended far beyond its immediate context, shaping the broader understanding of human reason and fostering intellectual progress during this era.
Notions of liberty and democracy are the outcome of human reason but, of course, various religious traditions like Christianity played an important role in their dissemination, as Miller notes in his Christianity Today article. However, these ideals cannot be labeled merely as Christian or Muslim. Doing so will seriously undermine their scope and character and provoke another “Clash of Civilizations”—the idea that one civilization alone promoted the idea of human dignity while all others oppose it.
Is There Room for Liberty in Islam?
The current state of democracy and freedom in the Muslim world presents a deeply concerning picture. Out of the 50 Muslim-majority countries in the world, only a small number can be classified as electoral democracies. A recent Freedom House report reveals that while 60% of countries worldwide are considered to be democratic, only 14% of Muslim countries have achieved democratization. Similarly, most authoritarian Muslim governments have strict blasphemy laws to suppress critique and control the public discourse. Thirty-two Muslim-majority countries out of 71 criminalize blasphemy. Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, and Saudi Arabia have the strictest laws—i.e., capital punishment. These facts and figures lead us to a more serious and precise question: Is Islam inherently anti-democracy and anti-secularism?
Khaled Abou El Fadl notes that Islam does not offer any specific system of governance; rather, it demands certain values to be institutionalized as central to any Muslim polity. There are primarily three values described in the Qur’an: “pursuing justice through social cooperation and mutual assistance (49:13, 11:119); establishing a nonautocratic, consultative method of governance; and institutionalizing mercy and compassion in social interactions (6:12, 6:54, 21:107, 27:77, 29:51, 45:20).” In the contemporary world, democracy is the only system in which justice and the promotion of human dignity can credibly be established.
The Muslim Golden Age, spanning from the eighth to the 11th centuries, stands as a testament to the compatibility of Islam with individual freedom and entrepreneurship and offers a compelling demonstration of how Islamic principles laid the foundation for a transformative era. During this period, Muslim societies flourished, giving rise to renowned philosophers, merchants, and revolutionary advancements in agriculture. Moreover, numerous Western scholars acknowledge the significant contributions of early Muslim financial innovations to the emergence of modern capitalism.
During this period, it is worth noting that Western Christian countries witnessed a notable alignment between the Catholic Church and monarchy. In these regions, the enforcement of religious orthodoxy and intolerance were prevalent. In the words of Ahmet Kuru, Western Europe “had neither a philosopher like Ibn Sina, nor a city like Baghdad, nor its own gold coin.”
This discussion leads to a more pertinent question: What happened to the Muslim Golden Age and these formative phases of philosophical inquiry, liberty, and capitalism?
Human experience shows that individuals and societies grow if they are open and free. John Stuart Mill rightly noted that “a state which dwarfs its men in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes—will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.” Early Muslim civilization offered space for the evolution of philosophy and creative theology that ultimately contributed to the well-being of society.
Ahmet Kuru argues in his most celebrated book, Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison, that during the Muslim Golden Age, there was “a certain degree” of separation between the ulema (religious class) and the state (the political class) that made it relatively more open and conducive to human development. Most ulema did not work for the government; instead, they were either involved in nongovernmental jobs or commerce. This led, in Kuru’s view, to the creation of a religiously and philosophically diverse society where Muslims, Christians, and Jews “contributed to economic and scientific development during that period.”
However, over time, notes Kuru, owing to certain structural and economic changes, the Muslim world began to see the emergence of a symbiotic alliance between the state and ulema that stifled creativity and dynamism. Kuru insists that this alliance legitimized regressive interpretations of Islam and is responsible for the unnatural notions of Islam that continue to this day. For example, the presence of blasphemy laws, restrictions on women’s mobility, and claims that music, photos, and art are haram (forbidden) do not present Islam as a religion of peace and love that expands human freedom. The reason such controlling and oppressive notions of Islam continue to exist is to legitimize the rule of unrepresentative dictators and their allies—i.e., power-hungry ulema.
In reality, as the experience of early Muslims reflects, Islam arrived as a liberating force. It advocated justice, the promotion of human dignity, and creativity. The Qur’an clearly states that “God commands justice and beauty” (Q 16:90), which means anything that is not beautiful is contrary to Islam and its teachings. It also implies that violations of human rights; disregard for privacy, personal property, and justice; or any other ugly thinking or actions are not Islamic.
The Qur’an and the experience of the early Muslims does not make what are essentially universal human values exclusively Islamic, just as the subsequent development of the same values in the Western world does not make them exclusively Christian. It also needs to be understood that if we ascribe universal human values to a particular religion, we may be unwittingly diminishing their utility and making them appear foreign and partisan, potentially engineering conflict.
In the face of rising populism and far-right movements, we need to reframe the narrative from a “Clash of Civilizations” to a “Conversation of Civilizations,” and ultimately to the “Cooperation of Civilizations.” I do believe that as much as there is a need to explain Islam, or Islamic Civilization, to the West, there is an equal, or arguably greater, need that Western civilization be explained to the world of Islam. Common ground must be explored between the two instead of merely competing interests so that instead of a Clash there is a Conversation, Cooperation, and Coexistence of Civilizations. The promotion of individual liberty, human dignity, and religious pluralism is certainly that common ground.