Are Islam and Liberal Democracy Compatible?
Religion & Liberty Online

Are Islam and Liberal Democracy Compatible?

This was the topic of our latest Campus Martius discussion group at the Istituto Acton office in Rome. Our guest speaker was law professor David Forte, who presented some of the challenges in furthering liberal democracy in Muslim-majority countries.

Having studied and spoken on Islamic law for many years, Prof. Forte is no extremist on the question and had been generally optimistic about the democratization of the Muslim world. In the wake of the “Arab spring” and increasing persecution of Christians and other minorities in Muslim countries, he now calls himself a “cautious pessimist.” For his explanation, go to this Zenit Rome Notes feature by Edward Pentin. It’s especially noteworthy that “lapsed Catholics” (i.e., the vast majority of Catholics in the West) are considered ripe for conversions by Islamists; the same can indeed be said of “lapsed liberals,” as I will explain.

During his Acton talk, Forte first explained how the Catholic Church came to accept, appreciate and has now become the greatest defender of liberal democracy. Christianity has lived under several different theological-political arrangements, such as those of the two realms, strict separation of Church and State, theocracy and caesaropapism. Forte clearly favored the first of these, arguing that it is both the most respectful and realistic way of looking at the interaction between the City of God and the City of Man. (Not incidentally, it preceded the modern notion of absolute state sovereignty over a particular territory.)

Forte said that there are a number of resources within the Islamic legal tradition that can be recalled to support some form of similar accommodation between a liberal society that places the highest premium on individual freedom and the Islamic understanding of virtue. He also thinks that Christianity and the liberal West both have interests and moral responsibilities to help Islam along this path.

As a non-expert in Islamic law and history, I am in no position to judge Forte’s claims. Anyone who follows the news should, however, be at least as “cautiously pessimistic” as Forte is. Anyone who takes religion and politics seriously, for that matter, should realize that the liberalization of the Islamic world will not be an easy task, but difficult does mean impossible or not worth the effort. In fact, the despair about the entire project reveals as much about the West as it does about the nature of Islam.

Take a look at this National Review article on the spread of Sharia law in the West, for instance (H/T to Sam Gregg). The idea that the rule of law in liberal societies should not apply to Muslims reveals the incoherency of multiculturalism, which is a particular weakness of the liberal West. It’s as if we were just born liberal, instead of having to become so, to paraphrase Tocqueville’s comparison of democratic equality in America and Europe. But liberalism requires defenders against its enemies, and today its enemies are as much the multiculturalists within as the Islamists without.

We liberals often pride ourselves on our “niceness” and tolerance. There is much to be said for not criminalizing (or worse) all differences of opinion and living with these differences in a peaceful way. And it bears repeating that a commercial society allows people of different faiths and beliefs to work and trade with each other, bringing them together in ways that would not have otherwise been possible. But what happens when that same “niceness” blinds us to the superiority of liberalism over its alternatives and leaves us defenseless against more strident claims from those alternatives? What happens when we say that “others” are not capable of living with the same freedoms that we enjoy, as many now say about the Muslim world?

One remedy to this lack of political and intellectual spiritedness may be found in the beginning of Forte’s talk: just how did Christianity and liberalism come to live with each other? There has been and will be no shortage of tensions between the two, as the recent fight over the Obamacare mandate on religious institutions has shown. But once we understand that the tensions are at times inevitable and must be faced directly, perhaps we will have more credibility when we tell others how to do so. And who knows, we may even find that our way of life is actually worth living and defending.

UPDATE: I should have called attention to this New York Times op-ed by our friend and Acton University lecturer Mustafa Akyol.

He contrasts liberalism with democracy, which I would not do, and probably should distinguish between Islamists and other Muslims, as this piece does. But he makes many good points that need to be addressed. He does neglect to mention, however, that the West did regulate things like alcohol sales, public morality on TV and the like not so long ago, on Christian grounds; these laws have generally been repealed not out of any acknowledgment of the “freedom to sin” by Christians but out of a loss of the sense of sin itself. The widespread acceptance of homosexual practice and now “marriage” in the West is yet another sign of this trend.

The problem for both Christianity and Islam with liberalism is connected with the subjective nature of the good that liberalism tends to promote. If the good is merely subjective to the individual, what kind of claim will it hold over even him eventually? Will it not result in more lapsed Catholics and lapsed Muslims? Furthermore, shouldn’t serious Catholics and Muslims be concerned about losing souls other than their own, or is salvation now a purely individual matter?

Kishore Jayabalan

Kishore Jayabalan is director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute's Rome office. Formerly, he worked for the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as the lead policy analyst on sustainable development and arms control. Kishore Jayabalan earned a B.A. in political science and economics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In college, he was executive editor of The Michigan Review and an economic policy intern for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He worked as an international economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C. and then graduated with an M.A. in political science from the University of Toronto. While in Toronto, Kishore interned in the university's Newman Centre, which led to his appointment to the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York. Two years later, he returned to Rome to work for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as the Holy See's lead policy analyst on sustainable development and arms control. As director of Istituto Acton, Kishore organizes the institute's educational and outreach efforts in Rome and throughout Europe.