Catholicism's Lessons for Islam

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In 2008, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) narrowly missed being outlawed. State prosecutors argued that the conservative AKP—whose official platform includes economic modernization and EU membership—was bent on Islamizing the secular state and moving toward theocracy. Some may see the AKP as the model of a Muslim party, appealing to believers while playing by democracy’s rules, but many others within Turkey and elsewhere continue to fear that Islam and democracy are incompatible.

Concerns that religion and democracy do not mix aren’t new, writes Princeton political theorist Jan-Werner Müller, nor are they confined to Islam. In the 19th century and far into the 20th, Catholicism was the big worry. Many blamed Catholicism for “the persistence of dictatorship in Latin America and on the Iberian Peninsula” and believed that Catholic citizens’ deepest loyalties lay with the Vatican. (Memorably, this was a big issue for Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960.) Yet in the latter half of the 20th century, Christian Democratic parties (generally Catholic-based) informed by “select doctrinal values” but respectful of the church-state divide flourished in Western Europe and to an extent in Latin America. Couldn’t Islam chart a similar course?
Many in the West object that this analogy is false. Some argue that European Catholics only embraced democracy on orders from the Vatican—and Muslims have no similar central institution. Others hold that the character of Christian Democratic ideas wasn’t any more instrumental in Catholics’ eventual political integration than a “specifically Muslim style of democracy” might be, because it is “the structure of democratic inclusion, not the distinctive ideas that inform it, that leads to moderation.”
Don’t be so fast to dismiss the Catholic parallel, says Müller. First, Europe’s newly formed Christian Democratic parties were hardly puppets of the Vatican, which often did not approve of their creation, control their leadership, or condone their left-veering programs. The Vatican endorsed democracy “only after decades of Christian Democratic practice.”
Instead, Müller argues, Christian doctrine did indeed inspire Catholicism’s turn toward democracy. The ideas of French philosopher Jacques Maritain provide one good example. Beginning in the 1930s, he developed an array of arguments that embraced democracy and human rights as Christian ideals. Though Christian Democracy’s “astounding electoral successes” owed a lot to its firm anticommunist stance and other factors, they were aided by an ideology that tacked between believers’ spiritual values and nonbelievers’ need for “assurance that religiously inspired parties would not abandon state neutrality in religious affairs once in power.”
Whether such a path is available to Islam is an open question, Müller concedes. What the Catholic example does show is that “the formation of some liberalized Islam by self-consciously moderate and democratic Muslim intellectuals should not be seen as a sideshow.” Debates among Muslims about the role of sharia in state law and the thinking of such polarizing figures as scholar Tariq Ramadan may cause alarm, but they are important for developing a hospitable foundation for democracy. And in entering the push-and-pull democratic arena, Muslim parties will inevitably be forced to adapt religious precepts and traditions, Müller argues, a fact that “blanket condemnations of Islam as incompatible with democracy overlook.”
Photo credit: miqul via flickr


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