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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Can Islam Accommodate Democracy Or Democracy Accommodate Islam?

The excerpts are from a paper read by Benjamin R Barber at the Istanbul Seminars organized by Reset Dialogues on Civilizations in Istanbul from June 2nd to the 6th 2008. He is the Kekst Professor of Civil Society at the University of Maryland and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos in New York City.


Like Christianity and other religions, Islam is a religion practiced in many cultures and societies, sectarian, stratified, schismatic and pluralistic. We Christians speak easily of Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists, Mormons, Pentacostals, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Mennonites, Jehovah’s witnesses, Dutch Reformed, Greek Orthodox, Unitarians, Christian Scientists, Universalists, Evangelicals – 200 sects or more – while Thomas Jefferson said “I myself am a sect”! But we find it hard to comprehend that Muslims are also sectarians and schismatics whose religion looks different culture by culture and society by society. Only around 15% of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are Arabs but it’s hard to tell how many Westerners know that by far the largest proportion of Muslims reside in India and Indonesia.


Nor can freedom be given to others; it must be won by those who seek it from the inside. And for them to establish it, it must be constructed bottom up not top down. First educate citizens and do the hard slow work of making a civil society; then build a political infrastructure on top of it. The Americans had a hundred years of experience with municipal liberty and citizen competence before they declared independence. Democracy takes time. The Swiss began in 1291 and gave women the vote only in 1961. The British grounded rights in a Magna Carta in 1215 and fought a Glorious Revolution in 1688 and are still saddled with a House of Lords and a monarchy. The Americans spent the first 80 years of their young Republic trying to figure out how to separate it from slavery, which they ultimately achieved only by dint of a bloody civil war. Yet pessimists expect Iran to get it right in two or three years, while optimists think Iraq needs only another six months.

If patience is required and democracy is built bottom up, then elections come last not first. The rush to vote is generally a sign that the ground for democracy has not been prepared; and when voting occurs in the absence of educated and competent citizens, we can be sure that the prospects for liberty and justice are poor. First come schools, civic education, autonomous civic institutions, and plural civil associations. Then come elections. In helping to enrich and extend civil society, religion can help build a foundation for democratic governance.


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