The delay in the Iraqi constitutional process may be the most telling event yet when it comes to the possibility of democracy in the Middle East. According to major news sources, the reason for delay was the inability of the Iraqi national assembly to achieve a compromise on a variety of issues, some of which focused on how certain tenants of Islam would function in the constitutional architecture. Questions about the tension between democracy and religion are nothing new. Nonetheless, given that Iraq will be born of the descendents of Ishmael instead of those of Isaac, the subject at least deserves another look.
Democracy was not an immaculate conception. It was born through harsh argument and tough compromise–not unlike what’s happening in the Iraqi assembly at this very moment. When one looks at any of the more recent democracies, whether they are in Russia or the Eastern Bloc, the question inevitably returns to the place of genesis of modern democracy–the United States. And any analysis of the United States at some point should turn to its most astute observer–Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville is especially pertinent for contemporary questions because he did not restrict his thought to America, as the title of his most famous work Democracy in America would suggest, but turned to other cultures as well–most notably of which is Islam.
Tocqueville believed that Founders sought to restrain religion, at least to some degree. Extreme religious beliefs, due to the fervor with which they are held, prevented compromise, which was a key component of the political process. As such, religion was relegated to a separate sphere so that politics could function properly–hence the division between Church and State. However, as modern scholars have noted, the Founders did not intend to exclude the “divine” from public life, as long as it was kept non-sectarian. Government and civil society were not synonymous. The government could create laws and regulate transactions, but this did not encompass all of society. The larger civil society, which encompassed the government, had its own regulations that although not carved in stone had even more to say about what was permissible in the community.
On the ground level, Tocqueville saw that Christianity was so predominant among the American populace that even those who were not true believers would practice Christianity or risk being ostracized. As such, in Tocqueville’s America, “Christianity therefore reigns without obstacles, on the admission of all; the result, as I have already said elsewhere, is that everything is certain and fixed in the moral world, although the political world seems to be abandoned to the discussion and attempts of men.” Christianity as an accepted religion erected barriers around the political sphere, inherently limiting it. The government could define what was legally permissible, but religion established what was morally desirable, and the laws of government were not allowed to extend beyond the boundaries of morality. Therefore, ultimately, any sort of radical political reform was tempered by popularly accepted moral standards. In Tocqueville’s eyes this was a good thing. Religion helped resolve one of the dangers he was perpetually wary of–American society having too much freedom. Limitations, he believed, are necessary for a democracy to run smoothly.
Now pause for a moment and insert Islam for Christianity. Does the formula still work? Can there be separate moral and political spheres. Tocqueville doesn’t think so:
Mohammed had not only religious doctrines descend from Heaven and placed in the Koran, but political maxims, civil and criminal laws, and scientific theories. The Gospels, in contrast, speak only of the general relations of men to God and among themselves. Outside of that they teach nothing and oblige nothing to be believed.
Tocqueville seems to believe that for Islam to function within a democratic society, concessions, and major ones at that, would have to be made. According to him Islam, unlike Christianity, has more of a political nature, and therefore the division between Church and State that democracy necessitates will be all that more difficult to sustain in Islamic nations. Islam is much more focused on “this world,” in contrast to Christianity’s “other-worldliness.” Christianity might have imposed moral constraints on American society, but enough room was left in the political sphere for democracy to function as intended. Tocqueville believes that there are simply too many political requirements of Islam for it to properly fit with democratic ideals. Religion is good because it limits democratic society, but it shouldn’t limit it too much.
Tocqueville doesn’t, however, select Islam as a contrast with Christianity out of some Manichean tendency, as some modern commentators would like to do. Instead, he chooses Islam because in his world it was the religion farthest from Christianity, and in theorizing how it would interact with democracy Tocqueville better elucidates how democracy and religion interact in general. Nonetheless, he goes on to be very pessimistic about the prospective success of a union between Islam and democracy.
“That alone, among a thousand other reasons, is enough to show that the first of these two religions cannot dominate for long in enlightened and democratic times, whereas the second is destined to reign in these centuries as in all the others.”
But if read closely, Tocqueville doesn’t deny the possibility of an Islamic democratic society, he just raises questions about its longevity and believes that Christianity is better suited to democracy. One has to wonder whether Tocqueville could have dreamed of the current state of affairs in the Middle East. And the question lingers of whether his theories still apply in a framework of democracy promotion–something that many recent scholars have argued has a tenuous connection with the Founder’s original intentions. Whether an Islamic democratic society is possible and what it might look like depends on what is occurring in Iraq at this very moment. One doesn’t have to take Tocqueville’s word as gospel. It is quite possible that “Democracy in Iraq” is just waiting to be written.
Is democracy in the Middle East impossible? It will certainly be different, and maybe not even recognizable as “democracy” as we think of it. But let us not forget that although they were different, Isaac and Ishmael were still brothers. The difficulty in diagnosing the current state of affairs in Iraq is that democracy is naturally tumultuous, so it is difficult to tell whether the problems the assembly is encountering are merely symptoms of the democratic process or signs of a deeper issue.
– Nicholas Xenakis is an assistant editor at The National Interest.