While reading Public Islam and the Problem of Democratization, by Robert W. Hefner of Boston University, one gets the sense that the intellectual battle of where, how and if religious life can fit into a democratic society is one that has been fought for centuries. Many ideologues in the West are certain that the widely-held belief in Islam and the religion’s role in Arab’s day-to-day life makes democracy an impossibility. But is this historically accurate? And does this problem lie solely on Muslim shoulders?
The fact is, not only have pre-modern Muslim governments presided quite successfully with a separation of church and state, but the argument could be made that most governments are not without religious influence. The United States, which is constitutionally bound to preserve the separation of church and state and the freedom of religion, is not immune to the effects of religious influence. India has seen a religious and cultural war between Hindus and Muslims for over half a century while remaining a democratic state. In contrast, the overwhelmingly Muslim nation of Indonesia is considered by almost all authorities to be successfully heading towards a democratized state.
Religion has irrefutably shaped national governments, yet it is hardly the sole or most important factor. Traditionally “Christian” nations have been democratic, monarchist, fascist, and theocratic. Clearly another element is in play. Hefner argues that civic movements reaching for a pluralized state can be an equally important factor in the organization of the government.
As the author points out, democratic life is not forced upon its citizens by the government, rather “formal democracy requires a civil culture and organization greater than itself”, driven by participation and pluralisation. Can such a democracy exist alongside a faith-based state? While many theorists say no, this article makes clear that neither historically nor in modern examples is such a refutation that simple.