It is now common for policymakers and political scientists in the West to think they have the Middle East figured out. The general consensus of many academics from the Western world is that Middle Eastern nations will not be amenable to democracy until they convert to a politically secular society. They posit that Islam is fundamentally opposed to democracy, and that popular consensus, freedom of religion, and equality is incompatible with Islamic ideals. But this raises several questions, such as is this interpretation of Islamic tenets factual? Must a democratic society necessarily be a secular society? And can democracy be sustained in a religious environment?
Given this basic interpretation of Islam by Western theorists, it is easy to see why many feel that an organic arising of democracy, instigated and maintained by Middle Eastern citizens, would not be possible. Instead, they argue, democracy must be first created by outside sources, which will then assist the populace in the ongoing maintenance of the new political structure. However, this plan has largely failed in countries like Iraq, where inorganic democracy has amplified sectarian division.
So if it is clear that a democratic nation will not succeed if political change is foisted upon it, the next question that needs to be addressed is whether a democratic society must be secular. To answer this question, one must look only to Europe, where Greece, Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom all have Christianity as their designated state religion. The United States also has a complicated relationship between religion and state, as even though the Founding Fathers took great pains to ensure the separation between church and state was clear and decisive, Christianity is arguably a huge part of American culture and policy, and politicians, particularly those running for President, consider professing their Christian faith a prerequisite to earning the publics trust. And although there has been and continues to be an academic debate over the state of democracy in Israel, from a political standpoint, it could be considered to be so.
So if there is no ideological reason why a democracy cannot also be religious, is there something about Islam that makes it incompatible? Some may point to individual scriptures of the Quran, which, taken out of context, may seem to indicate a belief system that is anti-woman, anti-freedom of thought, and anti-democracy. But couldn’t the same be said about certain aspects of Orthodox Judaism, which requires the separation of women from men, or out-of-context scriptures from the Bible, which seem to indicate support of slavery and the subjugation of women? If we step back from the polemics surrounding the issue, and study the spirit of Islam, it is clear that Islam is far more based in democratic ideals, such as consensus and populism than most Westerners think. As the population in Arab states has become younger and more educated, we see a strong concurrence of democratic support. It seems that it is not Islam that is to blame for the lack of democracy in the region, but rather the way Islam has been interpreted by dictatorial regimes.
The Middle East does not share the same history, religion, or cultural ideals as Western nations, so foisting a Western-style political system on the region would be doomed to failure, as is currently being seen in post-liberation Iraq. Instead, Western nations should act in a supportive role, providing the majority who desire change the resources, such as economic or military support, to institute a new government, one based on the political structure of both democracy and Islam.