Let us dispose of the never-ending argument about whether Islam is compatible with democracy. The relevant question is, what factors will facilitate the Islamic mainstream's acceptance of democracy? The experience of the Catholic Church provides a useful framework for understanding the uphill battle being waged over democracy within the world of Islam.
Democracy historically posed a challenge to traditional thinking, especially religious belief. The Church fought democracy tooth and nail for the century and a half after the French revolution. It saw the revolution, and its offspring, democracy, as a danger to the very foundation of Christian civilization: the notion that states and individuals are beholden to obey the moral values transmitted by the revealed religion. French revolutionaries persecuted the Church, seeking to end its role as the exclusive mediator between the sovereign God and human beings and to undermine the long alliance between the altar and the throne. This only heightened the Church's opposition to the "democracy heresy." This opposition reached its pinnacle in the Encyclicals of Pope Gregory XVI (1832 and 1834), which condemned democracy as anti-clerical and rejected liberalism.
Dissenting religious voices emerged in the nineteenth century. But these harbingers of what would later be dubbed Christian Democracy were tiny and marginal. They would soon be dealt heavy blows by Nazism and Fascism. It was not until the 1940s that influential thinkers from within the mainstream, notably the French philosopher Jacques Maritain and the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, constructed a theory that bridged the chasm between Catholicism and liberal democracy. This theory soon received the blessing of Popes Pius XI and and Paulus VI.
Why the breakthrough? First and foremost, the experience with totalitarianism taught the Catholic mainstream that western democracies are a shield against the irreligious notions of right-wing dictatorships and the atheism of communist regimes. Second, fears about freedom of conscience dissipated as anti-clerical tendencies among European liberals declined. Gradually, the ideal that the Church should serve as a check upon the state's power, and that within the state there should be no religious coercion, took hold.
In most of the Islamic world, especially the Arab world, conditions are very different. Unlike in the West where civil society has expanded during the last two centuries, facilitating democratization, in the Arab world civil society is weak, repressed by military-populist regimes that curtail democratic liberties. The middle class—in the West, the socio-economic basis for the defense of political liberties in a market society—has seen its size and autonomy greatly reduced. These factors have nothing at all to do with Islam as a historical tradition. Rather, they are environmental forces that tilt the balance in favor of the non-democratic tendencies of this tradition.
The upshot is clear: the Islamic establishment is on the whole anti- (or at best, non-) democratic, sharing the same fears that the Catholic Church harbored a century ago. It is, moreover, long subservient to secular powers out of economic dependency and the perception that the ruler is a necessary bulwark against anarchy.
The most intriguing question is why the Islamic mainstream has not followed in the footsteps of its Catholic counterpart and pondered the legacy of the decades of dictatorship. Why haven't the horrors of Saddam and Hafez Al Assad tilted the religious mainstream towards democracy? Why have mainstream religious leaders not recognized the merits of pluralism for religion's survival? Is it due to their fear that the radicals would benefit from democracy? Or is it their own authoritarian bent in religious matters that makes them natural allies of authoritarian rulers?
There are indeed liberal Islamic thinkers and movements who claim that Islam is a diverse, heterogeneous and ever-evolving historical phenomenon. They argue that the survival of Islam, which hangs upon its ability to accommodate change, depends on democratization and the creation of a law-abiding state.
Yet with the exception of Indonesia, where a mass liberal movement exists, Islamic liberals are few and far between. The fault lies not with their creed, which is eloquently articulated, but with their poor organizational and communication capacities. They are an elite phenomenon. Moreover, they are unable to woo the middle class, which is held hostage to the fear that democracy will inevitably bring about the seizure of power by Islamist radicals (as happened in Iran in 1979, and as almost happened in Algeria in 1991). And the radicals are vociferously and sometimes violently anti-democratic. They believe that there is only one way to protect Islam from contamination by secularist modernity: the application of Sharia according to their own strict interpretation. Pluralism, diversity, and public reasoning are anathema for them.
So the two key factors in the Catholic conversion to democracy—the lessons learned by the mainstream from the totalitarian experience, and the maturing of innovating and appealing liberalism—are not yet present in the world of Islam. The battle for democracy there is bound to be long and tough.
Emmanuel Sivan is professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His publications include Radical Islam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990) and Strong Religion (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2003).