Islam Secularism and Liberal Democracy

Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies

Reviewed by Faisal Kutty*

Nineteenth-century French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the relationship between religion and democracy in the West was the “great problem of our time.” While arguably it may be less significant in the West now, it is altogether a different matter in the Muslim world.

Canadian political scientist Nader Hashemi’s book tackles the question in historical and comparative perspective, and proposes fresh ideas on reconciling the tensions among Islam, secularism and liberal democracy. His relatively short work – a revised doctoral dissertation – argues boldly for a fundamental rethinking of the relationship that de Tocqueville presciently identified as problematic.

In the first of four chapters, Hashemi challenges the widely held beliefs that have been used to argue the incompatibility of religion and liberal democracy. He begins his deconstruction through a historical examination of the role played by religion in Western democratization. Piggy-backing on Fernand Braudel’s longue durée view of history and Michael Walzer’s work on the influence of Puritans on modernization, Hashemi extracts lessons to help understand political evolution in the Muslim world. Contrary to conventional wisdom, he argues, many of our ideals evolved out of clashes and bargaining. We should not expect otherwise from the Muslim world.

Many thinkers, including Islamists such as Rachid al Ghanoushi, have advanced such arguments. What is refreshing is Hashemi’s extensive appeal to historical examples and the work of leading Western thinkers to make the case. He provides convincing evidence that the appearance of “saints” and religious zealots during societal upheavals are historical and sociological facts. For instance, the 1534 bloody takeover by Anabaptists of the German town of Munster eerily echoes – in words and deeds – the Taliban and extremists at similar junctures in the Muslim world.

Hashemi weaves a narrative about the parallels and argues that this kind of analysis makes it possible to see links and contributions made to democratization by radical religious protest movements. Essentially, he concludes that zealots serve as midwives to the process of modernization, by acting as catalysts to unwittingly force change (cycles of regression, renewal and reform).

The second chapter focuses on Locke’s use of religion in support of democracy. “For obedience is due in the first place to God, and afterwards to the Laws,” is a statement attributed not to an Ayatollah, but to John Locke, a pre-eminent thinker – if not the father – of modern liberalism. Today, secularists as well as pro- and anti-democracy Islamists in the Muslim world all rely on interpretations of religious sources (what Hashemi calls “dueling scriptures”). Indeed, it is illustrative that conservatives and reformists alike in Iran, for instance, employ Islamic rhetoric.

Chapter three contends that some form of secularism is assumed to be a sine quo non of liberal democracy and herein lays the most difficult tension. Hashemi does not challenge this, but he notes that secularism in the West is associated with positive developments. Many Muslims, on the other hand, associate it with the colonial/imperialist agenda, oppressive regimes and hostility to religion as exemplified by the more rigid (French) laïcité version. What needs to be defined, Hashemi asserts, is the precise relationship between secularism and liberal democracy. He suggests, echoing others, that there is considerable latitude in the form of secularism.

Hashemi sees an opportunity in this flexibility to use Alfred Stepan’s groundbreaking concept of “twin tolerations.” The idea that religious institutions and the state must recognize and respect “the minimum boundaries of freedom of action” is at the core of this paradigm. Hashemi maintains that this form of mutual accommodation (a more tolerable secularism) may be more palatable.

The book’s most valuable contribution may be in constructing the case for an indigenized version of secularism by building on Stepan’s model, one based on an organic socio-cultural reformation of Islamic thought. The case studies from Iran, Turkey and Indonesia reveal that there is robust debate on reformulating religious political thought from within, in a manner preserving doctrinal legitimacy.

Hashemi’s sustained and persuasive arguments forcefully challenge the essentialized and ahistorical – albeit popular – “clash” and “Islamic exceptionalism” arguments championed by, among others, Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, who see no hope for Islam.

Obviously, any book – particularly one advancing controversial arguments – is open to criticism. Indeed, both liberals and Islamists may have a field day with it. For some liberals, Hashemi may concede too much ground to religion. Similarly, some Islamists will dispute the book’s underlying premise that a secular liberal democratic paradigm is the only acceptable governance model. Moreover, some may see the “twin tolerations” as mere rhetorical obfuscation or even a Trojan horse.

Hashemi, who teaches at the University of Denver, may also attract criticism for too readily conceding to arguments regarding the alleged inherent doctrinal irreconcilability between Sharia and liberal democracy. Ironically, consistent with his calls for reform, there is a growing body of work advancing the view that the doctrines of shura (consultation), ijma (consensus), millet (community system), maslaha (public interest), ijtihad (independent reasoning) and maqasid al sharia (higher purposes), among others, may all be employable in democratization as well as the pursuit of the rule of law and other such ideals. In all fairness, Hashemi did not set out to grapple with these issues.

The fresh ideas and possibilities for debate make this book a must read for anyone interested in global politics. Though at times they are highly theoretical, Hashemi makes his views accessible by setting out a road map of what he proposes to argue, then summarizing his arguments and conclusions at the end of each chapter.

Hashemi’s book is undoubtedly a weighty contribution on the question of Islam and democracy, one of the “great problems of our time.”

* Faisal Kutty is a lawyer, academic, writer, public speaker and human rights activist. He taught at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana and Osgoode Hall Law School. He is considered to be one of the world’s most influential Muslims:

** This article is published in the Globe and Mail, Canada: