The Leavitt Center is pleased to announce that Pizza & Politics this week will feature Provost Brad Cook! The Provost, who holds a doctoral degree in Middle East Studies, will be speaking on the challenges and opportunities that Islam poses for democracy.
Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, this topic has been at the forefront of American public discourse. Many people, including some scholars, believe that Islam is incompatible with democracy. But the Provost takes a different view, arguing that while Islam presents several challenges for democracy, it is in no way incompatible. This post is based on an academic article co-authored by Provost Cook, titled “Democracy and Islam.”
Islam’s Unique Attributes—And How They Can Challenge Democracy
When comparing the amount of influence certain religions exert on their followers, Islam ranks near the top of any list. The Provost writes that “Islam is not a religion in the same sense that Christianity or Buddhism is a religion. For Muslims, Islam is much more than a moral philosophy of life, system of belief, or a spiritual order; it is a ‘complete and comprehensive way of life.’” In Arabic, the word Islam means “submission to God,” making the definition of Muslim “one who submits to the will of God.” Islamic societies are well known for their people’s submission to community, and synthesis of religion and politics. Because most Muslim’s see the ideal form of government as one based on Islamic law and the Quran, some recent and revolutionary democratic ideas are not recognized.
Islam’s Compatibility with Democracy
While certain aspects of Islam pose challenges to democracy, historically, the religion provides several examples of democratic thought. After immigrating to Medina in 622 CE, Muhammad (Islam’s great prophet) crafted what may have been the first written constitution in world history. The Charter of Medina established the first Islamic state, but offered equal rights to Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Provost Cook notes that the principles of “equality and pluralism” were both central to the charter. Most importantly, Muhammad’s charter relied on consent of the governed, a concept critical to democratic government. After Muhammad’s death, democratic ideals didn’t disappear. His successors, called Caliphs, were chosen by a form of an electoral college. Clearly, democracy is not foreign to Islam. But it may seem that way today.
What or who is to blame: Islam or power-hungry dictators?
Maybe it isn’t religion that is holding many Arab countries back from democracy. Some scholars, including Provost Cook, note that political factors have a significant influence on the governing mechanisms of the area. Much of the Middle East is governed by ruling elites and kings who have no interest in relinquishing power. Look no further then Libya’s Mohammar Ghaddafi and Syria’s Bashir Assad for proof of this phenomenon.
1. What then, is the cause of so many lagging governments in the Middle East?
2. Is it Islam or power hungry monarchs?
3. Do economics, history, and cultural factors also play a role in the situation?
The floor is now yours…
Henrie Walton is a member of the Executive Council, a former Congressional Intern, and is a Senior Political Science Major at Southern Utah University.