Can Islam handle democracy?REV. RAYMOND DE SOUZA
The purple fingers are back. Smiling Iraqis are proudly showing off the symbol of their democracy.
Democratic stirrings are afoot in the Islamic world, and it might turn out to be the most important global news of the first decades of the 21st century.
Today's election in Iraq is the third national democratic vote this year, in addition to the many votes held for local offices. Genuine free elections in Iraq, alongside democratic progress in other parts of the Islamic Middle East, as well as in South Asia and East Asia, mean that the facts on the ground are increasingly disproving the claim that Islamic countries are somehow especially unsuited for democracy.
It's an argument that needs to be addressed. Lying not far under the surface of much of the debate about Iraq is the premise that trying to build an Islamic democracy is an impossible task. The argument appeals to both liberals and conservatives, albeit for different reasons. If true, it is a bleak matter indeed, for it would concede that over a billion Muslims are permanently excluded from the political freedoms and human rights enjoyed by the citizens of liberal democratic countries. The implications for global security and religious liberty would be similarly discouraging.
But a measure of encouragement is in order. In the past two years alone, Afghanistan has held successful national elections, as has Indonesia at 220 million people, it is not only the largest predominantly Islamic nation in the world, but the fourth most populous nation, period. Democratic elections are well-established in Turkey, and tentative democratic seeds are being sown in Egypt, Iran and the Palestinian territories.
That progress should not be too easily dismissed especially by Catholics. As recently as 40 years ago, the argument was made that Catholics might be illsuited for democracy. With their hierarchical church governance, it was argued that Catholics preferred, or even needed, an authoritarian or dictatorial government. During the 1960s, the generals were in charge in South and Central America as well as the Iberian peninsula. Mexico was a one-party state and the Philippines was emerging from colonial rule into dictatorship. In Cuba, revolution meant dictatorship overthrown by communism. Catholic Eastern Europe was under the Soviet boot.
Ireland, France, Italy and Bavaria were exceptions of course, but some argued that they were exceptions because of external (Protestant) influence, namely that of colonial Britain or post-Second World War America.
It's now 30 years since Spain turned to democracy upon General Franco's death, with Portugal deposing its generals the year before. And since then, a wave of democratization has swept over Catholic countries from Poland to the Philippines, from Argentina to East Timor.
Recent history teaches us the falsity of considering entire peoples as incapable of democracy. It is not fantastic to think that Islamic cultures have latent democratic energies, even as those energies in many Catholic nations were latent four decades ago. There are major differences to be sure, but there are good reasons to be hopeful.
Could the next wave of democratization be Islamic? It's too soon to tell, of course, but not too soon to consider the possibility. And not too soon to hope.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Can Islam handle democracy?" National Post, (Canada) December 15, 2005.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
© 2005 National Post
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