Is Islam Compatible with Democracy?


It may seem unusual to quote Bertolt Brecht on a classical liberal site, but in light of recent events in Egypt, it is apposite.

In Brecht’s DDR, the regime announced in 1953 that ‘the people had forfeited the government’s confidence’ and ‘could only win it back by redoubled labour’. Brecht’s satirical rejoinder pinned for all time the problem of governments that—fairly elected or not—have simply lost the confidence of the people over which they purport to govern.

Such has been the course of events in Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood, with its well-organised grassroots structure, stole a march on everybody else 12 months ago, winning the election but ultimately losing the people. Now a newly popular military has staged a coup in all but name (people are coy when it comes to labeling, especially President Obama, who holds Egypt’s foreign aid purse-strings).

What felled the Muslim Brotherhood so swiftly? As is often the case with religious governments, vast attention was paid to regulating things that cannot be regulated: people’s morality, women, the internet and social media. At the same time, they paid no attention to things that matter: the economy, peace and security, a meaningful distinction between the police and the military, civil society. The Brotherhood won the elections because it was organised, not because it was popular: now the opposition has its act together, the fissures across Egyptian society are exposed for all to see.

There is also a more worrying aspect to all this, too. Slowly but surely, the evidence is coming in, and it is that Islam is incompatible with democracy and civil society. This is not to say that individual Muslims cannot immigrate to Western countries with complete success. Rather, it is a ‘state level’ problem. It seems Muslim majority countries cannot create the local conditions that would make immigration to the US and Europe unnecessary.

Of course, Turkey is always held up as the counter-example: properly governed, almost in the EU, in the Council of Europe. However, its recent troubles underly the fragility of its democracy. In a case not widely known outside Europe, even the gentle jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights upheld the Turkish military’s 1998 ban on the predecessor party to the (current) Justice and Development Party. This was despite the fact that it had won a free and fair election. The ECtHR endorsed the ban on the grounds that the Party’s manifesto included the imposition of Sharia.

Lest we in the West be tempted to point and giggle at all this, it is worth remembering that 250 years ago, we were equally hopeless. Europe’s monotheism was domesticated by the Enlightenment, and we forget at our peril the careful system the United States developed to prevent religious dissension. We also forget that in Britain, religious adherents seen as prone to violence were simply excluded from positions of power and respect.

Religious tests and civil wars are nasty things, and I think Egypt is teetering on the precipice of one or the other or both. This is not a problem amenable to an easy solution: how does one tell the adherents of one of the world’s major religions that when practiced by individuals, their faith is a marvellous thing, but applied to governance and democracy, it is not worth tuppence?