Is Secularism a Necessary Condition for Democratization?

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By ICRD Intern Arian Soroush

As Pope Francis’ impending visit to Congress reminds us, the relationship between religion and politics is a problematic one that still continues to perplex even the most advanced societies. Centuries ago, the Western world found some balance between the two in the form of secularism, which separated political institutions and leaders from their religious counterparts. Confident in this solution, many Westerners over the last century sought to extend secular ideas to the Muslim world in the hopes they might inspire greater democratization.

Such a view, however, fails to account for the unique circumstances, apart from secularism, that gave rise to democracy in the predominately Christian West. In Europe, the balance between religion, secularism, and liberal democracy only emerged after a centuries-long, bottom-up process of social transformation, with much blood spilled along the way. First came the Reformation, which was followed by the Enlightenment, then secularism, and finally liberalism and modern democracy.

To claim that applying the Western Christian model of secularism to Muslim-majority countries will yield liberal democracy is to neglect the many complex, underlying factors that play an important role in democratization. In fact, democracy arises not from secularism, but instead from any culture that promotes a harmonious relationship between politics and religion. In Muslim countries, achieving this kind of relationship may or may not require that the two be separated.

Not only is secularism not a prerequisite for liberal democracy in Muslim countries, it can even be a hindrance. In many places, secularism emerged as a foreign concept imposed upon Muslim countries by colonial imperialism and, later, post-colonial despotism. Even after colonial powers had left, many Muslims came to associate secularism with repression, as Muslim groups opposed to the secular-nationalist policies of post-colonial regimes were violently shut down.

The case of Iran is an excellent example of how secularism can be a hindrance to pluralism and democratization. Upon founding the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran in 1925, Reza Shah began a very aggressive campaign of modernization and secularization. Unfortunately, the Shah’s campaign of rapid secularization did not sit well with a large portion of Iranians, who came to see him and his successor as agents of the West. Such an experience with secularism left Iranians distrustful and pessimistic about the secular state, and eventually led to the establishment of the current Islamic theocracy.

Rather than completely separating the state and religion, a successful Muslim democracy (or any democracy) requires establishing a relationship of tolerance between the two. For example, consider the case of Indonesia, a non-secular Muslim state that has promoted liberal democratization. Despite the fact that Indonesia—the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country—was founded on an ideology (Pancasila) that is rooted in religious principles, the country exhibits a remarkable degree of religious pluralism and tolerance. In the first free elections in 1999, the two most prominent Islamic fundamentalist parties only received a total of three percent of the vote. A mainstream Islam that is pluralistic, equivocal, denies an inflexible form of political Islam, and affirms democratic values has prevailed in Indonesia. While preserving their religiosity, Indonesian Muslims have been able to strike a balance between their religious and civic responsibilities. Though there have been instances of religious violence, such conflict is reminiscent of the tumultuous process of secularization in the West several centuries ago, and is not indicative of an incompatible relationship between Islam and democracy.

In the Arab world, Tunisia serves as an excellent example of a Muslim-majority country that has also achieved a homegrown reconciliatory relationship between Islam and democracy. Following the protests in 2010 that sparked the Arab Spring and overthrew longtime President Ben Ali, Tunisia underwent a chaotic period of short-lived interim governments marked by political tensions between Islamist and secular factions. The matter was finally resolved in 2014 when Tunisia conducted its first free and fair election and drafted a liberal constitution that intertwines the country’s Islamic heritage with secular liberal freedoms. The constitution promises equal rights for men and women, freedom of expression, and an independent judiciary, while affirming Islam as the official state religion.

The balance between religion and politics is delicate, and a certain degree of tension is likely to exist under any political system. Nevertheless, it is the unique responsibility of a country’s citizens to decide upon the appropriate way to balance the two in their particular national context. As Muslim societies rapidly transform in this globalized world, each country’s own indigenous process of reconciling politics and religion will continue to advance. Despite inevitable instances of discord or turmoil, the process of bottom-up democratization is more fruitful than imposing secular governance from the top-down. Though Muslim democracies will likely exhibit some elements of secularism, separation of religion and the state is not a necessary prerequisite for democratization in Muslim-majority countries.

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