Jean Bethke Elshtain
“disappear” people or jail political opponents or murder those belonging to minority ethnic groups. Alas, there have been a number of popularly elected governments—I am loath even to call them democracies—that
have engaged in all manner of repressive behavior. A good example would be the so-called plebiscitary systems under which the powerful are perpetually returned to power because elections are not genuinely competitive. Does such a system qualify even as thin democracy? Given the ab- sence of genuinely competitive elections and alternation of power, the answer must be “no.” Many analysts who are buoyant about democratic prospects in Muslim-majority societies cite shura, or consultation, as a way to achieve and maintain consensus. They see this as the very essence of de- mocracy. Consultation is certainly a good thing, but no democracy can or should be expected to attain consensus and then to sustain it without tremendous contestation and divisiveness along the way. Thick democracy provides for pluralism, allowing for minority rights and inclusion in a way that repressive or plebiscitary “democracies” do not. The secularization hypothesis has failed, and failed spectacular- ly. e must now find a new paradigm that will help us to under- stand the complexities of the relationship between religion and democracy.
How does religious belief fit in to this picture? In a thin democracy that stresses the formal requisites of the system without articulating the features of a democratic civil society, it is not easy to discern the roles played by religious beliefs and institutions. In a thin Muslim democracy, of course, one assumes that certain concepts and categories drawn from Islam will inform these formal practices. Indeed, one can readily imagine a regime that bows to the need for elections to validate itself and then goes on to ignore religion systematically or even attempts to repress what it considers dangerous manifestations of it. Saudi Arabia is a case in point. There we find strict enforcement of the Wahhabist version of Islam, which brooks no religious tolerance or diversity. Thus neither a synagogue nor a church is allowed on the kingdom’s soil, and there is precious little tolerance for Muslims voicing critical views and opposition.
How does thick democracy differ from this picture? A thick democracy requires the vote and a genuinely competitive series of election cycles; a pluralistic civil society, meaning a civil society within which religion engages in all aspects of civil life; and the full panoply of human rights, especially negative rights or immunity rights that curb arbitrary state power. Behind a thick democracy lies respect for the dignity of the human person and the promise that government will not violate that respect.
That said, thin democracy is better than no democracy at all, because once people begin to participate they often begin to question why they