Journal of Democracy
century there were prominent lines of thought advocating principles of strict secularism—hence, the la¦cité order of modern Turkey, established in Article 2 of the Turkish Constitution of 1921—and others that insisted on Islamic law as the basis of all political and social life. Somewhere between these two poles the hopeful stake their claims. They are well
aware of the many internal disagreements concerning basic Islamic ideas, including how to interpret the Koran itself: Does it allow for pluralism and diversity? Can consultation be the basis for democratic accountability? The hopeful believe that any system that is un-Koranic will never succeed. Thus the advocacy of democracy must be tethered to foundational Islamic traditions and texts. Abdou Filali-Ansary, one of the hopeful, rejects the widely-held view of “Muslim exceptionalism,” which holds that because Muslim societies are already in possession of a “blueprint” for the social order lodged in Islamic law, these societies are extremely difficult to penetrate and imbue with new ideas and possibilities. The Muslim-exceptionalism argument claims that Muslim history has “acquired such a strong grip” that it will block progress of all sorts, including political transformation. Filali-Ansary calls this a “tenacious misunderstanding” that stymies our ability to distinguish between, among other things, secularism and democracy.14 One must distinguish the type of seculariza- tion that has proceeded all over the world as part of modernity from the secularization that requires setting religion apart in a private and hidden realm.
In much of the Muslim world, secularism is equated with atheism and, as such, is unacceptable to ordinary Muslims. Here it becomes necessary to distinguish between the type of secularization that has proceeded apace all over the world as part and parcel of modernity from the secularization that requires setting religion apart in a private and hidden realm. In the minds of the hopeful, once the various misunderstandings are clarified, and the “strict identification between Islam and shari‘a-bound systems” is ruled out, democracy becomes a lively possibility.15
Bernard Lewis, the distinguished scholar of the Islamic world, should be counted among the cautiously hopeful. Noting that the historic record is not encouraging, Lewis nonetheless finds some religiously derived concepts useful for the purposes of democratic transition, although he also observes that there is “no word in Arabic, Persian, or Turkish for ‘citizen’”—one who participates in the “public thing,” the civitas or polis.16 Looking around the present-day Muslim Middle East is a sobering exercise, to be sure, with its mixture of autocracies, fascist-style dictatorships (such as the late and unlamented regime of Saddam Hussein), and radical Islamic regimes. None of these outcomes