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Is It Possible To Be Muslim and Democratic?

Can practitioners of Islam also believe in the ideals of a secular state and democracy? A Turkish academic poses the question and finds some interesting answers.

Sunset in Istanbul
Sunset in Istanbul
Emre Kongar


ISTANBUL — Islam and democracy are topics at the forefront of discussion not only in Turkey but around the world. In Turkey, democracy has managed to survive so far but is now being pushed toward dictatorship with an Islamic touch. In the world, global terrorism that is rooted in the Middle East is using the Muslim identity to commit massacres.

Groups that use identity politics whether it is based on religion, sect, race or nation, claim they are alienated or harassed. These groups inspire polarization and violence but I don't want to get into party politics here. I first want to discuss the issue on the individual level.

To elaborate on these topic, it is important to underline that the secularist ideal of separation of church/mosque and state is a prerequisite for democracy. So let's ask the question, "Is it possible for an individual to be Muslim, secular and democratic?"

I initially started this discussion on Twitter. I found that those who have a strict interpretation of religious rules, and see society and religion as inflexible, responded that it wasn't possible. "No, a true Muslim cannot be secular and democratic because Islam requires the world and society to be ruled according to religious edicts." Among the people who thought like this, some were Muslims but others were atheist or agnostic. Many respondents answered in the affirmative: "I am Muslim, secular and democratic, all at the same time."

When I mentioned the fact that there are millions who identify as Muslim and democratic, some people retorted, "That can happen in Christianity because it went through reform. It is not possible for Muslims." So, I told them that they didn't have the right to define or label people.

Devout Muslims and those who believe that they represent Islam say that an individual cannot be both Muslim and democratic. But society at large and many individuals refute this claim. In various countries around the world, and especially in Turkey, there are millions who identify as both these things.

Islamists and politicians who exploit identity politics try to radicalize such people. And the parties that use identity politics hypocritically defend their radical politics by highlighting the fact that they are functioning within the democratic system. Since they know that the Republic of Turkey, which replaced the religious rule of the Ottoman Empire, is an example of Islamic reform in the Muslim world, they view the republic as a threat to their rule and fear losing their power.

Let's not forget that an individual can be both Muslim and democratic at the same time. But it's not possible to maintain democracy along with politics that exploits religious identity and employs hate speech.

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