Is Islam Reconcilable With Democracy? What Religion Is?
Editorial: A French philosopher looks at the relation between religion and democracy, and suggests Europe’s Christians have a unique claim to reconciling the two.
The question of whether or not Islam is compatible with democracy has been raised a thousand times before. The question has been posed again by France's ruling center-right UMP (Union for a People's Movement) party, with its decision to open an official public debate on laicité, this country's historically rigid form of separation of church and state.
The debate seems to me as justified in substance as it is inappropriate in form. For the role of politicians is not to debate matters that have been regularly discussed for more than 20 years. Their role, instead, is to act. The specific conflict which sparked the debate has a clear answer: of course streets should not be blocked so that people can pray right in the middle of them; but at the same time, believers should not lack places of worship either.
Since everyone agrees with both of these statements, why keep droning on about it? Acting is always better than talking. This does not mean that the question about whether Islam is compatible with democracy is not worth asking. But the debate should come from a perspective that is theological, not political.
Many political thinkers do not consider Islam and democracy contradictory. Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, currently offers irrefutable proof that Islam and democracy are not irreconcilable. Some philosophers, such as Malek Chebel (author of Islam's Great Figures) tend to agree. The Algerian philosopherhas repeatedly spoken about the history of "Enlightenment Islam," and maintained that it only needed resuscitating. But Elie Barnavi, an Israelian historian and diplomat, is convinced of the contrary. "The politically correct answer to the question whether Islam and democracy are compatible with each other would be to say that they are. But the truth is that they are not: Islam and democracy obviously do not mix. But nor does Judaism and Catholicism," or any other revealed religion.
When dealing with this conundrum, one often tends to forget an essential aspect of it, which is that the world's three main religions do not give the same meaning to the concept of secular society. Because of its intrinsic nature, Christianity is the only religion that has made possible -- or one might even say, favored -- the creation of secular and democratic societies. The fact that this was born in Europe is no coincidence.
Why? Well, it is mainly because conscience and inner feelings are at the very core of Christianity, which does not seek to regulate everyday life. Not only does Jesus give to Cesar what is Cesar's, but he constantly exhorts people to look inside themselves, as in the episode of the woman taken in adultery. Read the Gospel of John, and you will see that it is impossible to find a single precept about how to pray, how to dress, what to eat or whom to marry. External duties are something Jesus is not interested in, and he constantly opposes the spirit to the letter. In the Gospel according to Mark (7:15), for example, Jesus tells people that "Nothing outside a man can make him "unclean" by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him "unclean.""
This is another way of saying that earthly food and religious rituals do not matter all that much. The purity of the heart always takes precedence over ‘clean" food and daily occupations, which explains why Jesus accepted all men and women -- including prostitutes- so thoroughly ostracized by Orthodox Judaism.
Thanks to this clear distinction between spiritual life and external actions, Christianity has opened the way to secularism, and has made Europe what it is today. But things are different in other parts of the world, and the famous talk about "Europe's Christian roots," as demagogic as it might sound, is no less valid. Secularism, which should not be understood as atheism but as the neutrality of the state towards religion, is the main reason why communities live peacefully today in Europe. This is the miracle made possible, not without pain, within our Republic, itself more of a child of Christianity than some would care admit. This is a torch that we have inherited, which we will have to preserve and protect from the fanatics who aim to see it extinguished.
Read the original article in French