Back to Habermas Studies page a primer on Islam, democratic development
and philosophy

  August 22, 2006 gary e. davis  


This discussion is a beginning. I would develop the topic in light of influence by others and in light of my own learning curve.

I’m parsing the topic into four areas, based on three sources indicated below:

  • compatibility of Islam and democracy;
  • Muslim life in existing democracies;
  • inhibiting factors affecting democratic development in Islamic societies; and
  • progressive development programming.

The following may exemplify the policy-interested approach to Theory/theory and practice that I sketched earlier (as an accessible matter of entering into Habermasian studies practically, not yet as a matter of doing—or, in my case, returning to—difficult conceptual work).

I’m relying on only two kinds of sources—the April 2005 Conference Report of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy; and two reports by the U.S. Institute for Peace on Islam and Democracy, 2004

Citations of "csid.#" refer to the page number of the CSID summary Conference Report. Citations of "sr93" and "sr125" refer to summary points at the top of the two indicated USID special reports.

I want a quick but reliable basis for relativizing my own initial thoughts to the issue of Islam and democracy, pending stronger interest caused by others’ interest or response. The four areas above are rubrics organizing key themes from the CSID conference and 2 USIP studies. My conjecture is that the salient themes of the Conference and the USIP studies indicate the range of what "the" issue of Islam and democracy is for the Islamic world, early in the 21st century. This conjecture is tacitly the question: If not this, then what?

At this beginning point, the discussion is mostly an organized quoting from my sources’ synoptic statements, for the sake of organizing the topic (and my own thoughts on the matter initially), not yet working from the entirety of the Conference set of papers or the entirety of the USIP reports. My contribution is organizational, with some theoretical commentary that prospects further inquiry and discussion.

Compatibility of Islam and democracy

The explanation of why so many Muslim countries are not democratic has more to do with historical, political, cultural, and economic factors than with religious ones. (sr93)

This type of theme was variously reiterated by the CSID Conference. I suppose that Western innocence is exploited by vocal Islamic fundamentalism for the sake of political economic division masked as incompatibility of secular and religious life.

The discourse surrounding Islam and democracy is no longer "whether Islam and democracy are compatible, but rather, how they are compatible." (csid.1)

To what degree can the Christian democratic experience be of service to democratization of Islamic society (without mapping Western notions into Islamic contexts)? Can Habermas’ "Religion in the Public Sphere" provide exemplary guidance?

"[T]he problem in the Middle East is not Islam, it is autocratic regimes." According to [presenter] Natsios, democracy is completely possible in the Islamic world because "Islam has many characteristics that support democracy." [There are] common origins of western and Islamic societies [that] dispel the myth that these are two, diametrically opposed groups. (csid.4)

A hermeneutical challenge, then, is to substantively dramatize the common ground of generative tradition that already binds apparent adversaries (i.e., secular democracy and religious life). Theory of the lifeworld as "The Background" (in the Dreyfusian mode of Habermas’ TCA-2) frames a doorway into the historicity of shared ground (from shared planet of cultural geographies to anthropology of shared humanities).

A great challenge for Islam is the hermeneutical challenge shared with all religious life:

Many Muslims believe that they must choose between Islam and modernity or between Islam and democracy, but these are false choices. To reinterpret Islam for the twenty-first century, the practice of ijtihad (interpretation and reasoning based on the sacred texts) must be revived. sr125

This might result in appreciation for the potential of democracy in Islam itself:

In establishing the compact of Medina, Prophet Muhammad demonstrated a democratic spirit quite unlike the authoritarian tendencies of many of those who claim to imitate him today. He chose to draw up a historically specific constitution based on the eternal and transcendent principles revealed to him but also sought the consent of all who would be affected by its implementation. sr93

Another great hermeneutical challenge for Islam is to show how the democratic spirit is implied by revelation.

Scholars of Islam agree that the principle of shura, or consultative decision-making, is the source of democratic ethics in Islam. But a great deal more reflection is required to clarify the relationship of shura to democracy. sr93

Also, the notion of ijma or freedom shows the democratic spirit of Islam (csid.10).

Religious scholars effectively terminated the practice of ijtihad five hundred years ago. But the principles of interpretation are well established and the need for contemporary interpretation is compelling. sr125

Thus, Islam must welcome scholarship that shows how "there is no element in Islam that does not resemble democracy" (csid.11), but "in order for sound democratic institutions to flourish, there needs to be a culture in place to foster democracy....[D]emocracy took roots in America because it was initiated by the prevailing culture" which was and is "liberal" in the classical, nonpartisan sense (csid.11). Note "prevailing." It is the burden of democracy that there be a prevalence of one ethos over others—a claim to the superiority of the liberal ethos. That superiority can be justified, I would argue, in terms of humanistic reasoning rooted in our common anthropology (e.g., an intrinsic love of openness born from the intelligent child’s love of learning).

But a detailed democratic understanding appropriate to the 21st century doesn’t follow straightaway from Islam, just as it doesn’t follow from Christianity. Hermeneutics as ijtihad might show how shura belongs to conceptualization of democracy, as well as to communicative practices within local society. That is, competing notions of democracy belong to democratic life, such that the question What is "democracy"? remains an open question belonging to democracy as such, thus belonging to the spirit of learning and openness that originated religious life.

By now, humanity has over two centuries of experience learning what democracy in modern times must be in order to be valid for the sake of the humanity it advances. It is an empirically pertinent issue how real democracies understand themselves. The democratic spirit of Islam might, in order to be true to itself, find its humanity reflected in the experience of real democracies, and thereby further itself in terms of real democracies, in complement to understanding democracy in terms of Islam.

Maybe Islam essentially implies fundamental kinds of value that democracy can offer its people, but the nature of democratic value belongs to the discourse of democracy, rather than to revelation. A marriage of ijtihad and shura requires, I conjecture, finding the place of revelation in a rigorously reasonable modernity, bringing Islam into discursive inquiry about the appropriate place of religious life in modern public spheres, where revelation and reason belong together in the same humanity.

According to Gershman [at the CSID Conference], the four fundamental values that democracy can offer people in developing countries are protective, instrumental, constructive, and intrinsic values. Mr. Gershman defined "protective values" as being the means by which citizens can hold the government accountable for its policies and prevent corruption and abuse of power, as well as promote human rights and protect people from cruelties of autocratic regimes. (csid.4)

I haven’t yet looked at the transcript of Gershman’s presentation, but from the above account in the Conference report, it seems clear that Gershman is talking about the basic rationality of good government: accountability and truly normative authority. It may be a duty of the marriage of ijtihad and shura to show the commensurability of Islam with rational transparency and truly normative authority (as normativity is founded in the genuineness of consensual validation of proffered regulatives).

He asserted that "instrumental values" promote economic development by triggering "a virtuous cycle of development - as political freedom empowers people to press for policies that expand social and economic opportunities."

The "virtue" here appears to be the integration of political economic systems with development policies oriented by an enabling state. This kind of conceptualization provides an opportunity to integrate development economics with progressive welfare policy.

For Gershman, the third value of democracy represents "constructive values" where people in developing countries learn from one nother through pubic discussion.

This is the fully communicative life idealized by the bourgeois public sphere which has evolved into constructivist (post-indoctrinal) approaches to educational life; and notions of organizational learning and the learning society.

Finally, he spoke about how "intrinsic values" represent a system that enriches the lives of citizens by recognizing their dignity as human beings. (csid.4-5)

In fact, all of the other kinds of value indicated by Gershman imply intrinsic values, e.g., the value of learning, freedom, and human rights. Indeed, the realm of intrinsic value is primordial, I would (and will later) argue—primordial both for religious life and for democracy, which belong together in the same intrinsic humanity. In such a basis, communicative life may enable enabling government to have truly legitimate power. Out of intrinsically grounded enabling (or empowerment), the spirit of humanity democratically expresses itself and thereby evolves across generations—a Creating forever unfinished.

Muslims and existing democracy

Most Muslims are already living in formally-democratic societies, but most Arabs are not.

2/3 of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims live under emerging democracies (Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Turkey, Nigeria, and India). Therefore, it is the Arab Middle East which represents 1/3 of the Muslim population that is in need of democratization. However, as [presenter] Ibrahim stated, recent events in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and even Egypt, have undermined the [intransigence of the] 1/3 that has defied the wave of democracy, as they have been hit with "surprising stirrings, surprising to those who watch the region with a mentality of Arab exceptionalism." He spoke of civil society as being the first in line to address the challenge by taking charge, as is being evidenced today [2005] in Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. (csid.5:11)

Does this mean that a syndrome of Arab exceptionalism inhibits the potential of non-Arab Islamic civil societies for influencing Arab social evolution?

[T]he building blocks for an Islamic civil society found in Indonesia, the third largest democracy and largest Muslim nation in the world, are applicable to other areas of the Muslim world. (csid.3)

But that insight may be less help in the Arab world than elsewhere. If "Muslim NGOs [in Indonesia] are responsible for dictating what Muslim civil society looks like, since they are at the heart of Indonesia's thriving civil society," there might be a potential for NGOs in Arab regions that is especially suppressed by Arab authorities, and the challenge for Arab cultural maturation might best be located in creation of opportunity for NGOs to advance Arab civil society.

[Presenter] Bush [not George!] outlined how these organizations use Islamic texts to prove doctrinal support for democratic ideals, and tailor those ideals to the particular programs they want to implement. (csid.3)

Apparently, the embodiment of democratic ideals in American democracy may be especially relevant.

The French model "is incompatible with Islamic law " [while] the American model is more protective than the British model of both the polity and religion, and the most compatible with the defense of minority rights...Muslim scholars should now consider its merits in an Islamic context." (csid.2)

All the more important, then, that U.S. development policy be exemplary.

Inhibiting factors affecting democratic development
in Islamic societies

"Islam" for some powerful Islamists is counterdevelopmental.

Restrictions on the contemporary practice of ijtihad are imposed both by religious establishments and by repressive governments in Muslim countries. [But d]emocracy and freedom of inquiry and expression are essential to the practice of ijtihad and to the successful reconciliation of Islam and modernity. sr125

Given that "the lack of educational focus and political freedoms [are] barriers to human and economic development,...the prevailing interpretation of Islam in the Arab world may also be one of the problems" inhibiting a governmental "focus on education, economic development, and innovation" (csid.3). Like a conflicted mind working out its emancipatory interest, the Arab Muslim world is working through conflicting "readings" of its "deserted" legacy (against a seafaring modernity that left Arabia behind).

Conservative Muslims tend to view the western world's advocacy of human rights as a modern agenda by which the West hopes to establish its hegemony over the Muslim world, whereas reformist Muslims tend to be more receptive to new ideas, practices, and institutions. Reformists stress the need for continuity of basic Islamic traditions but believe that Islamic law (sharia) is historically conditioned and needs to be reinterpreted in light of the changing needs of modern society. Secular Muslims look to the experiences of the secular West as models in an effort to promote their countries' development. (sr93)

Welfare statism

I call this the bolshevik factor in welfarist states that fosters helplessness. It’s the story of Saudi Arabia

[A]ter 1950, the state focused on intervention and pre-distribution: This legitimated it as a premier player in the political economy of the region, which created norms, expectations, and practices that have become long-enduring. (csid.8)

Inhibitions created by globalist interventions and frames of mind

The political economic marginalization of some Islamic societies during the 20th century caused these societies to be ill-placed for healthy developments (or genuinely modernizing effects) of recent economic globalization (unlike Asian societies), thus being left to "benefit" from the compensatory impositions of top-down "development" programs.

Due to Pakistan's various forms of governance and economic conditions, including military dictatorships and harsh regulations imposed by the IMF and the World Bank.... globalization has had a very negative impact on Pakistan, and that external interference has led to a distortion of Pakistan's political economy and retarded its growth....[W]ithout external intervention, Pakistan would have learned to work with democratic institutions. (csid.8)

[T]he imposition of "western sacred/profane dualism on the Islamic world may affect development by either fomenting the dualistic tendencies of Islamic revivalists, or by marginalizing Islam to the realm of the sacred."...[E]nforcing the western construction of religion on Muslim societies [may] lead them to some of the same pitfalls of western democracies, namely rampant economic inequality and unjust economic development. (csid.2)

[T]he word Allah in journalism is understood as an exclusive God specific to Muslims, whereas the use of God implies a universality of "our God" as opposed to "their God." She also examined the meanings of the words jihad and hirabah by stating that jihad is understood to denote holy war, when in fact, it means "the struggle to be the best that you can be," and that the word hirabah should be used to describe wanton acts of violence or war against society. (csid.10)

Domestic roots of terrorism

We’re made only too aware of the domestic backgrounds of terrorism which then inhibit development in those societies that spawn terrorists.

Those countries that have weak civil society structures and authoritarian regimes are fertile ground for terrorists. sr93

Beyond its murderousness, a tragedy of terrorism is that it fosters the inhibitive social conditions that spawns more terrorism.

If western countries want to suppress terror then they must foster civil society and support movements that bolster democratic trends within these repressive political systems. sr93

It seems to me that U.S. policy has long supported the development of civil society in Muslim regions, but lacking colonialist engagements (unlike Europe), the U.S. has found itself having to support given governments for the sake of regional stability, and those governments have been repressive. It has been the U.S. interest in global economic stability (the general condition for regional development), not repression, that has guided U.S. policy. So, I disagree that:

The United States has generally accepted the fiction that repression in the Muslim world is the best way to prevent Islamism from growing as a threat to the West and to U.S. interests. sr93

The U.S. more or less created UN development programs, the World Bank, and the IMF, which have been generally constructive institutions, despite critical mistakes. This is certainly a fertile theme for further attention, as anti-Americanism has become in inhibitive force unto itself.

Progressive development programming

development and freedom

Obviously, "the lack of political freedom and transparency is the reason for the deficit in human development. (csid.4) Yet,

Despite the degree to which human rights are suppressed in Muslim countries, two grassroots movements are struggling to change this situation. Women are beginning to effectively assert their rights, and in some countries young people are agitating against government oppression. sr93

May the mother-child relationship save the world.

Anyone who’s familiar with Chicago philosopher of law Martha Nussbaum would have to be deeply impressed by her street level engagement with programs for the development of women in India and her earlier work for development policy through the U.N.—my heroine. (Frankly, she may seem to antiquate the public intellectual as model for bridging theory and practice.)

inspiration of recent elections around the world

Democratic elections held in Iraq and Palestine, along with the democratic changes that have swept through Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, have had an impact across the Arab world. (csid.6)

"Images of Iraqis walking to the polls [that] were visible on satellite television from Morocco to Malaysia" created a dynamic picture of the march toward freedom in the 21st century....[E]vents in Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia [are] reminders that democratic reform in the [Arab] Muslim world is fast becoming a reality.... "An opposition [in Egypt] rallying around the banner of Kafiya [Arabic for enough]" also created another image from the Muslim democratic dynamic. (csid.6)

In this regard, Aljazeera and Al Arabiya may do as much for instituting a democratic ethos as do specific leaders leading up to local electoral events. The planetary eyewitnessing never sleeps, and cannot die.

Facilitating creative bridgework for progressive realism:
theory <-> policy <-> activism

The Council for the Study of Islam and Democracy may be paradigmatic of what it means for academics to construct realistic bridges to progressive practice: "bringing together scholars and activists from the West and the Islamic heartlands" to shape a "commonality of perspective and aspirations" (csid.12) for engineering the complex relationship between democracy and development through a "proper framework" (csid.12) that bridges Theory/theory with experienced practices. Their 2005 Conference provided

a frank and open atmosphere where discussions by Muslim activists engaged in democratic reform in their home countries can help policy makers and scholars understand the difficulties faced by Muslim societies undergoing democratic reform. (csid.5)

Here, the philosopher and the religionist have common cause in shaping understanding of the spirit of humanity.

New interpretations of [sacred] texts are particularly important in relation to the status of women, relations between Sunnis and Shiites, relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, the role of Muslims in non-Muslim societies, and Islamic economic theories. Most scholars would limit the practice of ijtihad to specialists who have not only knowledge of the Qur'an and the hadiths but also broad familiarity with a wide range of modern scholarship in Arabic grammar, logic, philosophy, economics, and sociology. Other scholars assert that interpretation of the texts should not be confined to legal scholars but should be open to those with creative imagination. Muslim scholars and leaders in the United States and other Western societies have particular opportunities as well as a responsibility to lead a revival of ijtihad. Muslim scholars in the West have the freedom to think creatively while still being faithful to the texts, and their new interpretations could stimulate new thinking among the more traditional religious establishments in Muslim countries. sr125

activist priorities

[T]the four aspects of Muslim society that need to change in order to "expedite development and growth " and [to] curb the rise of extremism"[are] cultural, economic, educational, and geo-political. (csid.11)

In other words, a holism of thinking is required. There is need for conceptualization that is comprehensive of the human interest in knowledge across such a scale. In the competition of worldviews, extremism is defeatable epistemically.

According to [presenter] Farha's agenda for change in the Muslim world, Muslims need to [1] reclaim their faith from the extremists who have hijacked it; [2] promote literacy; [3] support vocational and technical training; [4] resolve long-standing regional conflicts; and [5] establish financial sector institutions. (csid.11)

We armchair progressives are great at appreciating need for conflict resolution, playing referee and arbiter so comfortably. But the real progressive work is done in actually promoting literacy (not just theorizing it), designing and implementing employment development programs, and instituting financial sector institutions. So, the place of theory here should be relative to the realities of actually doing that. In other words, the real work to be done is very technical within a realistically broad-based understanding of the practical epistemic continuum from higher education to "the street." It’s an "engineering" complex of problems (in, of course, an enlightened enrichment of the notion of engineering), nested (ideally) within a postmetaphysicalist holism that enjoys the place of religion in the public sphere.

Abstractly, this includes networking across modes of activity, development of capability, and institutional coordination of durable (intergenerational) reforms.


[CSID-type] forums are crucial for the development of an international network promoting democracy in the Arab and Muslim world. (csid.5)

Can the Internet be network heaven? Of course, extremists think so. So, theory <-> policy <-> activism interfaces have to be smarter: networking institutional resourcefulness globally, out-constructing the destructionists with better organization, better resourcefulness—better "wealth"—in order to rob extremists of their basis.

development priorities

But only Muslims in their own heartland can adequately address one CSID presenter’s list of obvious "essential movements":

(1) promoting political awareness among the masses and eliminating illiteracy;

(2) fighting poverty and strengthening a weak economy;

(3) liberating the religious establishment from the influence of dictatorial governments by allowing religious authorities to function outside of the realm of government;

4) honoring the role of women in the Arab world since democracy can not take root if half of the society is denied such fundamental rights as voting and holding parliamentary positions; and

(5) promoting democracy by stressing the democratic principles of Islamic doctrine to reverse the trend of oppressive dictatorial regimes that have plagued the history of Muslim states. (csid.11)

Westerners have to excellently communicate what may be replicable from their own modernization journey, while being exemplars of collaborative, coordinative change in the theory <-> policy <-> activism interface. Realistically theorizing collaborative, coordinative change through this interface may be what a Habermasian is most well-situated to do.

institutional coordination

But engineering social evolution requires that Critical Theorists outgrow alienation from strategical thinking, strong leadership, and technological competence. The undoing of "brilliant" change programs is lack of administrative competence. Management theory has probably done more to alleviate poverty over the past couple of decades than social theory over the past century (let alone Critical Theory) due to the former’s openness to social learning (managerial ambition) and the latter’s ambivalence toward organizational capability (the ivory tower of "Enlightenment").

I suppose it’s a mark of my life-based animus that the above polemic is caused by the following tame passage from the CSID Conference summary:

The crisis of the mid ‘80s and ‘90s encouraged Morocco to open its doors to international financial institutions. Bennett confirmed that the lack of clarity of basic definitions between bureaucrats and state associations caused identity problems (e.g., deciding who is in charge of which position, and who is responsible for basic developmental tasks). Bennett added that since Moroccan associations have a great impact on society, working through the bureaucracy to establish socio-economic development is crucial. (csid.4)

American Muslims need organization and lobbying competence

[One presenter] criticized American Muslims for not having representation in the American government after maintaining a communal presence in America for nearly a century. He also emphasized how American Muslims do not yet constitute a proper polity, and have not yet established sound financial bases and large institutions [that cause them] to be successful. (csid.7)

U.S. Arabs might do well to take lessons from the Israeli lobby.

Philosopher in a crowd

My longstanding experience with so-called Critical Theory causes me to believe that it promotes rejectionist positions that marginalize capability from the enabling and organizational processes that have real promise of actualizing the ideals that Critical Theory applauds. In short, it’s "ivory tower" work. Critical Theory should need to outgrow its abstraction from real bridgework between theory and practice.

My brief presentation here dramatizes the above point in terms of the issue of Islam and democracy, by just more-or-less framing a small context of scholar/activist involvement in terms that can be extended into realistic philosophical theory. I most certainly haven’t begun to exhibit a detailed entrance into that issue of Islam and democracy. But, after all, I’m not a Muslim living in Arabia. But I am appreciative, I hope, of what can be a progressive role for philosophy in facilitating the theory <-> policy <-> activism interface.

Extending this particular context, I would show, for example, how the old Gadamer-Habermas debate may serve the interface of Western and Islamic hermeneutics to critically facilitate postmetaphysicalist enlightenment through educational and emancipatory processes. Or I would show how the above, considered altogether, sets a proper stage for understanding what Habermas means my "transcendence within this world."

But the above presentation is an overtly ad hoc example of facilitating the interface that I could apply to literally tens of other topics. But, ironically, I feel compelled to perform the complement, e.g., showing how the self-formativity of postmetaphysicalist thinking originates in natural evolutionary dynamics.

So, what next? Who knows, as I’m just going with the flow. I’d have great fun discovering how my naïveté about Islam and democracy is exposed here through deeper reading (and/or the guidance of those who are too busy to have responded to my query on the issue). For example, Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, by Khaled Abou El Fadl, Princeton UP, 2004; or Islam and Democracy in the Middle East, edited by Larry Diamond et al., Johns Hopkins UP, 2003, both of which are on one of my bookshelves. So much worth understanding, so little time.

Also: This discussion is associated with the “being in Time” area of

Be fair. © 2017, g. e. davis