Islam and Democracy?

The current developments in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world are not happening in a vacuum. They represent a broader trend relating Islam to democracy. This trend is amply evident here at the conference in Tirana.

To many in the West, a democratic Islam seems a contradiction in terms. To the Muslim scholars here, however, from a wide variety of nations, Islam and democracy are not only compatible. Democracy and Islam are necessary partners.

According to Professor Nadir Adilov of Tajikistan, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) prevailed in the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century precisely because he proceeded democratically. Adilov argued that "democracy was [the Prophet’s] weapon to win people’s minds and hearts, since hearts are not won with guns but with goodness." Needless to say, such an argument counters the usual perception that Islam was spread by war. Fethullah Gülen puts the point this way, quoting the early twentieth-century Muslim reformer Said Nursi: "victory with civilized persons is won by persuasion."

Commenting on the particular legacy of Islam in Albania, Professor Gjergi Sinani invoked de Tocqueville’s vision of democracy in America. For Tocqueville, of course, voluntary religion was a catalyst for democratic participation. This point was reinforced by Professor Hervé Legrand of the University of Paris, who noted the recent emergence of democracy in Albania as an example of how "under a free regime, religions will no longer be perceived as forces antagonistic to freedom. And, similarly, it will become obvious that [religious] vitality springs from [its] own spiritual forces and not from the support religions get from the states, which, admittedly, often use them to reach their own goals which are never purely spiritual ones, as history teaches us."

Noting the difficulty when religion and ethnicity intertwine, as in the recent conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Dr. Dzemal Latiç of Sarajevo contended that Fethullah Gulen’s thought, built on the Qur’an, properly "questions any political regime that does not allow freedom of thought, freedom of belief and freedom of choice." Finally, Professor Ihsan Yilmaz of Turkey connected Islam to political currents of peacebuilding around the globe, drawing from his recent book, edited with Georgetown University's John Esposito, Islam and Peacebuilding: Gulen Movement Initiatives.

It will not be easy to overcome the stereotypes associating Islam with authoritarianism and violence. But as the arguments of scholars and activists here in Tirana from around the globe make clear:  the effort is definitely underway.