Sunday, May 13, 2007

If God is For Us, Who Can Be Against Us? Rom 8:31

If God is For Us, Who Can Be Against Us? Rom 8:31

Why Religion and Democracy Can Never Share the Same Government.

Benjamin Parrish Cook

Dublin City University

Only secular democracies can be true democracies[1]. There is no such thing as a discriminatory democracy. By rule you must have equal access to the public apparatus in order to meet the most basic definition of democracy. Overly contextual religious “democracies” can never fully protect the rights of those with religions other than that of the state. The act of “othering” a non state religion is discrimination in and of itself.[2] Then there are the practical implications of trying to protect the “other” religion institutionally discriminated against. Inevitably you run into an attempt at “separate but equal”. The concept of separate but equal does not work. It is merely a stop-gap measure at best and a road to back room discrimination at worse. Naming a specific religion as incompatible to democracy, as is often done with Islam, is not necessary because it is not the type of religion that does not fit with democracy it is religion itself.

This essay deals only with the most basic definition of democracy; rule by the people, and as a subset, equal access to the public apparatus.[3] There are many other “democracies” out there. Most are one-off efforts at naming a system of governance that is in fact not yet a democracy but is either on its way to being so or is close enough to warrant the hasty label. Many of these one-off efforts include facets of Liberal Democracy but do not include the most basic piece, that of equal access.[4]

Religion has traditionally played an important and upfront roll in government and politics. In the US it is still a hot button issue. The removal of public school prayer, “God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, and “In God We Trust” from currency are still debated in the courts and streets of what can be considered the first substantive republican democracy if not the current bench mark for Liberal Democracy.[5] There is no perfect democracy but in order to be considered one you must meet certain minimal standards. Some standards only require loose adherence and others require strict. The one thing that must be protected and promoted above all else is the rule of the people, and that translated is equal access to the public apparatus. By this I mean no institutional discrimination that limits any person from voting or interacting with the government, be it applying for government aid or running for public office. In so far as religion operates to include people in the public apparatus it may work for a time.[6] But as religion becomes divisive, as it always does between believers and non believers, it will work to separate.

Equal Access

One does not need to look far to find stories of equal access granted by religious historical figures.[7] Nor does one have to look far to see the contemporary absence of that access today. Religious leaders through out the Arab world call for boycotts of elections and from government participation hoping to spoil the legitimacy of fledgling democracies if religious majorities are not assured. As stated before in the short term religion and democracy can co-occupy the same governmental space. However, eventually dominance will need to be established. An appropriate and current example is Indonesia. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world yet its governance is not dominated by any one religion.[8] A look at Indonesia’s constitution shows belief in one God codified. This codification has been a source of pluralistic pride and a source of political violence between nationalists and Islamists. On the one hand the compromise of having a generic term other than “Allah” used to signify monotheism is a pluralistic success.[9] On the other, through out the past 30 years Indonesia has struggled to find a democratic foot hold because of the instability of these issues as well as for economic reasons. This struggle has resulted in a dangerously strong military involvement in politics.[10] However, access to the public apparatus while dominated by the military is still open to all. In the Indonesian Representative Council 2004 elections 50% of the seats are held by 3 parties (none of which are blatantly religious) and the remaining seats by 21 other parties. The presidential election saw the top three candidates/parties get 33%, 26% and 22% of votes. As well, the Representative Council majority is not the same party as the president.[11] Still there are issues with religion. “Sub national law” in the provinces is often Sharia Law.[12] The influence of this sub national law is often felt on a national level as religious groups work to “other” non believers.[13]

The Damage of “Othering”

Othering is placing people in the position of “out-group”,[14] increasing “social distance” that can lead to a plethora of problems not least of which is political violence.[15] By highlighting differences hierarchical structures and stereotypical thinking can flourish. This social distance between in-group and out-group is easily exploited by what often become the power elite versus everyone else.[16] When these power elite are also the “mind guard” of religiosity the ripeness for exploitation is immense.[17] This exploitation will eventually take the form of denying access to the “others” in an attempt to remain in power thereby robbing the people of power.

Separate but equal

If we look at the move towards democracy as a continuum power elite exploitation would be on one end and liberal democracy on the other. In the middle would be an attempt at “separate but equal”. On the move to democracy once we pass elitism we find ourselves trying to have at least the appearance of equality. Most work on separate but equal division is based on race. I see no obvious reason why a generalization to all forms of discrimination would not work. In the US as in South Africa attempts were made to equalize race relations by statute.[18] Laws were enacted that codified the appearance of equality. However, the mere codification of separate but equal is an act of othering. Once again increasing the social distance between culture, race or religion. Classic examples in the US would be segregated busses and schools that were supposed to provide equal access but actually only served to exacerbate relations between black and white America. The doctrine of separate but equal highlighted the differences and did nothing to fix stereotypes or level hierarchies.[19] These stereotypical hierarchical structures be it second class citizenry, casts, kafir or dhimmitude at first blush may seem to protect minority rights by providing or protecting some sort of access,[20] in the end however history has shown that the access is anything but equal. Arab Israelis suffer institutional discrimination at varying levels.[21] And while the debate is often characterized as “ethnic” rather than “religious” the acts of othering and attempts at separate but equal are very clear.

Miss naming the problem

In this global information age there is a new metric, perhaps borderline gimmick, that I see both the media and academia increasingly utilizing –the pitting of two terms against each other in the arena of Google. The search term “Islam and Democracy” returned approximately 250,000 hits. The search term “Religion and Democracy” returned about a 100,000 less at 156,000.[22] How could one religion out number religion in general? The point is that the suitability of Islam to democracy is not as constructive a debate if religion in general is omitted. Yet Islam dominates discussions and current academic review. Religious governance is a non starter in terms of democracy. Arguments about popular sovereignty versus God’s sovereignty are moot if you can not get beyond equal representation. Sure there is academic value in almost any debate but practically speaking the Islam vs. Democracy debate misses the first and most important point, that of equal access.

It can be a Christian democracy or an Islamic democracy neither can meet the equality requirement of democratic governance. Poised to illustrate this point is Nigeria. In the Pew Research Center’s poll of Nigerian voters both Christians and Muslims ranked religion as “most important” above their country, ethnicity or continent (Muslims 91%, Christians 76%). Taken without context that polling seems innocuous enough but, in Nigeria’s 2006 census religion was such a “sensitive” issue that questions about it were not included.[23] The poll also shows a sharp divide on world views down traditional religious lines. Nigeria is set to move from a Christian controlled government to a Muslim controlled government. The world is watching cautiously.


Disenfranchisement and barriers to public office need not be as overt as barring voters from polls or harassing opposition candidates. Social exclusion that promotes an external locus of control and low self worth are just as effective a means.[24] Highlighting cultural, sectarian and religious differences leads to ethnocentrism which is in itself a false appraisal that confirms a bias against the “other” or out-group members. When this othering manifests itself in a power elite discrimination inevitably becomes institutionalized.

Failure to provide equal access to whatever the chosen “democratic” system is: electoral, liberal, illiberal, fledgling or established means that the governance at work is something other than a democracy. Upon first observation a system of governance may have all the trappings of a functioning democracy including elections, parties and tacit tolerance of opposition parties but if a religion is codified into the governance system there is no level playing field and discrimination, and by extension disenfranchisement, are rife. Religion removes a necessary but not sufficient piece of democracy that of equal access.

Finally, a few words on why. There can be many explanations as to why a theocracy or codified state religion is preferred and perhaps may work better than a democracy at least for a time. In the Arab region a lack of nationalism as a rallying point leaves the door open to religious cohesion.[25] The establishment of the US or the nebulas “West” as a common enemy often is a substitute for constructive nationalist sentiment. Further the common language of religion frames the issue. So, rather than coming together for Syria or Egypt the populace comes together for God and the defeat of a common enemy. This ingenious and all too common slight-of-hand that governments, or even religious political parties looking to reframe the debate in popular context, are a function of dissatisfaction with the current regime. The rhetoric of this deflection is crafted in a way that promotes both the missing nationalist feeling and that of the common language of religion. I ask again, “If God be for us, who can be against us?”

Arguments for a contextual democracy based on religion tread on a slippery slope. On one hand democracy has a better chance of working if it is recognizable. On the other democracy that is more “context” than democracy is no democracy at all. It does the academic community no good to continue the discussion of democracy in the context of religion and not consider the issue of institutional discrimination that is inevitable in a theocracy or state religion. It is certainly understood that tempers are high and the stakes real when you deal with religion and particularly Islam and the possibility of offense should be considered. The real offense, however, is not that of the sensibilities of a religion and its adherents but rather that of a lack of academic veracity about the compatibility of religion and democracy.

[1] This is not to say that all secular governance claiming to be democratic is in fact true democracy. Secular governance is a necessary but insufficient piece of democracy liberal, electoral or otherwise. Furthermore, any discrimination, religious or otherwise, by the government is erosive to access to the public apparatus.

[3] International Information Programs Retrieved April 5th 2007

[4] Merriam Webster

[5] The concept is no doubt debatable and an essay in and of itself.

[6] The role of religion in “getting out the vote” or facilitating democracy is often very useful but still easily exploited.

[7] Specifically the Constitution of Medina and Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar Padashah Ghazi come to mind. Ahmed, N. Retrieved April 5th, 2007

[8] CIA World Fact Book

[9] “Allah” does appear in the constitution as part of the oath of office of the president.

[10] ASEM Interfaith Dialog (2005) Jakarta Post Retrieved April, 5th 2007

[11] Retrieved April, 10th 2007

[12] Otterman, S. Council on Foreign Relations (2005) Retrieved April 10th 2007

[13] The 2005 battle over pornography between women’s groups and Islamic political parties is one example. The women’s groups feared it was a move towards establishing Sharia law as the national standard of law.

[14] The dangers of “othering” are succinctly described by Hayes, A., Devereux, E., Breen, M. (2004) A Cosy Consensus on Deviant Discourse: How the refugee and asylum seeker meta-narrative has endorsed an interpretive crisis in relation to the transnational politics of the world’s displaced persons a working paper on the dangers of social and cultural interpretation of asylum seekers. Retrieved April 14th 2007

[15] Post, J.M. (2005)Club deMadrid Addressing the Causes of Terrorism

[16] “Elite” is from the Latin “eligere” meaning: to elect. Ironically this is the crux of the discussion. The “election” of individuals to govern. So is not an “elite” what democracy is all about? Sure, if the elite are elected by the people and not by some other entity such as God or other elites that use a cycle of cronyism to concentrate power. Modern democracies still struggle with cronyism. Legislative bodies that are “common” rather than “noble” are the traditional attempt at countering too much power being vested in the traditional elites.

[17] Cook, K. Retrieved April 12th 2007

[18] Perhaps eventually Israel and the occupied territories.

[19] Just as the US courts in Plessy vs. Ferguson upheld views that there were natural differences between whites and blacks so too have Islamic courts upheld views that God’s word validates discrimination of non Muslims and women. The out come is the same, further social distance. Roche, J.P. (1951) The Future of “Separate but Equal” Phylon (1940-1956), Vol. 12, No. 3. (3rd Qtr., 1951), pp. 219-226; Sharia Law discrimination in the Maldives UN MONITORING COMMITTEE FOR WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION CONVENTION Retrieved April 14th 2007

[20] Yeor, B. (2003) National Review Online Retrieved April 10th 2007

[21] Peled, Y. (1992) The American Political Science Review, Vol. 86, No. 2. (Jun., 1992), pp. 432-443.

[22] Retrieved April 16th 2007

[23] Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (2007) Retrieved April 4th 2007

[24] Neill, J. (2006) Retrieved March 20th, 2007

[25] Early attempts at Pan Arabism also point to this possibility.

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