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In Theory: Can Islam and democracy coexist?

February 23, 2011

Q. The pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have resonated around the world, with even the Wall Street Journal going so far as to headline one column, “The Arab World's 1989?” Hosni Mubarak's resignation from his position as president of Egypt has resulted in the installation of a military government there that is promising reform and free elections, but is dogged by further protests, which are now spreading to other Middle Eastern countries.

But can democracy take root in an Islamic society? With the Muslim Brotherhood's involvement in the protests, there seems to be a danger that even though the protesters may get what they want in terms of elections, they may end up trading secular rule for religious theocracy.

Is Islam, which in the West is inextricably linked with authoritarian rule such as that in Saudi Arabia, compatible with democracy? Is there anything American faith leaders should be, or could be, doing to influence this change?

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Of course there can be a Muslim democracy. Look at Turkey. Also, hast thou considered Indonesia, where I think the majority of the world's Muslims are located? (I do not know what form of government Indonesia has, but we certainly haven't heard much from that part of the world these days.)

It is quite provincial of those of us in the West to assume that since some Muslim states are autocratic, they all must be. It is also quite chauvinistic of us to assume that “they” haven't evolved as far as “we,” therefore “they” wouldn't know what to do with a democracy if “they” had one.

A bigger question for us in the West to answer is this: What if the Egyptians (or anybody else) actually choose, in an open and legal and democratic way, to be governed by some group such as the Muslim Brotherhood? Would we support that choice? I say that we had better, if we say we believe in democracy.

Otherwise, we're bigger hypocrites than those in charge in Tehran.

The Rev. C. L. “Skip” Lindeman

La Cañada Congregational Church, United Church of Christ

La Cañada

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