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Is Islam an obstacle to democracy?

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  1. Introduction.
  2. The vitality of the culturalist deterministic approach to democracy.
    1. The pillars of the culturalist thesis.
    2. The Protestant connection to democracy: Protestantism as a prerequisite to democracy.
    3. Empirical arguments in favour of the culturalist approach: Islam seen as an obstacle to democracy.
  3. The irrelevance of the deterministic culturalist approach: Historical and theoretical rejections.
    1. The significant 'multi-vocal' nature of religions.
    2. Intellectual bases promoting Islam as compatible with democracy.
    3. Illustrative exceptions of Muslim transition toward democratisation.
  4. Perspectives: Beyond the culturalist approach ? the Muslims facing democracy.
    1. The thesis revisited.
    2. The Muslim world toward democratic transition.
    3. The role of external powers in Muslim democratic transition.
  5. Conclusion.

?On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention', Tocqueville reports in Democracy in America. Even though religion cannot be considered formally as a part of the American political system, Tocqueville depicts it as the first American political institution because of its indirect effects on political life (Fradkin, 2000). Indeed, the role of religion constitutes one of the most central themes of his reflections on the issues and prospects of democracy. Thus, religion has always been a crucial question and theme in studying democracy especially in the Western world. Nevertheless, since 11 September 2001, the international spotlight has been more strongly focused than ever on the Muslim world particularly on the Middle East. The question of whether the culturalist thesis, elaborating that some religions are more compatible with democratic governance than others, has excited considerable and acute debates in recent years. This study aims primarily at showing that while no religious tradition is inherently and totally not suitable for democratic systems, the predominant practices and voices in specific religions may appear at precise times to be more or less willing to support democratic development. But, firstly, why did theorists of democracy find it natural and appropriate to examine whether one country or another was ?fit for democracy' (Sen, 1999)? In this respect, important is to account for the framework of our study in explicating the complicated and vague notion of ?democracy'. Indeed, what is democracy?

[...] To them, Islam is even one of the bases of democracy and that this form of political system does not contradict the shari'a as Allah has not prohibited democracy and that free press, political parties, or opposition are not declared illegal by the Quran. Freedom is even defended by the Quran through the command ?luikraha fi'l-din? (there is no compulsion in religion). For some authors, pluralism is not a threat to the umma as there is a scope for diversity within Muslim unity. [...]

[...] More generally, no religious tradition is either a necessary or sufficient cause of democratization or an insuperable barrier to it. Indeed, religious tradition cannot be understood as the only factor that may influence democracy, extreme poverty or ethnic conflict are too. And democracy is a question of balance between, state and society. Indeed, the state has to be held in check through various measures and institutional instruments. It should be possible for Islamic countries to move towards participatory methods that recognized and secure identities and communities. [...]

[...] Subsequently, Islam is no longer an obstacle to democracy so long as it develops norms and values in favor of democratic pluralism. Thus, the basis of our approach is the fact that religions are socially and politically situated and ?contingent'. Contexts matter a great deal in elucidating the connection between religions and democracy. Therefore, since religions are no monolithic systems, they need interpretation to provide them for meaning in a certain and particular context (Bromley, 1997). By the same token, Stepan argues that all religions are ?multi-vocal' and therefore contain intellectual and organizational resources that could help to support democratic governance (Stepan, 2001). [...]

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