Beware philosophers bearing simple answers – Sharia and democracy

by Rhodri C. Williams

The BBC Magazine is currently running a series by philosopher Roger Scruton on democracy. In the latest installment, he gives his views on the compatibility of Islamic Shari’a law and democracy. As with a fair bit of what I read on these topics, I took issue. A little more unusually this time, I took issue strongly enough to be moved to reply.

Scruton’s starting point is a comparison of the states of Eastern Europe that resulted from the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 with the states that resulted further south from the simultaneous dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. While such a comparison undoubtedly provides a useful analytical window into the current tumult in the Middle East, that is where my agreement with Mr. Scruton ends.

Quite simply put, Scruton’s analysis treats the two categories of post-imperial states as antithetical, positing a nearly unbridgeable divide in historical experience and political culture and going on to issue a fatwa on the incompatibility of Shari’a with democracy. To me, this argument not only essentialises and oversimplifies the diverse experiences of entire regions but also misses the wonderful opportunity that the recognition of obvious commonalities would provide to draw historical lessons relevant both to the Middle East and the (less dramatically so but undoubtedly troubled) frontiers of Europe.

Scruton begins by taking the European successor states to Austria-Hungary as a paradigm of successful democratization based on two assertions: first that these states “were not arbitrary creations” but ones whose boundaries “reflected long-standing divisions of language, religion, culture and ethnicity”; and, second that the populations of these states reserved their highest loyalty to their own nation, rather than to any supranational organizing principle such as religion. This in turn facilitated a system of homogenous normalcy – with states as “settled political entities, each with a government elected by the citizens who live on its soil” – and allowed the crafting of legislation appropriate to national conditions, unfettered by supervening supra-national allegiances.

Ottoman successor states are represented as the polar opposite, not only arbitrary in the sense of having been hacked out of the Empire as units bearing “no relation to the pre-existing loyalties of the people” but also wired for instability through a supposed higher devotion of their various citizens to the ideal of recreating a supra-national religious community. This higher devotion is seen as presenting a clear and present danger where democratic politics slip into demagoguery and Shari’a becomes the perfect campaign promise, responsive to deeply cherished values of the electorate but so ill-defined as to be meaningless as a guide to concrete legislation.

In this world of cogent European nation-states and arbitrary Middle-Eastern polity-fragments, Turkey and Egypt are set out as exceptions, in the sense that the former made the jump to European national coherence but now risks being dragged once again into the sump of Islamic revanchism, while the latter is portrayed as struggling on the knife edge of this divide.

In both cases, democracy is implicitly pitted against the creation of a stable political order, with examples including Ataturk’s imposition of the conditions for a “comparatively open and prosperous country that could turn a proud face to the modern world” and the military’s subsequent interventions “to uphold Ataturk’s vision”. In Egypt, the matter is similarly straightforward, it seems:

The posters waved by Morsi’s supporters did not advocate democracy or human rights. They said: “All of us are with the Sharia.” The army replied by saying no, only some of us are.

Meanwhile, appeals to Shari’a are described as inimical to the fundamental principle of legal positivism because doctrines allowing progressive interpretation of religious law were discouraged in the 8th century.

Trying to introduce Sharia today therefore runs the risk of imposing on people a system of law designed for the government of a long since vanished community and unable to adapt to the changing circumstances of human life. To put the point in a nutshell – secular law adapts, religious law merely endures.

Moreover, precisely because Sharia has not adapted, nobody really knows what it says. Does it tell us to stone adulterers to death? Some say yes, some say no. Does it tell us that investing money at interest is in every case forbidden? Some say yes, some say no.

It is hard to know where to start with all of this, except to say that (1) the outset position of much of Eastern Europe was far worse than Scruton lets on, and (2) the current state of the Middle East is in some respects more promising than characterized. The grand thesis being that, like it or not, we are all in the same, or at least similar boats. Even ‘advanced’ democracies are capable of setbacks, and everyone else can be expected to spend several generations crawling before they walk. Some observers question whether assumptions of linear progress toward democracy are justified at all, but nobody doubts that experience counts. But to do justice to Scruton, let’s take points 1 and 2 above in more detail:

Eastern European national borders not arbitrary?

The idea that post-Austro-Hungarian boundaries “reflected long-standing divisions of language, religion, culture and ethnicity” is simply ahistorical. Scruton does admit that the “whole arrangement collapsed within two decades”, but attributes this to external factors such as “the rise of Nazism and communism, both ideologies of conquest.” Moreover, he treats World War II and the Cold War as an aberration, with today’s array of democratic East European nation-states a return to welcome normality.

Let us step back for a second. First, Eastern Europe was always a very mixed place. The only genuine “ideologies of conquest” in this picture were the feudal and imperial ones that fostered multinational empires through a political dynamic focused on territorial expansion regardless of the “language, religion, culture and ethnicity” of whoever happened to get in the way.

Moreover, whatever good faith went into to the redrawing of European borders after World War I, the historical record shows that just as much arbitrariness, incompetence, political spoils and victor’s justice played a role. As a result, the ethnic, linguistic and religious mixtures prevailing in East and Southeast Europe in the interwar years were comparable with those in the Middle East and little less combustible.

In Scruton’s own terminology, the “nation states” that emerged from Austria-Hungary were in fact fantastically “arbitrary” at birth and would require a century of horrific bloodshed to be purged into the semblance of homogeneity they enjoy now. Some regional highlights include the forced expulsions of 1.5 million Christians from Turkey and 500,000 Muslims from Greece in the early 1920s, the massacre of the Armenians, the wholesale slaughter of Europe’s Jewish and Roma minorities, and the cleansing of 15 million ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe at the end of World War II.

For proponents of non-arbitrary borders, in other words, Nazism represented an extreme form of the norm, rather than the aberration. Only communism represented something close to an ideology of conquest, with its pragmatic and inconstant commitment to international solidarity (by force, as needed). Nazism, by contrast, was an ideology that subsumed the idea of conquest for the sake of conquest to that of national consolidation.

Moreover, despite the best efforts of generations of European racial scientists and nationalists, the borders of Eastern Europe remain troublingly “arbitrary” to this day. Mixed populations remain the norm, and this diversity continues to fuel grievance, conflict and political dysfunction in a situation in which the liberal democratic norms meant to divert such tensions into politics have arguably yet to fully take root. Perhaps most notably, the bloody collapse of the former Yugoslavia only predates the bloody collapse of Syria by twenty years. However, even within the contemporary EU, the poisonous mixture of populism, political demagoguery and nationalist chauvinism that continue to fester in countries such as Hungary and Bulgaria remain deeply troubling.

The Middle East shackled to a monolithic and static vision of Shari’a?

The idea of Shari’a as an eighth century mummy capable of sucking the life force out of national legislatures in the wake of the Arab Spring is simply not convincing. The countries that are currently fending off, contending with or emerging from political transitions in the Arab world remain not only linguistically and ethnically diverse, but also include both significant religious minorities and numerous schools of thought on what Shari’a law means for the organisation of ordinary modern life. Whatever may have been pronounced in the 8th century, Shari’a law has been applied and interpreted and codified and debated by real people in real political communities around the world for thirteen centuries since, and that makes it a much more slippery fish than Mr. Scruton lets on.

In this sense, Shari’a might be compared with a regional super-constitution that will certainly leave an imprint on national constitutions and legislation but by no means a monolithic one. As demonstrated by this insightful piece on the way in which Libya continues to defeat the conventional wisdom on its political fate, the historical experience of Middle Eastern countries is diverse and will have unpredictable effects on the role that Shari’a law is likely to play in their futures. And, as pointed out in this helpful article by Clark Lombardi, the crucial factor tends not to be whether or how Shari’a is enshrined in national law so much as the nature of the institutions entrusted with actually applying it in practice.

Most countries in the world still have a long way to go before they arrive at anything like consolidation of the ideal of liberal democracy. Each is likely to find its own way (or not). In historical perspective, it is hard to see how the Shari’a of the Middle East is any worse suited than the nationalist ideologies of Eastern Europe as a vehicle for commencing the journey. One might take issue with aspects of both, but there can be little doubt of their power to mobilise.

2 responses to “Beware philosophers bearing simple answers – Sharia and democracy

  1. The great and terrible thing about blogging is the spontaneity. Although I enjoyed writing this piece tremendously and stand by it, there was something about the handling of ‘ideologies of conquest’ that nagged at me. Eventually, I realized that I had put myself at some risk of being seen as an apologist for Stalin or Hitler or – God help me – both and thought I’d better set the record straight.

    My point was that the political economy of feudalism actually required conquest. From the Roman Empire to the Ottoman, expansion was necessary to support large and populous pyramid schemes based on land. Raise armies and foster a militaristic elite to conquer territory that they will settle, work and use to build further military capacity for further conquest. When the cycle is reversed, the whole edifice begins to shake. By contrast, extreme forms of chauvinistic nationalism, such as Nazism, as well communism *may in some cases* but do not inherently depend on conquest.

    The failure to fully render that latter, fine distinction, is where I went a bit awry. I am currently reading Applebaum on the Iron Curtain for instance, and can clearly see the political dynamic that led the Soviet Union to go beyond revanchism as far as the former borders of the Russian Empire to see the conquest of Eastern Europe as an absolute necessity. I also understand that the Lebensraum concept rendered Nazism an unambiguous nationalism of conquest.

    But these urges to conquer are contextual rather than inherent. Extreme nationalism in itself does not inherently require conquest beyond places where the nation has ‘outrun’ the state. Even less so communism, at least in abstracto. So, sorry for any misunderstandings and please feel free to inform me if I have, nevertheless, misunderstood.

  2. Oh and of course Communism is also an interesting topic precisely because it has at times aspired to the creation of a super-national community united by a common creed. Golly, there goes that whole thing about Shari’a being uniquely inimical to the intellectual currents of Western political philosophy…

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