Saturday, February 26, 2011

Kupchan on Democracy in the Middle East

Charles A. Kupchan

In an opinion piece for the New York Times titled "Be Careful What You Wish For" (February 24, 2011), Charles Kupchan offers a cautious reminder on euphoria concerning the revolutions sweeping the Arab world:
Western observers and policy makers had better stop operating under the illusion that the spread of democracy to the Middle East also means the spread of Western values.
Actually, a number of commenters have made this point, but the point is worth making again, and Kupchan expresses succinctly the civilizational difference and historical development that account for his caution:
In the West, modernity has meant the separation of church and state. Christianity is a religion of faith, not law; its outsized influence on European politics during the medieval era stemmed from a longstanding alliance between secular rulers and the Catholic Church. After the Protestant Reformation, politics in the West took a secular turn that only deepened with the arrival of democracy.

In contrast, Islam is a religion of faith and law, in which there is no separation between the sacred and the secular. Beginning soon after the birth of Islam in the 7th century, state and mosque became inextricably bound.
More democracy in the Gaza strip, for instance, has brought the Islamist movement Hamas to power, and democratic elections in the 1990s would have brought Islamists to power in Algeria if the military there had not intervened. Consequently:
This track record makes clear that the more democratic the Middle East becomes, the greater the role that Islam -- even if a moderate brand -- will play in its politics. This outcome is neither good nor bad; it is simply a reality in a part of the world where politics and religion are intertwined.
Neither good nor bad? I wouldn't put the point quite like that myself. The democratic outcome can be tolerable, if moderate Islam plays a moderate role, although a clear separation of mosque and state would be better, but relations with the governments that arise can be very bad if serious Islamists take power with an intent to impose shariah domestically and to offer hostility in foreign policy. Recall Iran in 1979.

Current signs are that these democratic revolutions may play themselves out differently in different countries. Tunisia might get a secular government like in the West. Egypt might get an Islamist Muslim Brotherhood hankering to be like Gaza's Hamas. Libya might get the tribal chaos reminiscent of Somalia. And I won't even try to imagine any 'mighty' eventualities elsewhere.

Not that my imagination isn't working . . .

Labels: , ,


At 3:54 PM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

Hasn't Kupchan mistakenly overstated his case, and opened his otherwise valid point to distracting criticism, by claiming that Christianity is a religion "merely" of faith, and not also law?

At 4:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The Catholic Church has its canon law, but that applies only to the Church, not to society.

Kupchan might be thinking more of Protestantism's "grace" versus "law," grounded in Pauline theology.

As a matter of contrast between Christianity and, say, Judaism, the former is a religion not characterized by "law." Christ is understood as having fulfilled the law and thereby set it aside.

The contrast also holds between Christianity and Islam.

But closely considered, one would have to concede the existence of rules even in Christianity.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 8:57 AM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

I take your point, but it seems to me that the historical reality of Christinaity is one in which a religion that was one of laws as much as faith, the christological fulfillment notwithstanding, only became one more of faith and less of laws as a consequence of the success of the secular political sphere in spearating itself from the church.

At 9:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The Church was actively involved in politics after Constantine, and in the chaos following the fall of the Roman Empire, the popes had temporal power, but there was always a distinction between sacred and secular, between religion and state, even if the separation wasn't always acknowledged.

The Middle Ages were a time of conflict between the Church and secular rulers over the degree of temporal authority to be wielded by the Church, so the issue wasn't entirely clear on the matter of Church law and the extent of its authority.

Anyway, the point about Christianity not being a religion of law makes the most sense when compared with Judaism and Islam, where religious law, in principle, was to hold over the secular realm, and where there was not, even in principle, a legitimate role for secular law. This is even more true of Islamic law than Jewish law.

The point is often exaggerated, as if the Church had no law, but it obviously did (and does). And even theologically, law plays an important role in Christian thinking, for its significance has to be understood in the so-called economy of salvation, as something fulfilled but part of the plan.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 3:46 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Intersting . . . this is a question that can only produce equivacal answers, for I find myself agreeing with both of you. Perhaps the question itself is the issue?

Or perhaps I am missing some key point?

Suffice it to say that "Christian" countries have law codes--"flexible" law codes.

And in English (and American) law, Common law is the fountain head, not Christianity? But this thinking again produces more equivocation, doesn't it?

Alternatively, the US Constitution is the foundation of American Law, and the Constitution is essentially an "enactment" of Locke's English "Independent" Christian political philosophy.

At 5:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Law is important in Christianity, but in a different sense than in Islam.

Theologically, the difference is that religious law in Islam tells the Muslim what is necessary for salvation and is achievable through one's own efforts, but religious law in Christianity tells the Christian what would be necessary for salvation if this were achievable through one's own efforts.

Politically, the difference is that religious law in Islam tells the Muslim that a theocracy based on revealed religious law is necessary for the good Muslim to live a properly pious life, but religious law in Christianity tells the Christian almost nothing about a theocracy based on revealed religious law being necessary for the good Christian to live a properly pious life.

That's about as pithy as I can put the distinction, but I think that it's about right.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home