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Religion is an idea. Democracy is an expression

By Richard Laidlaw - posted Wednesday, 13 August 2008

The idea that you can brand members of a religion as “a problem”, because of the fact of their religious faith, is a monstrous negation of humanity.

Yet that is what increasing numbers of non-Muslims are doing to the great religion of Islam.

It feeds the growing western view that Islam is somehow incompatible with democracy. It helps breed irrational fear that every Muslim, however inoffensive, and however much “like you” on the surface, is really a jihadist hell-bent on killing unbelievers for Allah.


For this reason we need to measure very carefully what rational critics who advance the view that it is Islam that is the problem are really saying. They are feeding off the western presumption - and it really is presumptuous - that democracy can only find its true expression in western forms of government.

One such advocate is the political writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose friend the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered over an anti-Islam film for which she wrote the script.

She - like others - overlooks the fact that democracy has many forms, including the inclusive form of collective decision-making, long lost in the west, under which leaders are informed by community views and base their decisions directly upon them.

The west likes to see Islamic societies - particularly Arab societies - as fundamentally undemocratic when in fact, if traditional social norms are being observed and have not been suborned by a history of western “liberal” intervention, it may well be more democratic than the giant and overweening bureaucracies that now encumber western advance.

Where the west sees a “strongman” - and hence some ill-defined threat - what actually exists can be simply a leader who is responding culturally and socially, within a historical context, to the modes of civic and political authority traditionally expressed in his society. (That does not make him - or her - automatically right, of course.)

It is true that Islam sticks rigidly to the substance as well as the form of its rites. It is the Christian “west” that has wandered from that particular path. Some of the results of this can be seen in the activist Protestant protestations over homosexuals achieving consecration in high church office; and, in the Catholic Church, the refusal - at high level - to accept that individuals have responsibility for their own fertility and thus may choose to use birth control.


We are invited - by among others, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of the book Infidel and who was recently a guest in Australia of the Centre for Independent Studies to discuss the Enlightenment - to conclude that Islam has not “modernised”, and to be afraid of this.

It may be that the ideas of Mohammed are incompatible with the ideas of liberal secular democracy, as Hirsi Ali said in a recent interview on ABC radio. But why is this a problem?

Would the world automatically be a better place if everywhere had a parliament on the European model? Surely it would be much better to encourage development of better serviced and more informed societies among those whose traditions do not include the unintended future dynamics of the Magna Carta and Black Death-induced feudal collapse from among the rich traditions they themselves possess?

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A transcript of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s interview with Mark Colvin on the ABC Radio programme PM on August 5 is available here. This article was first published at Tropicalities on August 6, 2008.

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About the Author

Richard Laidlaw is a former Queensland journalist and political adviser who now divides his time between Western Australia and Indonesia. He writes a blog and a diary at Email

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