One year after the fall of Arab dictators, Islamist political parties have emerged victorious in the first democratic elections in both Tunisia and Egypt. With this success, the question “what is the prospect of democratic change in Muslim countries after the Arab Spring?” is more pertinent than ever. One of the main concerns regarding the future of democracy in these countries is centered on the ambiguous role that religion, particularly the sharia, will play in both national politics and newly enacted laws. In other words, how will these countries and, specifically, Egypt under newly elected President Mohamed Morsi, accept the separation of mosque and state and where will the borders between the two lie?
This article seeks a tentative answer to this question. By undertaking a comparative analysis of public attitudes in five Muslim countries, I seek to identify a model that new Muslim democracies, particularly Egypt, can use to sustain their democratic character.
While the two ends of the political spectrum represented by Turkey and Iran are often at the center of discussions on Islam and the modern nation state, these are not the only options on the table for those Muslim countries in transition to democracy. Selected for discussion here are five countries that each have their own unique cultural traditions, but represent a continuum of political development: Turkey, Indonesia, Tunisia, Egypt, and Iran.
This article will examine the relationship between religion, society, and the state in two relatively new, but established democracies (Indonesia, Turkey), two countries in transition from authoritarian rule (Tunisia, Egypt), and one country still struggling for democracy (Iran). Analyzing and comparing public attitudes and beliefs in these countries may provide a sense of the best and most viable path to democracy for Muslim countries in transition.
Demand for Democracy
Although some political scholars argue that democracy and Islam are incompatible (e.g. Huntington, 1993), recent examples of democratization in populous Muslim countries contradict these claims. For instance, Turkey and Indonesia both have been recognized (by Freedom in the World 2012, as well as the Economist Democracy Index 2011) as enjoying better functioning electoral democracies over the past decades. Despite these achievements, the gap between electoral and deeply embedded, civic democracy still exists in these countries, although the trend toward democratization remains promising.
The first question regarding democratic change is whether popular demand for democratic government exists. When asked about the importance of a democratic political system (in two waves of the World Value Survey in 2000 and 2005), more than 80% in Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, and Iran answered affirmatively in favor of democracy.
In answer to a similar statement that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government” (Pew Survey, 2010) or the position “democracy, whatever its limitations, is better than any other political system” (Arab Barometer, 2011), 71% in Egypt, 89% in Tunisia, 76% in Turkey, and 64% in Indonesia gave a positive answer (no results were available for Iran).
Moreover, when respondents were asked whether a country’s national constitutions should guarantee civil rights (in this instance freedom of speech), an overwhelming majority in Egypt, Indonesia, Iran and Turkey agreed. A similar survey by Gallup showed strong support in these countries for protecting freedom of religion and assembly in the drafting of democratic constitutions (Mogahed, 2006).
As these results show, all in all, the public demand for democracy and democratic civil rights over the past decade has been remarkable in these surveyed Muslim countries.
Models of Separation
To answer the main dilemma of this article, namely how to separate the voice of the people, vox populi, from that of God, vox dei, we must first distinguish between different forms and varieties of secularization.
Considering a well-known theory of secularism (Casanova, 1994), we can distinguish three types of secularization or three kinds of “separation”. The first (imaginary) type of secularization is that of “pure secularism,” in which God has died and religion becomes a myth separated from the voice of the people (e.g. the French model). The second type of secularization is “societal secularism,” in which religion is privatized and separated from public life. Secularization at the level of society can be top-down or bottom-up. The third type of secularization is “political secularism,” in which secular modes of governance separate religion from political power. While these three types of secularization may not always accompany each other, they may appear within one country in various overlapping ways. For example, the secularization of the state does not automatically imply the decline of public religion.
In order to evaluate the popularity and feasibility of these three types of secularism in Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, Egypt, and Tunisia, public attitudes toward the following three issues will be analyzed separately: the importance of religion, the public practice of religion, and the relationship between religion and politics.
(1) Importance of Religion
Studies have shown that religion is an important aspect of life in all five Muslim countries. Both Gallup (2010) and the World Value Survey (2000-2005) reported that well over 80% of individuals in Indonesia, Egypt, Iran, Tunisia, and Turkey agreed with the statement “religion is an important part of my daily life.” Some scholars have taken these numbers as unpromising evidence for the emergence of real, secular political governance in Muslim countries.
Although these figures eschew the plausibility of establishing “pure secularism” in Muslim societies, the value attached to religious life in these countries does not per se circumscribe how people will understand the role of religion in the societal and political spheres.
(2) Public Practice of Religion
Although there are challenges to evaluating the importance of religion’s social role, questions from a 2010 Gallup survey may help demystify this issue. In this poll, respondents were asked to rate the frequency with which they visit a place of worship or attend religious services. The results reveal the popularity of the public practice of religion, which may provide indications about the importance of religion’s societal role.
Results show that significant majorities of respondents in Indonesia (79%) and Egypt (61%) engage in the public practice of religion at least once a week. On the other hand, in Iran (45%), Turkey (42%), and Tunisia (36%) less than half of respondents indicated that they attend religious services. The results of a similar question from the World Value Survey in 2005 show virtually similar results for four countries (Egypt, Indonesia, Iran and Turkey).
When comparing these numbers to the figures on the importance of religion, results suggest that for a majority of respondents in Turkey, Tunisia, and Iran religious practice is a private matter. While it would be premature to speak of the existence of “societal secularism” in these countries in any strong sense, these results do suggest varying degrees of “societal secularization” in these states.
Considering Turkey’s history of secularization, low figures for public religious practice in the country is unsurprising. However, the results from Iran are striking. Despite the government’s lasting efforts to Islamicize all aspects of social life, the majority of Iranian respondents do not attend public religious services. Because societal secularization is never completely autonomous and independent from modes of governance, the increasing privatization (of religion) in Iran may be a reaction to the imposition of Islamic practices by the state.
Finally, given the popularity of public religious practices in Egypt and Indonesia, one might argue that “societal secularism” – the style of governance most similar to Turkey – would be an inappropriate model of secularism for these two countries. However, the public practice of religion cannot per se reject the plausibility of a separation of religion and state.
(3) The Relationship between Religion and Politics
For many, the future of democracy in transitional Muslim countries, like Egypt and Tunisia, turns on the relationship between religion and politics. Many believe that if Islam plays a dominant role in politics then civil rights and liberties will be seriously harmed and democracy will soon become theocracy. The case of the Islamic Republic of Iran is usually cited as evidence of this outcome.
The public attitude in Muslim countries toward the separation between religion and the state can be evaluated from a Gallup poll in which respondents were asked whether “Sharia must be the only source of legislation.” A majority of respondents (66%) in Egypt gave an affirmative answer to this question, the highest response rate among the Muslim countries surveyed. By contrast, support for this view was low in Indonesia (14%), Turkey (7%), Iran (13%) and Tunisia (17%), suggesting that in these countries separating religion from politics is popular.
This is further confirmed by results from the World Value Survey of 2005, in which respondents were asked whether religious authorities within a democratic country should have authority to interpret the laws (shown in the figure below). In Turkey, Indonesia, and Iran (no result was available for Tunisia) the response to these questions were nearly equal to those from the Gallup poll. Moreover, in another survey question by Gallup in 2006, a small percentage of respondents in Indonesia (24%), Iran (26%) and Turkey (16%) supported a direct role for religious leaders in drafting the country’s constitution (Mogahed, 2006).