Islam and Liberal Democracy
A Historical Overview
Journal of Democracy 7.2 (1996) 52-63
In a necessarily brief discussion of major issues, it is fatally easy to go astray by misuse or
misinterpretation of some of the words that one uses. Therefore, I ought to say first what I mean
by the terms "Islam" and "liberal democracy."
Democracy nowadays is a word much used and even more misused. It has many meanings and
has turned up in surprising places--the Spain of General Franco, the Greece of the colonels, the
Pakistan of the generals, the Eastern Europe of the commissars--usually prefaced by some
qualifying adjective such as "guided," "basic," "organic," "popular," or the like, which serves to
dilute, deflect, or even to reverse the meaning of the word.
Another definition of democracy is embraced by those who claim that Islam itself is the only
authentic democracy. This statement is perfectly true,
one accepts the notion of democracy
presupposed by those who advance this view. Since it does not coincide with the definition of
democracy that I take as the basis of this discussion, I will leave it aside as irrelevant for present
The kind of democracy I am talking about is none of these. By liberal democracy, I mean
primarily the general method of choosing or removing governments that developed in England
and then spread among English-speaking peoples and beyond.
In 1945, the victors of the Second World War imposed parliamentary democracy on the three
major Axis powers. It survives in all three,
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precariously, perhaps, in one. In none
of them has it yet confronted any crisis of truly major proportions. Among the Allies, Britain and
France bequeathed their own brands of democracy--with varying success--to their former
colonies during the postwar retreat from empire.
Perhaps the best rule of thumb by which one can judge the presence of the kind of democracy I
mean is Samuel P. Huntington's dictum that you can call a country a democracy when it has
made two consecutive, peaceful changes of government via free elections. By specifying
elections, Huntington rules out regimes that follow the procedure that one acute observer has
called "one man, one vote, once." So I take democracy to mean a polity where the government
can be changed by elections as opposed to one where elections are changed by the
Americans tend to see democracy and monarchy as antithetical terms. In Europe, however,
democracy has fared better in constitutional monarchies than in republics. It is instructive to
make a list of those countries in Europe where democracy has developed steadily and without
interruption over a long period, and where there is every prospect that it will continue to do so in
the foreseeable future. The list of such countries is short and all but one of them are monarchies.
The one exception, Switzerland, is like the United States in that it is a special case due to special