The Long and Winding Road to Secular Democracy

By Nick Danforth

Following the electoral success of Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt, a vexing question is once again in the news: how can Islam and democracy healthily coexist? Unfortunately, debates over the importance and difficulty of separating "mosque and state" often become confused by the obvious (if seldom stated) comparison: the evolution of secularism in Christian Europe.

After a decade's worth of arguing, everyone seems happy to stick to their rival assumptions about  Christianity and Islam— Some people take it for granted that Christianity was always more secular, some find this idea too ridiculous to even discuss.

But assumptions have dangers. Those who only see the fundamental differences between Islam and Christianity too often conclude that if democracy cannot prevail in the Muslim Middle East, autocracy might be a safer choice. Those who follow their (usually reliable) instinct to focus on the similarities, however, often cannot explain the success of Islamist parties as anything other than a reaction to secular autocracy. Seeing the counter-intuitive chain of events that led to secular democracy in Europe will help both sides better appreciate the challenge facing the Middle East.

There really was an important historical difference between church-state relations in the Christian and Islamic worlds— but certainly not because Christianity itself was any more secular than Islam. Rather, the separation of church and state in Europe took shape from the unique institution of the Vatican, and its millennia-long fight against the separation of church and state. In fact, for years the only thing church leaders and their monarchical counterparts agreed on was that church and state should be united. They just disagreed over who should be holding the reins.  And this fight for  power kept church and state at odds.

In short, after the Roman Empire fell, the pope maintained control over the church (and its extensive property) throughout Western Europe. The pope’s earthly power frequently brought him into conflict with Europe's local kings. When these  rulers tried to seize church land or appoint bishops, the church called on its considerable allies and resources to resist. In its purest form, this conflict would pit some of Europe's most powerful rulers—Charlemagne, several Holy Roman Emperors, and King Philip IV of France—against the pope over the question of whether  kings should choose the pope or  the pope should choose the kings. Both sides might well have been happy to play the role of the Islamic Caliph, with the joint spiritual and temporal authority it entailed. But though both church and state relied on the other for legitimacy,  neither could permanently gain the upper hand.

The different situation in the Islamic world can be partly explained by the lack of any powerful equivalent to the Vatican. When Sultan Selim the Grim conquered Egypt in 1517, for example, he simply took the title of Caliph back to Istanbul, where he delegated responsibility for church affairs to a religious leader under his authority. Looked at in another light, Selim succeeded in doing what Philip the IV failed to do in the 14th century, when he tried to create a French papacy in Avignon that would answer  to him. Selim could transplant the Caliphate, but Philip could not craft a viable rival to the Vatican.

Ironically, the Protestant Reformation was in many ways a step back for the separation of church and state in Europe. Free of the Vatican's control, Henry VIII, for example, elevated himself to a position analogous to the Caliph's. Over the next several centuries, English monarchs ruled as the head of church and state alike while their country evolved into a liberal democracy and industrial superpower. The papacy, by contrast, only belatedly came to terms with  democracy at the beginning of the 20th century—after having its temporal power stripped by men like Robespierre and Garibaldi. Crucially, when the French revolution abolished the church, the Vatican didn't disappear. It remained in Rome, where, after a century of denouncing democracy, liberalism, and progress, it grudgingly accepted a new role in the world as the cost of remaining relevant. In modern Turkey, by contrast, when Ataturk's revolution (following the French example) abolished the Caliphate, the religious body disappeared. As a result there was less opposition to secular reforms, but also no institution to eventually accept them on behalf of the faithful. The balance of institutions, long entrenched by conflict in Europe, was not duplicated in the Middle East.

So what lessons does this hold for dealing with Islamists in the Middle East today? First, it suggests that in evaluating Islamist governments we should pay attention to institutions as well as ideology. What matters are not just the religious inclinations of the governing party, but also the party's structural relationship to the religious establishment it claims to represent.  Worried about religious opposition, a generation of secular dictators has done everything possible to bring religious life and all its features under state control. As a result, victorious religious parties are (thanks to their predecessors) positioned to take over not just the state, but the religious machinery that goes with it.

This leads to the second lesson: don't expect Islamic societies to necessarily arrive at secular democracy by the same winding, chaotic path  Europe did. In the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, secularism evolved under a united church and state. In France and Italy, secularism emerged through the state’s victory over the church. There’s no reason to think that Middle Eastern countries need to replicate either model. Calls for an Islamic Martin Luther or a Muslim ‘reformation’ are particularly unhelpful. This approach not only implies that democracy is out of reach for the Catholic world, but also assumes that secularism in Europe was a product of enlightened theology not politics. Rather than push reductive solutions that ignore a complex history, policymakers in the West should have the courage and patience to address the Middle East's evolution on its own terms.


Nick Danforth is a doctoral student in history at Georgetown University.

[Photo courtesy of Ryan Godfrey]

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