Righting America

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What Might Islamists Teach Americans About Democracy? | Righting America

by Ahmed Khanani

Ahmed Khanani, author of All Politics are God’s Politics: Moroccan Islamism and the Sacralization of Democracy (Rutgers University Press, January 2021), is Plowshares Assistant Professor of Politics and co-director of the Center for Social Justice at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. Ahmed’s research brings together thinkers and insights from a broad array of disciplines and fields in the hopes of centering historically marginalized peoples and, hopefully, asking a thoughtful question along the way. 

Picture of book cover for "All Politics Are God's Politics" by Ahmed Khanani.
Cover of Ahmed Khanani’s All Politics are God’s Politics: Moroccan Islamism and the Sacralization of Democracy (Rutgers University Press, 2021).

At this moment, it is easy, almost comforting, to feel that the primary failure of American democracy is that there’s a guy who seemingly won’t leave office even though he’s rather clearly been voted out. And, to be fair, this certainly seems a low point in the reliability of the (rather bizarre, fully a function of slavery) American electoral system. And, to be fair, this year, well, mainly stinks

Having said that, to the degree that Righting America encourages a more thoroughgoing, thoughtful encounter than the lowest hanging fruit (which would definitely begin with functional and legitimate elections), we might instead take this moment as an opportunity to think more globally and critically about the relationship between conservative religiosity and democratic politics. 

In the American context, it is clear that conservative Christians support (worship?!) right-wing politics. But, globally, there is much more variance in how persons of faith imagine, encounter, and enact politics. I have spent the better part of the past decade studying how Muslims understand democracy (or, more precisely, how a subset of Muslims uses the Arabic loan-word dimuqratiyya), and I continue to find that there’s a profound and rich language of dimuqratiyya in the Arab Middle East. 

In fact, in the place most Westerners least expect it (the Arab Muslim Middle East), conversations about democracy highlight foundational failures of American democracy, and the limitations of contemporary American politics. I’ll offer two examples of how we might broaden/deepen the idea of democracy that guides American politics. Before that, a quick history.

For the better part of several centuries, Western thinkers have characterized Muslims, Islam and the Arab Middle East as fundamentally anti-democratic. Canonical thinkers have mobilized the image of Oriental despotism in service of Western colonialism (including, Alexis de Tocqueville, Montesquieu, John Stuart Mill)—indeed, even Max Weber got in on the action, though without the call for colonial intervention. 

(To be sure, there are Islamists who believe that violence is a reasonable primary response to Western colonialism and neocolonialsm. They like me as little as they like you. Violent Islamists are often deeply critical of democracy—and dimuqratiyya, too.)

At the same time, America has been (and continues to be) portrayed as the polar opposite. Recent works, from the American political right and left, have celebrated Western governance as deeply and fundamentally democratic. 

So it stands to reason that, on the one hand, we understand the USA (in particular) as rather fully democratic, and, on the other hand, we think of Muslim-majority states, particularly in the Arab Middle East, as fully undemocratic.

A number of powerhouse thinkers have addressed the racism and Islamophobia that undergirds most Western observation. But this isn’t a post about how racist or terrible or schmuck-y or anything else Western intellectual idols are. 

Instead, what I want to ask is this: What if Muslims in the Arab Middle East are better at democracy than you and I? 

I spent the better part of two full years in Morocco doing interviews with socially conservative, politically active, nonviolent, Islamically inspired persons—who are often called Islamists. You might expect, based on folks like Montesquieu, JS Mill, or more recent “thinkers,” that Islamists would be deeply opposed to democracy—or, at least, to the Arabic word, dimuqratiyya. In what might feel surprising, Moroccan Islamists, and I think more broadly, Islamists in the Arab Middle East, consistently demonstrate pretty strong investment and success in elections. But, as I suggest in my book, more than just elections, Islamists also invest in dimuqratiyya as part of their faith tradition and thereby offer new possibilities for both Western democracy and also Islam. 

Here, I want to explain two surprising claims that Moroccan Islamists make that might help us better understand both the potential of democracy and also how American democracy is coming up short.

First, Moroccan Islamists think of the primary goal of governance as tending to the souls of people. For example, Moroccan Islamists suggest that Western dimuqratiyya regularly fails because of its failures to embody justice, equity, or honor the rights of non-citizens. Given that Islamists care primarily for the souls of persons, the distinction between citizen and non-citizen becomes less significant than the chasm between justice-driven policies and unjust policies. 

So, for example, a rights-driven foreign policy that honors all persons constitutes dimuqratiyya. That is to say, a foreign policy that doesn’t attend to the souls of all people (policies like Trump’s policies towards migrants), is fundamentally undemocratic. It is perhaps unsurprising that Islamists’ Western counterparts (something like socially-conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical Christians) also focus on the souls and rights of living things, but whereas (especially white) evangelical Christians limit concern for the soul to (often violently) curtailing reproductive rights, Moroccan Islamists instead invest in justice-driven policy that attends to the whole person—and for all persons. 

(To be fair, there are also many American Christians who are invested in justice-oriented democracy.)

Second, Moroccan Islamists insist that democracy must care for minorities. A theme that regularly turned up in interviews with Moroccan Islamists was their understanding that a dramatic failure of Western democracy is its purported (and demonstrable) inability to attend to (racial and religious) minorities. Western democracies are grounded in the idea that pluralities (often majorities) of citizens make good decisions for themselves and their primary political communities (usually their home countries, but also neighborhoods, counties, and so on). Islamists, much like evangelical, socially-conservative Christians (including fundamentalists) often disagree with this premise, instead contending that “religious considerations” ought to bound the scope of decisions available to policy makers. In the American context this has led to the curtailment of the rights of minorities at the behest of the Christian right. In contrast, the (over 100) Islamists I spoke with contend that failures to honor the dignity of minorities was a significant impediment to the realization of true democracy. 

If you are anywhere left of the far-right and live in the US, I can appreciate how you might read this essay and think “well I’d trade out fundamentalist Christians for Islamists any day.” I get it—and I sometimes think that, too (and, too, I live in the US and am far to the left of the far-right). 

It is challenging to imagine a dramatic overhaul of Western political systems—e.g., even as there is broad support for abolishing the Electoral College, there’s little appetite for socialism. And, again, it’d be easy to draw on a litany of rather established and canonical thinkers were we to dismiss out-of-hand the ways in which dimuqratiyya highlights shortcomings of democracy. 

But an alternative, one I find rather compelling, is to take at face value what Islamists say, and to ask ourselves: How can we benefit from their truths, their bedrock assumptions, their efforts to embody good lives? What can we learn about democracy, a purported national value, when we start taking Islamists seriously?