Islam Is Vertical, Democracy Is Horizontal: Can They Be Reconciled?

Just how much democratic air the Arab Spring
ushers in remains to be seen. The large tent of Islam is beckoning its
followers from around the world to begin building the Islamic state.
Dictatorial rule such as that in Egypt has overshadowed religious activities
for many years, and questions about how to apply the principles of Islam to
society have gone unanswered. In some places the word “Islamist” is
being shunned for more inclusive language. In other places traditionalists are
trying to strictly apply Islamist ideas to the government – ideas such as
obligatory religious taxes, heavy censorship, and conservative treatment of
women. The future will grapple with the demands of the community versus the
demands of Islam, but the struggle will not be between Islam and secularism but
rather between more Islam and less Islam.

One way to pose the problem of religion
and the state is to clarify that religion is vertical with God at the top and
humans beneath. The relationship is one of the individual as the relatively passive
recipient of truth or orthodoxy. Democracy is horizontal where regardless of
race, religion, or creed there is an equality of rights and equal treatment
under the law. Problems arise when the horizontal and vertical axes get
confused or encroach on one another’s space such that the principles of the God
are applied to the horizontal relationships among equals in a society. In the
horizontal world of democracy and the secular state the moral foundation of
political authority rests with popular sovereignty. Democracy is degraded and
diminished when the moral foundation shifts to the vertical axis and relies on
a particularly authoritative God. This is why democracy theorists insist on the
separation of religion and state.

The two axes emerge from very different
conditions of governance. The horizontal liberal democratic process makes
decisions and comes to truth through contestatory discourse. The assumption is
that differences between people are given and problems are solved and reconciled
through the communication process, which regulates beliefs and attitudes. The
primary mode of managing differences is persuasion or the strength of the
better argument. Issues such as tolerance, pluralism, compromise,
inclusiveness, and argument are central to liberal democratic politics. The
vertical axis, on the other hand, backgrounds contestatory discourse and relies
more on proclamations from authority.

There are additional reasons why we
should work to influence liberal democratic processes and limit the power of
the Islamic state. These include the fact that religion is exclusionary and
sets up boundaries and distances between believers and nonbelievers. This
exacerbates the conditions for conflict. The horizontal democratic state, which
is based on membership in a political society rather than a religious one,
emphasizes more what people have in common than their differences. This shared
identity, this strain toward commonality is a well-established mark of low
conflict societies. After all, it could be the case that 100% of the women in society
cover their heads but of what value is this to even the most religious person
if the state is characterized by corruption and nothing works.

Additionally, religion undermines
democratic peace. It seeks to dissipate the differences between the axes and
move God to the center of debate. Still, it’s important to work toward perhaps
some compatibility between Islam and the liberal democratic state if for no
other reason than it is unavoidable. In fact, if there can be some democratic consensus
as to the role of religion in the state then the long-term prospects for the
political system are improved. In the case of Islam it is probably prudent to
recognize a few realities:

One, it may be possible to redefine what
it means to be secular. Nader Hashemi writing in, Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy, explains that there is
not even really a word for “secularism” in classical Arabic, Farsi,
or Turkish that is synonymous with the English term. Hence the term is ripe for
expansion and semantic development.

Second, it is impossible to avoid Islam
because it is so central to the culture and hence liberal democracies cannot
avoid incorporating religious politics. True, religion and democracy are
typically considered antithetical but any intersections of commonality and
mutuality have not been explored. Christianity is typically invoked as a
positive force in the development of Western liberalism so perhaps the same can
be true of Islam the differences between Christianity and Islam
notwithstanding.

Finally, religion has a history in the
public sphere that has been underappreciated by democrats. Religion does not
have to be completely rejected or privatized but it does have to be properly
interpreted. All of these issues provide for the possibility of a healthy
incorporation of Islam into a democratic culture. And even though Western
democratic theorists would like to see the horizontal and vertical lines remain
counter to one another, it’s important that future Arab states making transitions
to democratic processes remain practical with respect to the role of religion.
Otherwise the entire structure is in jeopardy.

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Posted on October 3, 2011, in Democracy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. It’s critical to address the issue of Islamist vis-a-vis [Western] [Democratic] cultures, and there are elements of the vertical/horizontal metaphor that are appealing. At the same time, the generalizations made about “religion” are so broad in this post that they are dangerous.
    To address just one issue: the post describes the verticality of religion as beginning from, or ‘headed’ by “God.” While this is coherent in the abstract, as a practical matter, most religious folks these days (there are few authentic prophets around) make their points with references to crucial texts. The assumption, of course, is that the Bible, Koran, etc are sacred texts, given divine authority. But “God” doesn’t utter; TEXTS ARE INTERPRETED. And when this reality is affirmed, hermeneutics begins to matter in very important ways. I would like to see the vertical/horizontal analysis sophisticated with the inclusion of this point.

    Part of what happens–happened in the post, in fact–when it isn’t is that the functions, within religions/religious groups of contestatory discourse, persuasion, etc. is distorted and the importance of equality is diminished. Even the Pope is VOTED into power. Denominational decisions about women in the priesthood, GLBTs in the pulpit, etc., are considered at conventions and voted on. As a practical matter, theological/religious issues are clearly not “handed down from God.”

    In short, I think the analysis is promising and, in its current draft, seriously oversimplified. Other’s thoughts?

    • I think the point is fair enough. But would still defend the argument that Islam is more vertical, as are Orthodox strands of other religions, and democracy even if it is in the abstract seeks more horizontal equivalency-based relationships. The horizontal – vertical metaphor if you will is designed more for clarification than as a direct reflection on reality.

  2. Provocative, as usual. You write, “The primary mode of managing differences is persuasion or the strength of the better argument.” This leads me to some questions.

    What is that “strength”–is it logical power? What of value? What of identification? Can deliberative discourse also involve trade-offs, acceptance of disadvantages to certain proposals?

    Why must religion be “confronted”? Can it not be seen as a system of well-organized and widely-held beliefs and practices? If so, then may we instead see deliberative practice as negotiation of beliefs, which all hold?

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