WASHINGTON, Sept. 21 (UPI) -- Editor's note: Are Islam and democracy compatible -- or will they ever be? This is one of the hottest topics of academic discourse today. It is the subject of extensive studies, such as the one conducted by the Institute on Religion and World Affairs at Boston University, supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts. What follows is the first installment of an open-ended UPI series considering this issue from a variety of perspectives.
If you are a scholar with strong views wishing to know whether you are on to something, just watch for your colleagues' reaction. If they nod in agreement, beware! But if they all rush to take their distance from you as if you had just canonized Caligula, you know you have said something stirring.
Harvard's Samuel Huntington is in this enviable position. Ten years ago he posited -- not as a fixed opinion, mind you, just as a stimulus for a public debate -- a warning of a possible clash of civilizations.
Of course that wasn't politically correct, and so it has become good form in academia, though definitely not among the public at large, to refute this dire vision -- or at least relativize it. But the winner is -- Samuel Huntington, because he has kicked off a highly necessary international debate; his self-imposed mission is thus accomplished.
Francis Fukuyama, the political philosopher, is an academic troublemaker of equal rank. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he provoked the international intelligentsia with the notion that "there does seem to be something about Islam, or at least the fundamentalist versions of Islam that have been dominant in recent years, that makes Muslim societies particularly resistant to modernity."
According to sociologist Arnold Gehlen's definition, modern society is characterized by industrialization, secularization, urbanization, galloping progress in science, bureaucratization, and the capitalist mode of production.
Clearly, much of the Islamic world is still far from embracing all these features. But to Fukuyama, modernity essentially comes down to liberal democracy and capitalism, and he claims that Muslim countries - except Turkey -- are not democracies because they are "resistant to modernity, and the reason is Islam."
This claim requires to be probed theologically, which will happen later in this series. Politically speaking, though, Fares al-Braizat of the University of Kent in England argues on the basis of the recent World Values Survey that "support for democratic ideals is universal." However, he then goes on to say, "The institutional state of democracy may not reach the ideal or falls short of it in some particular Muslim societies" -- which brings us back to square one.
Enter anthropologist Robert W. Hefner of Boston University's Institute on Religion and World Affairs, or IRWA. He directed the remarkable study on the "Prospects for Pluralism and Democracy in the Muslim World," an undertaking sponsored by Pew. He and other scholars involved in this project presented their findings in Washington last week.
Like al-Brazait, Hefner appeals to the World Values Survey by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris and published in March. The survey, Hefner says, "compared Muslim-majority societies with several Western countries and found in all but one of the Muslim countries (Pakistan) public support was equal to or even greater than in Western countries." According to Hefner, though, all scholars participating in this project agree on three ways to "better understand the Muslim world's tumult."
1. "The Muslim world and Muslim politics are not monolithic, but increasingly diverse."
2. "A primary feature of this diversity involves the struggle among different Muslim groupings to define the forms and future of Muslim politics. In most countries, this struggle pits a small but well-organized group of militants who see pluralism and democracy as antithetical to Islam against a larger but often less well-organized plurality who recognize democracy's compatibility with Islam."
3. "A decisive influence on the contest for the heart and soul of Muslim politics will be the ability of Western powers, especially the United States, to look beyond the war on terrorism and devise long-term programs that can work with rather than against proponents of pluralism and moderation."
These are the points that will be explored in subsequent installments of this series. However, while it is hard to disagree with these conclusions, in the minds of most Western newspaper readers this question remains: Why is it that -- as Fukuyama phrased it -- "Islam... is the only cultural system that seems regularly to produce people... who reject modernity lock, stock and barrel"?
In an essay written for Welt am Sonntag, a German national Sunday paper, Fukuyama posits another provocative question -- just a question, mind you, no more: Could radical Islamism not turn out to be a force for modernization against its own volition?
Given that Muslim societies by and large are marked by encrustation, in Fukuyama's view, he muses: "Since Islamism is directed against the Western World and its values as well as against traditional Islam, one might be permitted to wonder if it could not become the source of creative destruction."
Next installment: Is fundamentalism spawning renewal in Iran?