Islam and Democracy

Voices of Muslims Amongst Us

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Amédée Edward Turner, Davide Tacchini
  • Milan, Italy: 
    Mimesis Edizioni
    , January
     2020.
     158 pages.
     $22.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9788869771774.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Amédée Turner and Davide Tacchini’s Islam and Democracy: Voices of Muslims Amongst Us is a well-intentioned book that suffers from serious flaws. The authors narrativize a 2004 qualitative study conducted by the Anglican Observer to the United Nations, which investigates lay Western Muslim views of democracy. The sweeping conclusion reached is that Western Muslims do not see a conflict between Islam and democracy so long as democracy is viewed as “merely a pragmatic way of providing government” (65). One of the major problems of the book is that it is never quite clear whether the authors are speaking descriptively or normatively; the line between the two is effectively blurred because the authors use their study to present a homogenized Muslim opinion. This academic sin is compounded by heavy-handed editorialization.

Turner and Tacchini acknowledge the unscientific nature of their study (22) but this does not prevent them from using the results to draw far-reaching and controversial conclusions. The methodology, described in the book’s introduction, involved one of the authors “approach[ing] Anglican and Episcopalian parish priests by email . . . asking each to invite a Muslim known to them”; the Muslim, in turn, would then “arrange for a group of local lay Muslims to meet” (10) for a discussion. The study mines the transcribed responses of “400 lay Muslims” (13), chosen as they were in this unrepresentative manner. Despite the study’s obvious limitations, this work had the potential to provide a useful qualitative survey that could offer an additional perspective to the more robust studies that have already been done on this topic.

Unfortunately, this potential is not actualized due to at least three major shortcomings. Firstly, Turner and Tacchini do not exhibit any familiarity with the various well-known surveys done of different Muslim communities by reputable organizations like Gallup and Pew. This would have allowed the authors (and readers) to contextualize the qualitative data obtained in this study and would, in turn, have revealed the obviousness of their main finding: large majorities of contemporary Muslims (even many card-carrying Islamists!) approve of democracy. Secondly, the authors should have restricted themselves to cautious or tentative conclusions based on the study’s limited and unrepresentative sample size. Instead, they marvel at “the homogeneity of [Muslim] views and total lack of disagreement . . .[which] indicates the most remarkable singularity of attitude between Muslims of different persuasions . . .” (emphasis added, 22). Such a broad statement should distress any careful scholar of religion.

From here it is a small step for Turner and Tacchini to issue in their own voices an authoritative fatwā (Islamic legal ruling) of what a “Muslim democracy” must be: it “must not be based on the sovereignty of the people” (77) and “[nothing] should happen contrary to the Qur’an” (121). In truth, these proclamations ignore the diversity of views amongst contemporary Muslims, which range from full acceptance to outright rejection. Even so, we should also consider recent Pew polling that shows a majority of American Muslims supporting gay marriage (Daniel Burke, “American Muslims growing more liberal, survey shows,” CNN, 2017), complicating the idea that Muslims cannot countenance anything contrary to their sacred texts.

Finally, and worst of all, the book’s tone is journalistic and at times even “bloggy,” which opens up the space for unscholarly political punditry. We are repeatedly reminded that “Muslims who live as minorities in the West enjoy a greater freedom to practice their religion in comparison to their fellow Muslims” back home (25), a fact that should help “changing any hostile Muslim view of Europe” (29). The authors opine, “Muslims should become aware that praying is more important than eating Halal food in Germany” (30). Even more patronizingly, we are told: “There are many issues to which Muslims may actually contribute, for instance plurality of education, provide [sic] new perspectives to intercultural programs or countering the growing secularization of our societies” (30–31). The subtext of such a statement is that European Muslims currently under-contribute to their societies.

Ultimately, the entire framing of the book is problematic. Intended to evaluate the validity of Samuel Huntington’s famous thesis, Turner and Tacchini disagree that a clash could exist between Christianity and Islam “because the nature of modern [Western] Christianity . . . could never be the cause for war so far as Christians are concerned” (66); only Africans, Muslims, and Hindus wage religious wars (66–67). This being the case, the only possible ideological conflict Muslims could have with the West is in relation to democracy (67). This study’s results are meant to assuage fears of such an inevitable clash: Muslims don’t actually oppose democracy, so we shouldn’t fear them.

The authors’ sectarian view that Western Christians could never wage religious wars is belied by the rise of Christian Nationalism and the widespread support of Evangelical Americans for US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Turning a blind eye to such religiously-motivated violence, Turner and Tacchini fixate on Islamic suicide bombing. We come to know their political views as they suggest securitization and targeted (drone?) strikes as a viable solution: “European security services, well interconnected, together with some very highly targeted operations in the middle [sic] East may help to improve security” (94). Yet, in my view as a scholar of jihad, it is such Western military interventionism that leads to violent backlash, not to say anything of the predictable blowback from CIA and MI5 support of religious extremists in other contexts. Are not these factors far more relevant to explain any violent clash between Western and Muslim-majority countries than Western Muslim views of democracy? As such, Turner and Tacchini’s entire project seems terribly misguided and reflects a lack of awareness of religious studies and political history.

Having said all of this, I have no doubt that Turner and Tacchini are well intentioned: for example, they point out that, “Not a single Muslim at any stage in any of the discussions said that democracy was incompatible with Islam” (65). The way the book is worded, however, I get the impression that the author(s) may have had negative views of Muslim “immigrants” and this research represents a shift in thinking.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Javad T. Hashmi is a physician and PhD candidate in the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
September 2, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amédée E. Turner is Queen’s Counsel and Honorary Member of the European Parliament. From 1979 to 1994, he served as a Member of the European Parliament for Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom, and he has published numerous studies for the European Commission. A barrister since 1952, he was named Queen’s Counsel in 1976.

Davide Tacchini is currently Research Fellow and Project Coordinator at the Friedrich-Schiller- Universität (Jena Center for Reconciliation Studies) in Jena, Germany and Adjunct Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at the University of Parma, Italy. He has also been Visiting Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian- Muslim relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, CT, USA.

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