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Could Allah be Great for Democracy?

By: Randy Boyagoda
March 8, 2005

A review of The Universal Hunger for Liberty, by Michael Novak.

Tocqueville's purpose in writing Democracy in America was "To educate democracy." His goals are as relevant today: "to put, if possible, new life into [democracy's] beliefs; to purify its mores; gradually to substitute understanding of statecraft for present inexperience and knowledge of its true interests for blind instincts; to adapt government to the needs of time and place; and to modify it as men and circumstances require. A new political science is needed for a world itself quite new." Michael Novak, a longstanding admirer of Tocqueville's, takes up this worthy but strenuous charge with The Universal Hunger for Liberty. Novak certainly responds to "a world itself quite new," but his uneven execution leaves readers wanting a more substantial political science to meet the fractious state of world affairs.

Novak initially strikes a hopeful but realistic tone in assessing liberty's chances in non-Western, and particularly Muslim, nations: "Whereas for Jewish and Christian traditions and their secular outliers [in the West], liberty is the crimson interpretative thread of history the hunger for liberty has only slowly been felt among Muslims and many other peoples. That hunger is universal, even when it is latent, for the preconditions of liberty slumber in every human breast." Thus pitched, this book seems perfectly timed, and its author well suited to its task. Novak's singular method is to fold together theology, economics, history, and politics into analyses that refuses to collapse religiously-infused cultural complexities into positivist pap. In this, Novak recalls his earlier work, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982), which offered a muscular argument for vibrant democracy and capitalism against the numbing grip of socialism, and which was circulated underground in Eastern Bloc countries during the early death throes of the Soviet Empire. The Universal Hunger for Liberty will likely not have a similar impact. This is unfortunate, because freedom-seeking Muslims need to hear from Western intellectuals disposed to approach their circumstances from theologically attuned, culturally informed, and politically astute positions.

The book's findings are limited because Novak too often argues by implied parallels between Catholicism and Islam, over-relies upon his prior works, and gets side-tracked into ideological skirmishes. Moreover, one searches this book in vain for substantial engagements of the embroiled contemporary situation in so many Muslim nations and in global Islamic culture. His book perceives and describes theological, political, and economic intricacies very well, in the abstract, but lacks a textured understanding of how Islam might approach an entente with a virtuous, free society—a development that remains in the best interests of its adherents and the wider world. 

At the onset, Novak rightly points out that purely secular formulations of a free society will fail to attract a groundswell of support in Islamic societies, given their vigorously religious outlook and theologically framed social organization. Rejecting the darker implications of Samuel Huntington's overplayed "Clash of Civilizations" thesis, Novak emphasizes the historical existence of a shared, if qualified consensus about humanity's essential freedom as manifest in the three great Abrahamic religions: "During the great golden age of Islam, from the 9th through the 11th centuries, Jews, Christians, and Muslims were engaged in a powerful debate about three axial ideas—God, truth, and liberty. Arguments over these ideas exposed a radical parting of the ways." After an efficient analysis of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim engagements with Aristotle during the medieval age (a veiled image of intercultural dialogue today), Novak respectfully lays out the problem that he initially sees with an Islamic-based theory of liberty. While Jews and Christians emphasize a concept of the human person as a free agent meant to use his liberty in response to God's expectations of those made in His image, Muslims so completely value the supreme greatness of Allah that "in the Islamic view He overpowers human liberty." Novak highly regards the Islamic emphasis upon the transcendence of God but he accurately bemoans that it too often results in "a kind of determinism" that hamstrings faithful Muslims who seek to enact their inherent freedoms in politics and economics.

With this foundation, Novak suggests how difficult the subsequent rise of free institutions on Muslim ground would be, but then points out that Islam's status as a world religion suggests "that there [is] a certain freedom within Islam to adapt to different cultures and climates, to experiment, to change, and to develop." The back-and-forth of Novak's critical and complimentary statements on Islam's relationship to liberty encourage the expectation that subsequent chapters will elaborate upon this complexity. Novak even declares that there exist "four universal liberties [that] are also Muslim liberties": freedom of worship; freedom of speech; freedom from poverty; and freedom from tyranny.

But then he is sidetracked, musing on a Christian philosophy of economics, on the relative success of a series of economic models, on capitalism's recent flourishing in the Catholic Third World, and on responsible environmentalism in developing nations. Much of this hearkens back to Novak's past works without substantially developing beyond them. Novak also gets distracted into arguments with various anti-capitalist cadres and other leftists; his National Review columns seem better-suited to such purposes. More generally, the relationship of these chapters to the book's more dramatic propositions depends upon our abilities and willingness to make constant and over-qualified applications of its insights onto Islamic situations. Perhaps this will work for Muslim readers, though it is doubtful they will follow Novak's self-described "'catechism' of democracy and economic development for Catholic peoples in the developing countries" and then apply the lessons learned to their own situations.

Novak eloquently recommends "a usable inventory of the habits (virtues) that a people must develop if they wish to experience economic and political progress," and has already offered as much, extensively, within Judeo-Christian and Western contexts. His book would have been much more incisive had it considered, for example, what virtues Muslim nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia exhibit in their economically vigorous societies, or the status of a moral ecology in Arab petrol-monarchies, or the contribution of Islamic minorities to the technological boom in India, or the question of what Palestinians must do to secure a reasonable and healthypolis, or the perpetual stagnation of political reform in Iran, or the manifold difficulties posed by Muslim migration to Europe and Turkey's accession to the European Union. Any one of these topics, treated with the creativity and governing principles offered in Novak's other books, would have significantly extended the reach and persuasiveness of this present work by integrating its ideas with consequential issues only obliquely addressed.

In the closing chapters, Novak does finally elaborate upon his interest in Islam's potential accommodation of democracy. Unlike the majority of commentators on this subject, Novak deftly proposes a mutually beneficial resolution of religion and politics within an Islamic context and setting. After admitting his reservations, particularly about authoritarian tendencies in Islamic law, he engages the well-founded presumption that Islam encourages theocratic rule by countering that "the transcendence of Allah precludes identifying him with any one type of political regime." Therefore, he continues, "it is blasphemous for any one man to imitate the divine mode of rulership by arrogating to himself all political power within a community. To put it another way, if all power is located in Allah, then human institutions must disperse power among many parts to avoid pretending to be God." In a bold reversal of his earlier critique of Islam as deterministic, Novak actually locates the rationale for a devolved, diversified system of liberal governance within the core tenets of the faith itself. One hopes that this sketching of an Islamic theology of politics influences future framers of constitutional documents for Muslim states; at the very least, it challenges defeatists and tempers idealists about the possibilities and difficulties of pairing democracy with Islam.

Tocqueville was initially surprised at how religious Americans are but eventually understood the importance of faith to developing the nation's free institutions. Michael Novak understands how religious the world's Muslims are and discerns in this a potentially viable relationship between Allah and liberty. One only wishes he had done so with a more systematic focus, for at the beginning and end of this meandering book are stirring ideas that encourage hopefulness about democracy's prospects in parts of the world starving for nourishment.