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Robert Hefner delivers talk on Islam

<bert W. Hefner, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University, presented the 2010 Lindesmith Lecture in South and Southeast Asian Studies in Boliou auditorium on Thurs., Sept. 30. In his talk entitled “Rethinking Islam and Democracy: A Perspective from Southeast Asia and Beyond,” Hefner examined the age-old question of compatibility between Islam and democracy in light of a new body of empirical data developed through comparative research across the broader Muslim world.

According to Hefner, when empirical measures rather than imagined “civilizational” traits are referenced, it turns out that there is no democracy deficit in the broader Muslim world; rather, a significant number of Muslim-majority countries have made impressive headway towards consolidating into electoral democracies. However, Hefner stated that “there does appear to be a democracy deficit in certain portions of the Muslim world, namely the Arab-Muslim countries.” By examining this paradox and comparing the developments in Indonesia with other Muslim-majority countries, Hefner concluded that both democracy and democratization are alive and well in some parts of the Muslim world.

Many social and political scientists over the years have concluded that Islam and democracy are fundamentally incompatible. This includes acclaimed political scientist Samuel Huntington, who famously stated that “God is Caesar” in the Muslim world. While Hefner disagrees with this point of view, he does agree that there appears to be a statistic deficit since only 18-20% of Muslim majority nations have a democracy deficit.

But, according to Hefner, when these superficial statistics are more deeply examined, accumulated evidence has found that democracy is actually thriving in the Muslim world. To measure democracy levels amongst Muslim nations, Hefner utilized the model of Alfred Stefan, who has a  minimalist approach toward measuring democracy levels according to electoral competitiveness.

Hefner pointed out that in recent years, many Muslim-majority nations have started adopting civic and democratic government models. And while implementing these models has been a difficult task for many Muslim nations, Huntington points out that such culture wars are normal and that they have played a major role in the building of western nations. Tackling the issue of democracy deficit in the Muslim world, Hefner related that there are 47 Muslim-majority countries and from the 29 non Arab Muslim countries, one-third have already achieved electoral competitiveness. Yet not a single one of the 18 Arab Muslim countries has achieved electoral competitiveness. Also when compared to other nations of similar per capita incomes, statistics reveal that 44% of non-Arab Muslim countries are overachievers in terms of adopting democracy.  The statistics also reveal that the inhabitants of most Muslim-majority countries desire democracy and it is only in a few rare cases of Muslim-majority countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan that the majority population opposes democracy, claiming that democracy is incompatible with Islam. According to Hefner, this distinctive difference in democracy levels amongst non-Arab Muslim countries and Arab Muslim countries stems from the fact that almost all Arab Muslim countries rely on oil money as primary revenue which leads to the preeminence of monarchies and dictatorships in these nations.  

Addressing the controversial topic of gender in Islam, Hefner stressed that contrary to popular western view, Sharia is not the most prominent law of the state in most Muslim-majority countries. Hefner said that “while many Muslim-majority countries have complimentary views about the sexes, with men being the guardians and women being the nurturers, this perception of sexuality is not very different from the gender roles prescribed on western women less than a hundred years ago.” According to Hefner, as societies modernize, gender modernizes in similar ways and women are given the opportunities of getting educated and joining the workforce something that is already taking place in a number of Muslim countries. Because Muslim countries are experiencing late industrialization, gender transition is also taking place slowly. According to Hefner, contrary to the West, especially Europe, where gender transition happened only with “dechristianisation”, “in most Muslim countries, gender transition is taking place with religious resurgence”. Thus, it is not surprising that women’s roles are being defined in religious terms in Muslim countries while widespread debates are occurring in many Western nations pertaining to Muslim women’s use of headscarves and burqas. Hefner also points out that state monitors show that in most Muslim states, education has become the norm rather than the exception. As education levels increase, employment levels for women will go up and fertility levels will reduce.

Ending his talk, Hefner mentioned that while democracy and Islam are not incompatible in any way, it is important to realize that certain cultural discourses that are a part of western philosophical or gender movements do not figure so prominently in the Muslim world. While there are many indicated transformations taking place, with pious men and women coming together to think of reforms for women in Muslim societies, this is distinctive in that it is happening not by ignoring religion but by “questioning women’s treatment in front of an all-just God”. Thus, according to Hefner, democracy and Islam are compatible, but democracy will only spread hand in hand with the Islamic revival that has reached the deepest aspects of public policy in Muslim majority nations. 

When originally published, this article incorrectly stated that only 18-20% of Muslim countries are democratic. It should have stated that only 18-20% of Muslim countries have a democracy deficit.

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