To Professors Voll and Esposito, definitions are everything. According to them, prominent scholars like Gilles Kepel and Samuel Huntington are wrong to note clashes between democracy and what Voll and Esposito call "Islamic revivalism" because Kepel and Huntington are on the wrong page of their political dictionaries. Change the definition of democracy, say Voll and Esposito, and contradictions with Islam disappear; perceive Islam differently and it will ipso facto be different.
There is, in fact, no Islamic democracy, just as there is no Christian or Jewish democracy. There is, on the one hand, democracy--the notion that sovereignty belongs to the citizenry. And there are, on the other hand, religions such as the Abrahamic monotheisms, which (to varying degrees) cite the Divine as the source for a wide array of precepts that dictate man's earthly actions. By definition, the twain don't meet.
Western civilization has, over the past four hundred years, recognized this fact and developed a number of mechanisms to balance the conflicting desires of devotion to the sovereignty of God and reverence for the sovereignty of man. These mechanisms take different forms. The United States has possibly the most rigorous separation of church and state of any country in the world; across Western Europe, Christian Democratic parties have governed universally recognized democracies; in the British democracy, the sovereign reigns over church and state simultaneously. These are not variants on "Christian democracy," however. In Israel, Judaism and democracy flourish symbiotically thanks to a host of painfully obvious compromises, ranging from the role allotted to religious courts in adjudicating personal status to the exemption from army service given ultra-Orthodox youth. But no one would suggest that Israel has created a new form of democracy, called "Jewish democracy"; rather, it has devised a way for Judaism and democracy to live side by side, in relative peace with each other.
Democracy has also taken root among many millions of Muslims throughout the world. For Muslim democrats, the suggestion that they search their past for some authentic form of "Islamic democracy" is an act of towering condescension. That they are not in political ascendance is tragically clear. But they do exist and they even govern in some places, like Ankara and (with difficulty) Irbil, and they deserve the West's active support.
Muslim democrats do not want American policy makers "to transcend a narrow, ethnocentric conceptualization of democracy," as Professors Voll and Esposito urge. To the contrary, they want us to celebrate our understanding of democracy as they would if they could, and they want us to proselytize it so that maybe they eventually can. The essence of that "narrow, ethnocentric conceptualization of democracy" is not the Westminster or the presidential system; it is a series of basic principles--the rule of law; an independent judiciary; freedom of speech, religion, press, and assembly; minority and property rights; the right of the ruled to participate in the selection of their rulers. To dilute these principles in the search for "Islamic activist democratic principles" in some sort of "pluralistic global vision" does a disservice not only to our own blood-drenched history, but also to the ongoing battles waged by democrats in the Muslim world every day.