For decades, the principal enemies of democracy had muddled the issue by conducting their assaults in the name of a higher, or at least different, form of democracy. Regimes that rested solely on violence, like the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen engaged in a sordid imposture of democracy, as did those under foreign subjugation, like the German Democratic Republic. As long as they persisted, a war of semantics endured. As preposterous as were their claims, it was impossible to prove that they were wrong since the argument boiled down to definitions, and definitions are not empirical truths but axioms.

Then, mercifully, came Gorbachev, who, among other revelations, admitted that his side knew they were lying all along. "We would have been able to avoid many . . . difficulties if the democratic process had developed normally in our country," he wrote in his book, Perestroika,1 implicitly acknowledging the validity of our usage of "democracy."

Now, reading John Voll and John Esposito, I find myself yanked abruptly from my fool's paradise in which the term "democracy" means what every person of good will and common sense can understand. Once again it becomes shrouded in controversy, tergiversation and sophistry.

Middle East Exceptionalism

The proximate cause of this relapse is the failure of the Muslim Middle East to join in the global trend of democratization that in the last twenty years has swept over Southern and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and parts of East Asia and Subsaharan Africa. The latter region is particularly noteworthy because it shows that the Middle East's laggardness is not a mere product of late development, since by most non-political indices, Subsaharan Africa trails the Middle East.

What explains this Middle Eastern exceptionalism? Most likely the fact that, since the collapse of communism, only in this region does a vibrant counter-ideology, namely fundamental Islam or Islamism, still challenge democracy. Voll and Esposito, however, dispute this conclusion and perhaps also the premise. They deny that Islamism is the problem; they also implicitly question whether, indeed, there is a problem. If it appears to us that democracy is lagging in the Muslim Middle East, this may be because we define democracy "according to specific Western standards."

Voll and Esposito do not claim that democracy already flourishes in the Muslim Middle East. Rather, they argue that those who find democracy incompatible with "Muslim revivalism" are fallaciously applying "a Western-based definition of democracy." But by what measure, other than our Western-based definition of democracy, can we deny that currently existing regimes in the region, say, those of Egypt, Syria and Iraq, are democratic? Every one of the area's secular non-monarchies calls itself democratic. By Voll and Esposito's reasoning, how can we dispute their claims?

And if it is true that democracy lags in the region, then Voll and Esposito tell us the fault may be in part our own. "U.S. advocacy for a particular form of Western democracy. . . . give[s] unnecessary advantages to extremist anti-Western elements."

Whether the problem is merely in our own perceptions, or whether it is real but of our own making, the solution appears to lie in a new non-restrictive definition, "a broader understanding of democracy." What would such a democracy look like? Here, alas, Voll and Esposito grow coy. They invoke the shura, but as they confess, "consultation" can entail very little sharing of power. They hope for "effective systems of popular participation, though unlike the Westminster model or the American system." But like consultation, participation is a slippery term, with a lamentable history in the political science literature of being applied to totalitarian regimes whose citizens "participated" only in empty rituals of obeisance. In the end, one must ask: Can Voll and Esposito describe or point to a political society that is not democratic under our restrictive, Western definition but is democratic under some alternative definition?

In the end, one must ask: Can Voll and Esposito describe or point to a political society that is not democratic under our restrictive, Western definition but is democratic under some alternative definition?

The one polity for which they have some good words is the Islamic Republic of Iran. But this is a barbaric regime, whose rule rests on violence, repression, and wholesale violation of human rights, not on the consent of the governed. According to Freedom House's authoritative annual survey, Iran was one of the thirty worst countries in the world (out of 190) in 1994 in terms of freedom and democracy.

Little wonder then, that Voll and Esposito advocate "reconceptualizing democracy." But to what end? And why, just when democracy enjoys its widest consensus of definition, widest popularity, and widest domain in history, why should it now need reconceptualization? Voll and Esposito say that "there is no universally accepted or clearly defined model of democracy." But these are two different claims. Any dissenter can prevent a model from being "universally" accepted--so what? A clearly defined model, on the other hand, is easy to formulate. It consists of three essential features: free elections, free speech, rule of law. To these we may add a fourth, prompted especially by the societies under discussion--political rights for all citizens.

Why, just when democracy enjoys its widest consensus of definition, widest popularity, and widest domain in history, why should it now need reconceptualization?

These elements can be stated in other ways, but they correspond to a widely understood and commonsensical notion of democracy. In fact, Voll and Esposito, perhaps unwittingly, reveal that they, too, share some such understanding. They protest the "denial of the right of participation in electoral processes on the basis of Islamic identification" (presumably with Algeria in mind), but what is the grounds of their protest? To what principle can they appeal other than the principle of "multiparty free elections" that they criticize former Secretary of State James Baker for having advocated, thereby exemplifying our "narrow" definition of democracy?

Democracy and Religion

However unsatisfactory, or self-contradictory their argument, the question that agitates Voll and Esposito is difficult and important. The relation between democracy and religion is inherently tense. Religion deals in truths revealed and absolute; democracy is predicated on fallibility and compromise. And yet the faith that all men are children of God has been the foundation on which democracy has arisen.

Democracy has flourished in much of Christendom (and in the Jewish state) because this tension has been handled through a separation between the political and religious realms. The question is open whether the same can be achieved in the Muslim world. Voll and Esposito, borrowing someone else's imposture of scientific terminology, say that it is an "entirely untested hypothesis that Islam and democracy are incompatible." In truth, of course, this hypothesis has been tested for more than a millennium in scores of societies and its current status is not "untested" but more nearly "unrefuted." An exception, albeit imperfect, is contemporary Turkey, a model scarcely embraced by Islamic "revivalists."

The difficulty of the question is inadvertently underscored by Voll and Esposito themselves, when they invoke Islamic doctrines that allow a voice for "every Muslim who is capable and qualified to give a sound opinion on matters of Islamic law." Even if this is accepted, credulously, as a mandate for a democracy of Muslims, where does it leave non-Muslims? Most states are multi-ethnic, and the refusal to accept this is today yielding grim consequences, not least for Muslims. Is ethnic cleansing the necessary foundation for Islamic democracy? Even if this is found morally acceptable, it is likely to be chimerical. Democracy is largely a thing of spirit. And the same spirit that cannot tolerate non-Muslims will soon find itself unable to tolerate Muslims lacking "sound opinions" and then who knows whom else.

In fact, the case of Turkey does establish something about the compatibility of democracy and Islam, something we can hope will be reinforced elsewhere. What is incompatible with democracy is the spirit of fanaticism and intolerance so characteristic of the Islamist movements. Combatting this spirit is a worthier task for the well-wishers of Islamic democracy than chanting that stalest of lame refrains--it's all the fault of the West.

1 Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), p. 32.