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Might the Muslim world grow more democratic and less free?  This troubling question has pressed itself home amidst the recent spate of violence aimed at America and the West in response to a trailer for an apparently non-existent film ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed.  Even moderate voices within the region that have denounced the violence have mostly paired this with calls for new prohibitions and international laws criminalizing the expression of ideas that offend religious sensibilities.


I have not seen the film, which has been described often as crude and amateurish.  The man who seems to have been behind it has reportedly served time for bank fraud and falsely put out the claim that his work was made by Israelis and financed by Jews.  In short, there is nothing to like about him or what he has done.  But the more important question is his right to do it.


The relationship between freedom and democracy is paradoxical.  Each requires the other.  You cannot have a democratic election without freedom of expression, and conversely no undemocratic regime has ever allowed its subjects a full range of freedoms.  But while they are mutually dependent, there is also an inherent tension between freedom and democracy.  Freedom means the absence of constraints, while democracy is a way of making constraints, i.e., laws.


The ancient Greek philosophers looked upon democracy as a debased form of government, fearing the tyranny of the majority.  And America’s founding fathers, schooled in classical thought, shied away from using the term democracy even while they created the world’s first example of rule by the people.  Their unease was not just rhetorical.  They devised an indirect method of election of the President and Senate precisely because they distrusted democracy.


Their fears proved unfounded.  American democracy did not degenerate into “mobocracy,” and over the generations the American system has been reformed repeatedly in the direction of more perfect democracy, almost always with success.  Similar success has been enjoyed by other nations that took inspiration from the American experiment and created democracies of their own.


Now, however, the Middle East is trying to square the circle as it attempts a welcome and overdue political transformation.  This is a region where religious sensibilities are especially intense.  Public opinion polls have repeatedly shown that large majorities of people in those countries say that they want democracy but the same respondents also say they want the rule of Shariah, Islamic law.


In a similar vein, a well-respected leader of an Islamic political movement told me that he wants the imposition of Shariah, but he does not want it imposed by force.  He envisioned a democratic process in which duly elected representatives would enact Shariah as the law of the land—in his own country and wherever Muslims are in the majority.


I did not doubt the sincerity of his adherence to democratic procedures, but I also did not find his vision reassuring, although he hoped it would be.  The problem is that every Muslim-majority country is also the home to non-Muslims who would perforce be compelled to observe religious rules that they did not find meaningful—even if imposed through proper legal methods.  But that is only the beginning of what is wrong with this model.  There are also many Muslims (just as there are members of other faiths probably even in greater proportion) whose observance of religious law is not strict or not as strict as some of their co-religionists believe it should be or who choose not to observe at all.  There are women whose faith is dear to their hearts but who do not except all the strictures on women that Shariah is often interpreted to require.  Religious law observed by believers voluntarily is one thing; its imposition by the state—however democratically—is something else.


The challenge of achieving a humane political order is to balance democracy and freedom.  Historically that challenge has been met by most societies more successfully than political philosophers had feared.  But it is about to get a new, stiff test as popular rule comes to the Middle East.


This post was written by Joshua Muravchik, Fellow in Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute.