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From Christian Democracy to Muslim Democracy?

BUDAPEST – This summer, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) narrowly escaped being banned by the country’s constitutional court. State prosecutors alleged that the party was trying to “Islamicize” the country and ultimately introduce theocracy. Not only did AKP supporters celebrate after the decision, but those in the West who view it as a prototype “Muslim Democratic” party also breathed a sigh of relief. 

The clear model for a moderately religious party – one committed to the rules of the democratic game – are the Christian Democratic parties of Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. Yet opponents of the idea of “Muslim democracy” argue that European Catholics only turned to democracy under orders from the Vatican, and that since Muslims do not have anything like a Church hierarchy, Christian Democracy is an irrelevant example.

But history shows that political entrepreneurs and liberalizing Catholic intellectuals were crucial to the creation of Christian Democracy. This suggests that Muslim reformers, given the right circumstances, might be similarly capable of bringing about Muslim democracy.  

Christian Democratic parties first emerged in Belgium and Germany toward the end of the nineteenth century as narrowly focused Catholic interest groups. The Vatican initially regarded them with suspicion, perceiving parties participating in elections and parliamentary horse-trading as signs of “modernism.”