Muslims in Democracy School. With Television as Teacher

While at the Vatican they are discussing whether or not democracy is compatible with Islam, the Arab television channels are dominated by reality shows and soap operas. A major survey analyzes their messages. And ambiguities

by Sandro Magister

ROME, July 27, 2009 – Just as Great Britain is giving the go-ahead in its territory, in the name of multiculturalism, to about eighty Islamic alternative tribunals that are adopting not British common law but sharia – with everything that entails in matters of polygamy, divorce, the subordination of women, and lack of religious freedom – at the Vatican they are discussing whether or not democracy is compatible with Islam.

The news coming from Great Britain would seem to prove the pessimists right. But at the Vatican, there is a predominantly positive view about the possibility that Muslim states could evolve into fully formed liberal democracies, with the recognition of fundamental liberties and of equal rights for men and women.

This is what can be gathered from the lead article of the latest issue of “La Civiltà Cattolica,” the journal of the Rome Jesuits that is printed after review by the Vatican secretariat of state.

The article was written by Jesuit historian Giovanni Sale, and is entitled “Islam and democracy.”

After positing that as of today there are only two Islamic countries, Lebanon and Turkey, in which elements of democracy can be seen, Fr. Sale systematically surveys the competing viewpoints in the West:

“On this delicate matter, Western analysts are divided into three categories: the so-called optimists, who are further divided into ‘gradualists’ and ‘realists’, (the proponents of the demands of Realpolitik on the international level), the pessimists, and the skeptical-possibilists.”

In Fr. Sale’s view, the gradualist optimists have their leading representative in Bernard Lewis, a historian at Princeton.

The realist optimists are the neoconservatives who came into prominence with the Bush presidency, determined to transplant democracy to Muslim countries but also ready to ally themselves with friendly despotic regimes.

The pessimists have their prophet in Samuel Huntington, according to whom there is an irreparable discord between the Muslim world and democracy, which produces a clash of civilizations.

The skeptical-possibilists, finally, maintain that democracy must not be transplanted into Arab countries from without, but can only emerge and grow from within them. But there are many obstacles to this development, one of which is precisely the religious element.

In drawing its conclusions, the article in “La Civiltà Cattolica” rejects both the viewpoint of the clash of civilizations and the neoconservative stance of exporting democracy even by means of armed force.

It instead expresses agreement with the gradualist optimist outlook of Bernard Lewis, and also with the concerns of the skeptical-possibilists about the obstacles that must be overcome, that of religion first among them:

“Islam and democracy can become compatible on the condition that the religious element, with all of its richness of content and experience, act as a simple point of ethical and moral reference for the normative role of social science, without presuming to dictate the rules for the state and for politics.”

In the article, Fr. Sale highlights the analysis that Daniel Pipes, a White House adviser during the Bush years, makes of the Islamic world. In this Pipes sees, together with a large pool of radical fundamentalists, an even larger segment of Muslims who are against America and the West more as a result of the social environment in which they live than out of deeply rooted conviction, and another segment of “moderate” Muslims who are not hostile to Western values. Although he is considered a “hawk,” Pipes emphasizes the importance of “a cultural and civil effort that would encourage moderate Muslims to work for profound democratic and civil change in Islamic societies.”


But while those in the West and among the leadership of the Catholic Church ponder the possible democratic evolution of Islam, what is happening within the Muslim world itself? What image do Muslims have of the West? How do they see it?

A highly interesting answer to this question is given by a study conducted recently on the programs broadcast by television networks in Arab countries.

The study, which was very thorough, was coordinated by Donatella Della Ratta with the collaboration of Roberta Nunnari and Naman Tarcha. The results are in a volume published in Italy by Gangemi Editore, entitled: “Media arabi e cultura nel Mediterraneo.”

There are a number of surprises, which a 2002 Gallup poll had already foreshadowed: while the viewers of Al Jazeera – despite the anti-American slant of this famous broadcaster – show themselves to be the most favorable to Western lifestyles, those most against these turn out to be the viewers of entertainment television channels, the ones with Western-style programs and reality shows.

Of the roughly five hundred Arab television channels studied by Donatella Della Ratta and her team, the ones most free from state control are the Lebanese stations, which are received in many other countries. There’s a little bit of everything on them: from the fiercely anti-American and anti-Israeli programs of Al Manar, Hezbollah’s station, to the reality shows of LBC, the first Arab network to broadcast programs like “Star Academy,” “Survivor,” and “The Farm.”

The prototype for reality shows around the world, “Big Brother,” was broadcast a few years ago on a channel in Bahrain but was canceled after the first episode, following a storm of protest. But the other reality shows have met with growing success. With unexpected political repercussions.

For example, when the Lebanese semifinalist of “Star Academy” was eliminated instead of his Syrian competitor, Beirut was flooded with protest demonstrations against Syria.

And when the finale of “Superstar” saw contestants from Syria and Jordan go head to head, the state-run telephone companies of these two countries raced to hand out discounts and bonuses to their subscribers, so they would telephone in support of their own “national hero.”

According to some Arab analysts, the cell phone voting for reality shows “represents the first real form of participatory democracy in the Arab world, a trial of free elections.”

But there’s more. The reality show “Star Academy” has generated a satirical spinoff entitled “Irhab Academy,” terrorism academy. Here the contestants are actors representing various kinds of terrorists in grotesque form, each with his diabolical specialty. The creator of the program is Abdallah Bijiad Al Otibi, a former extremist who has dedicated himself to fighting terrorism through television.

Other television programs that are extremely successful in Arab countries are the musalsalat, drama series. Discussion of the hottest questions, which is totally banned on the official television news programs, finds room in the drama series: from polygamy to divorce, from violence against women to homosexuality, from terrorism to relations with the West.

Syria ranks first in their production. One of the most important directors is Najdat Ismail Anzour, the son of Syria’s first silent film director. One of his drama episodes broadcast during the month of Ramadan in 2007 – the month with the largest number of viewers – touched on the question of the caricatures of Mohammed. At one point, one of the characters says to another who is highly scandalized by the caricatures:

“Please, tell me what offends our religion more: a foreigner who draws silly caricatures like these? Or a Muslim who blows himself up with an explosive belt in the midst of innocent people?”

Naturally, it should not be overlooked that there are dramas that are fiercely hostile to the West and Israel.

Just as it should not be forgotten that the advertisements also do their part to transmit Western models. One that has made a big impact is a very sexy, flirtatious Coca-Cola commercial with Nancy Ajram, the hottest and highest paid female Arab pop star of the moment.

In the view of some analysts, all of this is evidence that a process of secularization is spreading through the Muslim world. Taboos are falling, ideas are circulating, lifestyles are changing, Western models are being imitated.

However, there has been no real corresponding renewal of civil society, no move toward pluralism, no democratization.

An “Islamic road to democracy” is possible: this is the conclusion of the article in “La Civiltà Cattolica.” But it is “a road that has yet to be studied and taken.”


The book:

“Media arabi e cultura nel Mediterrraneo”, edited by Ornella Milella and Domenico Nunnari, Gangemi Editore, Rome, 2009.


The journal of the Rome Jesuits printed after review by Vatican authorities, which published – in the issue dated July 4, 2009 – the article by Fr. Giovanni Sale, “Islam e democrazia”:

> La Civiltà Cattolica

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
This entry was posted in DEMOCRACY IN ISLAM and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.