University of Cambridge > > CISA Talks - Cambridge International Studies Association > Religion-State Relations in Comparative Perspective. How much Religion can Democracy take?

Religion-State Relations in Comparative Perspective. How much Religion can Democracy take?

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Chaired by: Dr Sara Silvestri (POLIS)

Contrary to the widely held assumption that most countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have separated mosque from state formally, the MENA exhibits the highest levels of government interference in religion of any region in the world. Rather than a situation where the state and religion are separated, we find that religion is highly regulated by the state. This is the case across various types of political systems (republics versus monarchies, multi-party versus one-party states) and irrespective of the levels of political contestation in the region (e.g. Kuwait versus Saudi Arabia). Secularism in the sense of an institutional separation between religion and state is, in other words, absent from the region.

Yet, we must bear in mind that even in long-standing democracies, such a strict institutional separation is the exception rather than the norm. Most European democracies, but also India and Japan, entertain high levels of interrelations between state and religion. Examples of this are public funds for religious schooling, the collection of religious levies through state institutions, the limited state recognition of religious law, public funding of religious authority to be employed in the army and hospitals, and the distribution of public welfare through religious organizations.

What is important from the viewpoint of democratic theory is not so much the extent to which religion and state are separated, but the nature of their relationship. Thus, there are important differences in the level and quality of government interference in religion between long-standing democracies on the one hand and authoritarian regimes on the other. Not all aspects of how the state interferes in religion in countries of the MENA is per se undemocratic. We need to distinguish between those aspects that violate fundamental democratic qualities and those that do not.

With the wave of political change that has swept the MENA as a consequence of social mobilization, the question of the future of religion-state relations has become an even more pressing concern. It is unlikely that future governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya will refrain from continuing the high levels of government regulation of religion. The governing military council of Egypt has already decided that Art.2, which identifies principles of Islamic law as the most important source of law, will be retained even as a new constitution will be drafted. Which of the existing elements of government interference in religion are likely to weaken democratic rights standards, which ones do not? In which areas may extant nexuses between religion and the state aid current political transitions, and in which areas are they likely to undermine these transitions?

In a first part, the paper will give a comparative overview of the extent and nature of government interference in religion in the MENA . As part of this, the paper will offer comparative evidence from the MENA and other regions in the world drawing on indices that capture government interference in religion.

In a second part, the paper will give examples from existing democracies, including the five countries of the Muslim world that have been undergoing democratization processes since the late 1990s (Indonesia, Mali, Senegal, Turkey, Albania), to elucidate which kind of religion-state-relation may be democracy-compatible. Popular religious commitments can be addressed for instance by providing for public support for certain types of religious schooling. In the realm of public service provision and welfare, religious organizations may have a pivotal role to play. Not only may they enjoy better access to the citizenry than state institutions, they may also aid a young democracy’s legitimacy by raising the overall level of service provision and thus citizens’ quality of life. Further, Islamic political parties, if operating in a democratic competitive environment, need not be illiberal players or push rights-reducing agendas. They too, may have a legitimation function in young democracies by channeling public support for political Islam into institutions that work within rather than against the system.

By contrast, other aspects of the public role of religion may be less compatible with democracy. It is hard to see, for instance, how equality between Muslim and non-Muslim citizenship can be guaranteed if Islamic authorities are veto actors in the constitutional or legislative processes. Similarly, where religion is made a requirement for citizenship, or where religious minorities (both Muslim and non-Muslim) are not legally recognized and their practices not constitutionally protected, freedom of religion is necessarily limited. Where the state applies Islamic family law simultaneously with a civil code for non-Muslims, without allowing an unsanctioned opt-out or opt-in possibility, rights standards necessarily differ across religious communities, and equality before the law cannot be guaranteed.

There are, in other words, great qualitative differences in the consequences of the public incorporation of religion. As more and more publics in the MENA successfully effect political change with the expectation of democratic citizenship, the differences between models of religion-state relations that are neither hostile to religion nor democracy-reducing, and those that are, need to be better understood. Only when the choices and their consequences are clear, can decisions on the constitutional design be made that reflect citizens’ medium- and long-term preferences. Political scientists, legal scholars and practitioners will do well to further elucidate the broad range of religion-state relations that are compatible with democracy, but also the limits of that range. As publics in the MENA are grappling with crucial constitutional choices now and in the coming months, the paper contributes to an emerging debate about the possibilities and limits of democratic religion-state relations that will bear important consequences beyond the halls of academia.


Mirjam Künkler (PhD, Political Science, Columbia University) is Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. She has published two books: with Julia Leininger, On the Role of Religious Actors in Democratization Processes, VS- Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2009; and with Alfred Stepan, Indonesia, Islam and Democracy, Columbia University Press,, 2011. Her monograph that analyzes the impact of contemporary Islamic thought and social movement activism on the transformation of authoritarian rule in Iran (1989-2005) and Indonesia (1974- 1998) shall hopefully appear in 2012. A special issue Künkler has edited on ‘New Jurisprudential Approaches to the Question of Government in Iran’ is forthcoming in Die Welt des Islams. In her next project, Künkler turns to the function of law in the authoritarian politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as essays on the phenomenon of female religious authority in Iran.

This talk is part of the CISA Talks - Cambridge International Studies Association series.

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