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Alfred Stepan – Democracy and Islam

Stepan’s deep respect for Muslims was an extension of his general respect to all human beings, a reflection of his independent and curious mind, and big and compassionate heart. In memoriam.

lead Alfred and Ahmet, Tunisia 2013. Author's photograph.Alfred Stepan, a world-renowned political scientist, passed away on September 27 at the age of 81. He was my mentor, friend, co-author, and source of inspiration. To recap Stepan’s academic legacy in a brief tribute is impossible; thus, I will focus on the latest concentration of his richly productive research agenda – the study of Islam and democracy.

In their hugely influential Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (1996), Stepan and Juan Linz (1926-2013) criticized western governments for often having a “double standard” in their support of autocrats against Islamists, such as the western endorsement of the military coup in Algeria in 1991. The standpoint in this brief note would later be elaborated by Stepan’s publications on world religions and democracy.

Stepan brought a truly comparative perspective to the study of religions and democracy. In a path-breaking article published in 2000, "Religion, Democracy, and the ‘Twin Tolerations’," Stepan argued that Islam, Confucianism, and Eastern Orthodoxy were not inherently more authoritarian than Western Christianity. He also criticized Samuel Huntington’s thesis that the separation of religious and political spheres only existed in western Christianity. For Stepan, all religions were multivocal; they all had pro-authoritarian and pro-democratic interpretations.

He depicted secularist ideologies as multivocal as well; secularists could establish authoritarian or democratic regimes. He, therefore, offered “twin tolerations,” rather than an absolute separation, as a solution to the problems around religion-state disputes. The “twin tolerations” formula requires that religious and political domains tolerate each other as independent spheres, while they can still have certain levels of interaction. For Stepan, all religions were multivocal; they all had pro-authoritarian and pro-democratic interpretations.

Stepan kept questioning the idea that Muslim countries were exceptionally authoritarian. In two articles, written with Graeme Robertson (2003-4), Stepan argued that there was no “Muslim democracy gap.” These articles showed that the ratio of democracies and autocracies among non-Arab Muslim countries was almost identical with the ratio theoretically determined regarding their GDP per capita. Moreover, Stepan defined certain non-Arab Muslim autocracies as “overachievers” – poor but democratic cases. Among Arab countries, by contrast, there was no democracy at that time. Instead, he pointed out that there were many Arab “underachievers” – rich but authoritarian cases.

At Columbia University, Stepan established an institutional network to develop the study of democracy in Muslim countries. With a Luce grant, he founded the Center for Democracy, Toleration, and Religion (CDTR) in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). He also served as the co-founder of the Institute of Religion, Culture, and Public Life at Columbia and helped the development of a book series with the same name at Columbia University Press. Stepan intellectually and institutionally supported young academics working on Islam and democracy, including Michael Buehler, Nader Hashemi, Mirjam Kunkler, Monica Marks, and Jeremy Menchik.

I began working with Stepan in January 2008 as the assistant director of CDTR and a postdoctoral fellow at SIPA, Columbia. Stepan and his wife Nancy were very hospitable to my wife Zeynep, our two-year old, and me. I had the privilege of working with Stepan for a period of an intellectually dynamic and inspirational eighteen months. During that period, CDTR organized events by inviting eminent scholars of religion and politics worldwide, including Rajeev Bhargava, Jose Casanova, Robert Hefner, Denis Lacorne, Daniel Philpott, and Charles Taylor.

CDTR particularly focused on three non-Arab Muslim-majority secular democracies: Turkey, Indonesia, and Senegal. Stepan’s main goal was to show the compatibility of Islam, democracy, and twin tolerations in these three cases. The result was three edited volumes – one was on Turkey (co-edited by Stepan and I), another on Indonesia (co-edited by Stepan and Kunkler), and the third one on Senegal (edited by Mamadou Diouf). Particularly in his writings on Senegal, Stepan stressed how Islamic actors could promote liberal agendas, such as fighting against female genital mutilation and HIV.

When Arab uprisings began, Stepan was theoretically ready and personally willing to make substantial contributions to democratization efforts. In his Project Syndicate column, he (and Linz) warned about the perils of presidentialism in post-revolution Egypt. Stepan particularly commended Tunisia as an emerging Arab democracy. I met him in April 2013 in Tunis at a conference on Islam and democracy. He was constantly bridging democratic theory and empirical observations from the Tunisian case; he was optimistic but also aware of challenges.

One of Stepan’s biggest disappointments on the issue of Islam and democracy was the case of Turkey. At the beginning of the AKP rule, Stepan was largely critical of Kemalists’ assertive secularist policies and hoped that Turkey would be more democratic with the integration of Islamic actors into the Turkish political system. In 2008, he and I organized an international conference to discuss the new constitution for Turkey drafted by Ergun Özbudun. When a closure case was opened in Turkish Constitutional Court against the AKP, Stepan wrote an essay in Project Syndicate to criticize this anti-democratic judicial attempt. In 2009, Stepan and I coordinated Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to and public talk at Columbia. Again, in 2009, we organized an international conference on Turkish democracy, which resulted in our edited book. Erdoğan not only lost the chance to be remembered as a democratic leader, but also confirmed those who had argued that Islamists would never become democrats.

In mid-2012, however, it became obvious that we were too optimistic about the AKP’s seemingly democratic discourse. Right after the Gezi events and the Turkish police’s crack down of the protestors, Stepan sent me a short but sensitive email message. He informed me that Linz and he thought that Erdoğan had “lost it” and asked “Are we wrong?” The question was a typical reflection of Stepan’s humility and respect for others’ views. Of course they were right. Erdoğan not only lost the chance to be remembered as a democratic leader, but also confirmed those who had argued that Islamists would never become democrats. Last time I met Stepan was June 2015, in a conference in Florence. He was disappointed to see the breakdown of democracy in Turkey, but still tried to remain hopeful.

Stepan and I kept in touch via emails and discussed writing a co-authored article on Turkey. I became more prone to holding Islamic ideas and actors responsible for the breakdown of Turkish democracy. Stepan, by contrast, focused on Erdoğan’s leadership. He asked whether there were some Muslim activists resisting Erdoğan’s authoritarianism. Stepan had sympathy toward Muslims and exerted a profound effort to understand them. He consistently criticized the stereotypical depiction of Islam as an inherently authoritarian religion. Stepan’s deep respect for Muslims was an extension of his general respect to all human beings. It was also a reflection of his independent and curious mind, and big and compassionate heart.

Stepan’s death is a huge loss for political science, in general, and studies on Islam and democracy, in particular. I hope his legacy will survive with the works of his students and others inspired by him.

About the author

Ahmet T.Kuru is professor at the department of political science in San Diego State University, interested in comparative politics, religion and politics, and Islam and the Middle East.


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