One of the most commonly emphasized features of Israel is that it is a democracy. Or rather, the democracy — the definite article is perhaps appropriate here given that Israel has been, ever since its inception, the only solid democracy in all of West Asia as well as the wider Middle East as a whole.
When the founding fathers of Israel set up the state that would declare independence in 1948, they did so along traditional Western liberal democratic lines. While liberal democracy is indeed the best form of government that humans have thus developed (the list of public intellectuals and politicians who have attested to this is so great it becomes unnecessary to quote them) it has a number of flaws which come from the assumptions it makes of those living under its patronage.
Liberal democracies assume, firstly, that their citizens will have an interest in participating in matters of government, namely in the form of elections, in the interest of open and fair governing. They also make the assumption that their citizens will consent to the separation of church and state, so that individuals who do not subscribe to a certain religion will never fall victim to any sort of religious tyranny from the majority faith.
This system was set up in a cultural and religious milieu of a post-enlightenment Judeo-Christian tradition, drawing on the ancient Greek systems of democracy and just government for its legitimacy.
There is, however, a gaping problem. What happens when these democratic rights are extended to people to whom the above assumptions do not apply?
Islam is a religion that does not allow for the separation of church and state. On the contrary, it is, as described by its adherents, an all-encompassing system designed to guide followers through all aspects of life. Many other core principles of liberal democracy, such as the equality of the sexes and the freedoms of speech and religion, are also contradicted by Islamic law.
It is not a mere coincidence then that we have seen many protests by Muslims in public places throughout Europe denouncing democracy. It is also not a coincidence that, out of the 57 member states of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation), not a single one is considered a full democracy by the Democracy Index. These facts are symptomatic of a larger problem.
Secular Muslims, as well as others living in Muslim countries are not blind to the risks of political Islamism; in Tunisia as well as Egypt, one of the greatest criticisms levied against the local chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood was that they were essentially offering ‘one man, one vote, one time’ – since a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood would usher in the end of the same democratic procedures that got them into power in the first place. It should be mentioned that Muslims are not the only threat in this context either – a Pew Research poll showed that up to 24% of religious Jews believe that Halakha should triumph over democratic principles.
Thus Israel faces a monumental challenge. It must maintain its status as a liberal democracy while simultaneously accommodating the portion of its population that want to destroy democratic principles. It is only when we acknowledge the difficulty of this task that the significance of the fact that Israel has not compromised on its democratic values even faced with these difficulties becomes astounding.
Whether or not these sections of the population who would use the democratic rights afforded to them in order to strip democracy from others constitute a dangerous ‘fifth column’ that presents an existential threat to the state remains to be seen. The concept of a demographic threat – that the Muslim minority could become large enough to threaten democracy in Israel – has been touched on even by those in government. Given the current state of affairs, it is unfortunately likely that the battle between religious fundamentalism and democratic values will not be concluded anytime soon.