My name is Spencer Liechty and I recently graduated from Xavier with a major in political science and minors in international relations, economics, and peace studies. While at Xavier, I ran cross country and track and was very involved with Athletes in Action, an organization that aims to integrate faith into athletics. The mission of AIA is very much in line with the Ignatian principle of "finding God in all things." I also had the privilege of working with Xavier legend Father B at the 4pm mass. My Catholic faith is very important to me and is very much a part of who I am, what I do, and how I live. Therefore, it might seem odd that my fellowship topic was on Islam and democracy. However, I believe that in order to truly affirm our own faith, we must learn about others. And even when confident in our deepest beliefs and convictions, we are still called to love our neighbors, embrace our differences, and work together in peace and harmony. In addition, since I was young, I have always had an interest in politics, government, and international relations. And since the events of 9/11, Islam has been at the center of U.S. foreign policy. This is where my curiosity with Islam began and today the Muslim world remains at the center of U.S. interest when it comes to international relations.
My fellowship project is centered on dialogue and fostering a better understanding between the West and the Muslim world. To do this, Im focusing on the aspect of governance and probing into the ways in which Muslim countries govern themselves and how they share the West's democratic values of freedom, justice, and equality. My question was prompted by observing how much of the Muslim world is ranked very low by the various democracy rankings. I started by asking if Islam was to blame for this absence of democracy and if Islam and democracy were even compatible at all. My travels will take me to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, all which rank as the most democratic of the Muslim world, to explore if democracy is truly working there, why or why not, what role Islam plays, and what democracy in an Islamic society looks like.
From my preliminary research, my initial question of "is Islam compatible with democracy" has shifted to more of a question of "under what circumstances can democracy work in an Islamic context". It's clear that a predominantly Muslim country can be democratic, as Indonesia is an example of this. But it is also clear that much of the Muslim world remains authoritarian or struggles with the democratic transition. I've been discovering how Islam is an extremely diverse religion, subject to various interpretations. These interpretations, and the extent to which the government is involved in enforcing or promoting a certain interpretation, plays a big part in whether an environment conducive to democracy exists. But it's not just the religion that determines whether a country is democratic or not. The political and social structure of a country as well as their tradition and history are also important determinants of democracy.
What They're Doing Now
I am currently in the middle of my fellowship travel finishing up my time in Indonesia and about to travel onto Malaysia. While in country, I have been interviewing various university professors, students, think tanks, NGOs, and institutes that have expertise in the area of democracy, human rights, and Islam. My questions centers on what democracy is, how it's working in their country, what areas are lacking and why that is, and what role Islam plays in the country and the government. I hope to take what I learn and promote understanding and cooperation between our societies so that we can, not act with animosity toward each other, but work together in order to address to world's most pressing issues.