Friday, February 11, 2005

Ten Reasons to Support Democracy in the Middle East

In his NRO column, Victor Davis Hanson gives ten answers to the question, "Why Democracy?" (Note: I have listed only the answers. Read his article for his excellent in-depth explanations.)

1. It is widely said that democracies rarely attack other democracies.

2. More often than not, democracies arise through violence -- either by threat of force or after war with all the incumbent detritus of humiliation, impoverishment, and revolution.

3. Democracies are more likely to be internally stable, inasmuch as they allow people to take credit and accept blame for their own predicaments.

4. The democratic idea is contagious.

5. In the case of the Muslim world, there is nothing inherently incompatible between Islam and democracy.

6. Democracy brings moral clarity and cures deluded populaces of their false grievances and exaggerated hurts.

7. We fret rightly about the spread of weapons of mass destruction. But the truth is that we worry mainly about nukes in the hands of autocracies like China, Iran, or North Korea.

8. The promotion of democracy abroad by democracy at home is internally consistent and empowers rather than embarrasses a sponsoring consensual society.

9. By promoting democracies, Americans can at last come to a reckoning with the Cold War.

10. Like it or not, a growing consensus has emerged that consumer capitalism and democracy are the only ways to organize society.
These are, on the whole, valid points and I have urged some of them on this blog and elsewhere. But I do have a minor quibble with point number 5. Here is the full context:
5. In the case of the Muslim world, there is nothing inherently incompatible between Islam and democracy. Witness millions in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Turkey who vote. Such liberal venting may well explain why those who blow up Americans are rarely Indian or Turkish Muslims, but more likely Saudis or Egyptians. The trick is now to show that Arab Muslims can establish democracy, and thus the Palestine and Iraq experiments are critical to the entire region.
I disagree with both the theoretical assertion and the practical examples that Hanson produces. There is a conflict between Islam and democracy. Because Islam is a religion without grace, there can be no fundamental trust among fellow men. Every sinner will be forced to hide the fact of his imperfection and, therefore, to be all the more critical of the imperfections of others. Furthermore, since only an inhuman standard of achievement is worthy of heaven, the cult of the hero is inevitable. This has two distinct but reinforcing anti-democratic effects. First, it tempts people to overlook the flaws in their leaders as long as they are capable of command, because to suspect that a particular man may be imperfect opens up the possibility that perfection is impossible. Second, it tends to make such leaders brutally suppressive of dissent, for obvious reasons. This is why secularization is usually on the lips of those who advocate the advance of democracy in Islamic cultures.

But I suggest that secular government is ultimately without authority. The worst atrocities of history were committed in the 20th century by secular governments: the Nazi concentration camps, the killing fields of Cambodia and Stalin's programs of mass starvation in the Ukraine. Without a moral basis, government becomes hateful to its constituents. Fallen men cannot be trusted with the power of life and death, unless they are subject to a transcendent authority (and not even always then).

This leads me to the "successful" Muslim democracies that Hanson cites: India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Turkey. I have already mentioned the occupation of Cyprus in other posts, but would include oppression of both Kurds and Christians as among Turkey's anti-democratic tendencies. In fact, all of theses countries have problems with religious persecution, although it is admittedly less than in more despotic governments. But the fact remains that Islam has not proven itself capable of tolerance toward non-Islamic religions in any of these places, even in India, where Islam is in the minority. It may well do so, but until then this matter must remain in doubt.

There is, of course, a sense in which all cultures, even those informed by Christianity, are subject to the perfectionist influences that I noted above. This is because even Christians do not fully trust the grace that we profess, and are constantly tempted to justify ourselves. This was visibly the case with the mediaeval Catholic monarchies, but is even evident in the most thoroughly protestant countries after the Reformation. Nevertheless, I think that only under Christianity can democracy prosper.

My support for democracy in Islamic countries is thus diametrically opposite to that expressed by Mr. Hanson. If democracy is only possible under Christianity, it is also true that Christianity has the best chance of thriving, and therefore dominating, within a democracy. Like many real-world processes, the two have a mutually reinforcing feed-back relationship that amounts, absent outside obstacles, to a virtuous circle. It is therefore in order to promote Christianity that I support democracy.

I am well aware that this thesis has yet to bear fruit in history. But that is what makes these times so interesting, hmm?


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