The threat of a Kabul court a few months ago to execute a man for converting from Islam to Christianity raised in an especially clear form the contradiction between “democracy” as we understand it and “democracy” as it may reasonably be understood by others.
Democracy was understood by ancient Greek scholars and the Founding Fathers to be a dangerous form of government. They saw it as mob rule, and they knew that a mob could easily be swayed one way or another by emotions, often stirred up by demagogues. Many of these Fathers saw the French Revolution as a confirmation of their opinions, which most of the them (with the partial exception of Jefferson) saw as a lesson to be avoided.
In this climate of opinion, they drew up a plan for a nation based on a Constitution that circumscribed the political rights of ordinary people in several ways. First, political power was to be exercised through elected representatives rather than directly. In addition, the senate and the president were to be indirectly elected. Today, the electoral system allows for a clearer expression of the popular will than it did originally, but our constitutional system still limits the ability of the people to directly affect how the country is run, especially in the short term. Most important, the Constitution established a system of rights guaranteed by courts presided over by judges that at least at the top were not elected and served for life. The rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were effectively “set in stone”. The Constitution could be changed, but changing it was a lengthy process. The amendments that were accepted over the course of the next 200 years expanded guarantees of freedom and equality, but did not fundamentally change the structure the Founders had created.
When American representatives proclaim in international forums that they support the universality of democracy, they appear to be asking all peoples without democracy to change their systems of governance in three rather different directions. First, they are seen to be asking other countries to accept a political system similar to ours. Or they are understood to be asking other peoples to establish political systems in which “free and fair” elections are the essential ingredient. Or, they are asking other peoples to institute political systems that guarantee international human rights, particularly those characterized as civil liberties. It is seldom pointed out to other publics or understood by American communicators that these three aspects of democracy can contradict one another.
In the Islamic world, America’s promotion of democracy becomes especially problematic. Many Islamic countries are quite prepared to establish electoral systems for choosing the people who will lead them. But they understand that those elected should be limited in their decision power, much as they are in our own Constitution, by courts established on the basis of operative legal traditions. In their case, the best known legal tradition is Islamic, and the highest courts may be Shari’ah courts, courts based on principles and ideas that are quite different from those prescribed by modern definitions of human rights. Islamic leaders might well note that American democracy is even today not always on the side of what are now considered international human rights, particularly in areas such as polygamy and capital punishment. In America, “the people” are free to enact legislation violating international standards. This legislation remains the law of the land as long as it is not countermanded by our courts. On the other hand, our non-elected judges are also free to decide against international standards on the basis of what they understand to be American legal tradition.
So in bringing “democracy” to Islamic countries, we are faced with the fact that an Islamic people may through electoral processes decide on laws and procedures that go very much against our modern concept of democracy, such as prescribing the stoning of adulterers. We also must face the fact that accepting the American idea of an independent judiciary would seem to lay the basis for enshrining in law and practice Shari’ah provisions that are simply not “acceptable” to the modern West. It is very difficult to say that in instituting democracy in this way, they are not adopting at least one of the proffered definitions of democracy.
This suggests that those of us who promote democracy should step back and rethink what we are about. Two changes appear to be necessary. First, we should be clearer in our own minds about what changes should have highest priority in moving the world toward greater freedom. It would seem to me that the first priority must be the creation of a world of responsible states that progressively exhibit increasing respect for international human rights while preserving their capability to secure the peace internally and within their regions. Given this change of focus, we should be less enthusiastic in our promotion of “democracy” without qualification in Islamic countries. America’s democratic role should be to increase respect for human rights in such countries, building the bases for the emergence of a true western-style liberal democracy sometime in the future. Secondly, when we campaign for an expansion of democracy, we should stop defining our goal primarily in terms of elections. We should make it understood that we understand a democratic society to be one based on modern liberal institutions. In our democracy campaign, it will also be helpful to deemphasize American models, asking other peoples to consider a wider range of models, some of which are more decisively in the modern liberal tradition than we happen to be. It is particularly important that we not identify capitalism with democracy. While capitalism with a variety of qualifications has characterized our own democratic success, other countries have succeeded as democracies with governments and peoples much more dedicated to egalitarianism and a larger degree of governmental intervention in the economy than has characterized the United States.
With this approach, we will be less likely to seem brazenly inconsistent in our advocacy of democracy, as we have been characterized after we effectively rejected the coming to power of Hamas in Palestine through free and fair elections. We will also have created a more understandable platform from which to criticize the human rights performance of Afghan or Iranian governments that have established ostensibly democratic constitutional systems under our tutelage.