Published in Hudson New York
That democracy equates freedom is axiomatic in the West. Say the word “democracy” and images of a free, pluralistic, and secular society come to mind. Recently commenting on the turmoil in Egypt, President Obama made this association when he said that “the United States will continue to stand up for democracyand the universal rights that all human beings deserve”—as if the two are inseparable.
But are they? Does “democracy” always lead to “universal rights”—and all of the other boons associated with that form of governance?
The fact is, there is nothing inherently liberal, humanitarian, or secular about democracies. Consider ancient Athens, regularly touted as history’s first democracy. It held principles, such as slavery, that would today be deemed antithetical to a democratic society. Indeed, whereas the status of women in “democratic” Athens would have made the Taliban proud, women in “authoritarian” Sparta reportedly enjoyed a much higher level of equality. Thus the Athenian Plato, one of history’s greatest minds, eschewed democracy, opting for a so-called “philosopher king” to provide for the good of the people.
In short, as with all forms of governance, democracy is a means to an end: based on whether that end is good (freedom) or bad (tyranny) should be the ultimate measure of its worth.
Recent examples of “people-power”—literally, demos-kratia—giving rise to fascistic governments are many: the Palestinians elected the terrorist organization Hamas to lead their government in 2006; Islamists were poised to take over in Algeria thanks to free elections in1991. Most famously, the Shah of Iran, whose monarchy was culturally and socially liberal, was overthrown by the people, who brought the Khomeini and tyranny to power in 1979.
Enter Egypt. For starters, what we are witnessing is a popular revolt. But now that the people have gotten what they want—the overthrow of Mubarak—will “people-power” also lead to a more liberal, secular, and pluralistic society? Theoretically, it is possible: many Egyptians, Christians and Muslims, would welcome a freer society. Despite al-Jazeera’s and the Iranian media’s propaganda—which some in the West follow hook-line-and-sinker—the majority of Egyptians protesting are not doing so to see sharia law implemented, but rather for mundane reasons: food and jobs.
That said, the Muslim Brotherhood does pose a very real threat; moreover, it does want strict sharia implemented. If the people help see it to power, Egypt will become considerably more fascistic. Yet this does not mean that most Egyptians are Islamists. While some are, others go along with the Brotherhood for the ostensible benefits, while being indifferent to the group’s ideological agenda. After all, Hamas’ famous strategy of endearing the Palestinians to it by providing for their needs was learned directly from its parent organization: Egypt’s Brotherhood.
In a way, this is not unlike Western democracies: people can vote based on their immediate needs, emotions, misinformation, or even sheer propaganda—and get more than they bargained for. Yet Western democracies have built-in safeguards, for example, a constitution, rule of law, and a separate judiciary. But what if all of these are built on Islamist principles, agreed to by the majority? The constitution, law, and judiciary of a government can all be built atop sharia (the word sharia simply means “the way” of Muslim society). After all, part of the Brotherhood’s by now infamous slogan is that “the Koran is our Constitution”; likewise, Iran has a “constitutional government”—based on sharia jurisprudence.
In short, America needs to stop praising democracy—a means—and start supporting freedom and universal rights—the desired end. If that end can best be achieved by, say, a “philosopher-king,” as opposed to popular support, so be it; if that end can be achieved by supporting secularists while “undemocratically” suppressing Islamists, so be it. Rather than offer lip service to any specific mode of governance, the U.S. should support whoever and whatever form of government is best positioned to provide the boons regularly conflated with democracy.
Such an approach would have an added bonus: it would fend off the ubiquitous charge—emanating from the ivory towers of academia to the Arab street—that America is hypocritical for befriending and supporting dictators even as it constantly sings paeans to democracy.