The Democratic Delusion

Much western commentary on the turmoil in the Arab world demonstrates historical ignorance, argues Tim Stanley.

Democracy is back in fashion. Oppressed people in the Muslim world are out in the streets demanding it and western observers are cheering them on. The only problem is that these two civilisations have totally different understandings of what democracy means. Democracy as the West comprehends it isn’t really democracy at all; and the Arab peoples are not historically inclined towards the kind of governments westerners presume democracy will bring about. Lacking a proper sense of history the West is in danger of encouraging a political revolution it does not understand and cannot control.

The West tends to conflate democracy with the rule of codified law, human rights, secularism and freedom of individual conscience. In fact, as a historical experience, pure democracy has only a coincidental relationship with these things, if any at all. Democracy derives from the conflation of the Greek words demos (people) and kratos (power): literally, government by the will of the people. Democracy as practiced in Athens in the sixth to fourth centuries bc varied in specifics but always hinged on an assembly of adult male citizens voting directly on day-to-day matters. Every action taken by the Athenian state was considered an expression of public authority. Individual liberty was tolerated, but obstruction of the popular will was not; which was evidenced by the execution of the philosopher Socrates on a charge of heresy.

There was nothing innately humanitarian or deliberative about pure democracy. In 427 bc the Athenian assembly debated how to deal with a revolt in its empire among the Mytilenians of Lesbos. It voted to dispatch a ship to Mytilene to slaughter all adult males and enslave their women and children. By the following morning the Athenians had come to regret their decision. After a lengthy discussion they narrowly voted to send a second ship to rescind the order. The Mytilenian Debate reflected the fickleness and cruelty of pure democracy, how quickly it can descend into mob rule.

What the contemporary westerner really means when he or she says ‘democracy’ is invariably ‘liberalism’. Liberalism is interested in the guarantee and realisation of private liberty in faith, sexuality, business, speech and thought. It flourishes best when a country has divided powers, elected representatives and a maximum of self-government. Liberalism was the product of historical circumstances unique to the West: these include the anti-clericalism of the Reformation; the individualism of the French Revolution; the emergence of a politicised bourgeoisie during the Industrial Revolution; the rights-based language of feminism.

In contrast few of the popular movements of the Muslim world can be deemed liberal. Medieval Islam did flirt with individualism, notably under the Buyid dynasty in Persia (934-1055), which permitted religious freedom and a renaissance in literature and art. But individual liberties in Muslim Arabia were typically regarded as privileges from God, delineated by social status and gender. In the 20th century, persecuted by secular nationalist governments backed by either the USA or the USSR, political Islam became a conservative movement opposed to the 20th-century values that were violently imposed upon the region. It is hard for western liberals to understand why the destitute of the Muslim world might turn to Islamic authoritarianism for comfort, but it is consonant with their historical tradition. The recent attempt to impose liberalism upon Afghanistan is every bit as misguided as the attempt by the Soviet Union to impose socialism upon an agrarian backwater without a proletariat to liberate.

It is not culturally chauvinistic to assert that popular political ideologies vary according to historical circumstance. The Puritans of New England left a legacy of religiosity in American government that is alien to the aggressively secular French. Rather, we have to accept grudgingly that not everyone wants to be free in the way that the West defines freedom. Ironically, the promotion of the will of the majority over the autonomy of the individual actually puts the Muslim world closer to the tradition of Athenian democracy. In the sense that they were expressions of popular will the 1979 Iranian revolution and the Muslim insurgencies that followed were democratic, even if the systems they created were not.

Tim Stanley is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London.