Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Democracy and religion

The starting point of 'Continental drift' by Ian Buruma -  see - is the fact of most Europeans mourning the defeat of John Kerry.

Why? Was it, perhaps, because they agreed with the eminent US scholar Garry Wills, who described the Bush victory as the defeat of the Enlightenment in the US? In his view, the land shaped by Jefferson and Lincoln has been taken over by “moral zealots”. Is Europe now the last beacon of Enlightenment values, and America the counter-Enlightenment?
But the main difference between Europe and the US is political: the former is still governed by elites, especially on the level of the EU, while populism has swept the US.
 But “Europeans”, as [Timothy] Garton Ash has pointed out, is often code in Washington for something else: for the old liberal, Atlanticist elite, represented by Democrats such as Kerry, but also country club Republicans such as Bush the elder. To be “European” means to be on the side of secular liberalism at home, and cautious diplomacy and alliance-building abroad.
I’m not at all sure that Garry Wills is right to claim that Bush’s US has turned its back on the Enlightenment. European intellectuals like to believe Europe is now the only legitimate carrier of the liberal heritage bequeathed by Diderot, John Locke and, yes, Thomas Jefferson. But is it true? On the level of rhetoric, if nothing else, Bushism sends out mixed signals. The constant invocation of the Lord’s name is not in the spirit of Diderot, and the religious loathing of homosexuality, abortion and the scientific approach to life’s mysteries is also less than enlightened. But the Enlightenment was also about liberation from despotism, and about the notion that reason is a universal human faculty, and that rational solutions can therefore be universally applied. In this sense, the Bushist project, articulated by such wholly secular - and indeed elitist - figures as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, is in tune with the Enlightenment.

The idea that the US can transform dictatorships into areas of democracy and free enterprise is close to the world view of Locke - closer, at any rate, than the common “European” view that we cannot mess with alien cultures, that tyrants are part of a foreign tradition which it would be folly to challenge with force. This kind of scepticism is actually closer to the counter-Enlightenment, which emphasises culture rather than universal ideals.
American idealism, though denied by Europeans, is real, though the essay does contain the warning that 'zealotry, even in service of enlightened ideals, is always dangerous. It is possible, perhaps even probable, that this form of zealotry, like others in the past, will crash on the rocks of the real world', before concluding:.
to turn our backs on the US, even under George W. Bush, would be folly - all democracies, however flawed, have more in common with one another than with any form of dictatorship. Those who think that Bush is more dangerous than Kim Jong-il delude themselves, or are not democrats at heart. And to think, as the French government appears to do, that we must challenge the US by making common cause with authoritarian states such as China, is neither prudent, nor wise, nor indeed remotely in tune with the principles of the Enlightenment.
(Google "Continental drift" "Ian Buruma" then click the cached copy.) 

'Democratic Providentialism' by Michael Ignatieff  (in The New York Times of 12 Dec, via Norm -  alternate link:

During this year's election campaign, President Bush liked to wind up his stump speech with a peroration about freedom -- and therefore democracy -- being not just America's gift to the world but God's gift to mankind. This line went down well, maybe because it carried the happy implication that when America and its soldiers promote democracy overseas, they are doing God's work, even in Iraq.

The name for this idea is democratic providentialism. It has become the organizing vision of an administration that took power in 2001 actively disdainful of highfalutin foreign-policy uplift. All that John Kerry and the Democrats could put up against it was prudent realism, and to the extent that the election was a referendum on vision, prudent realism lost hands down. The 2004 election closed out the final chapter in a fascinating realignment in American politics. Democrats, who once were heirs of big dreamers like Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, risk becoming the party of small dreams, while the Republicans, who under Nixon and Kissinger seemed determined to divest foreign policy of high moral purpose, have become the party that wants to change the world.

Of course, there is nothing necessarily good about dreaming big. Big dreams can be crazy. And dangerous. A lot of people -- including people of Christian faith -- found it alarming that a president could actually claim to know what God's plan might be, and scarier still that there were evangelical Christians divinely certain that George W. Bush was himself part of that plan. ...
 For Americans, the problem is what to do when democracy and national interest conflict. Speaking to the National Endowment for Democracy last year, the president acknowledged that America won't have a viable political strategy against Islamic terrorism unless it stands up for democracy in the Islamic world. The problem is that if the U.S. does so, new regimes voted into power after elections in Egypt or Pakistan might be violently anti-American. ''One man, one vote, one time'' is another genuine concern: Islamists (or secular authoritarians) using electoral democracy to abolish democracy itself.

So promoting democracy is risky, but propping up autocrats only delays the day of reckoning with popular anger. ...

Trying to set elections aside when they go against your interests is another mistake, as France learned when it supported the Algerian military in canceling an election that would have brought Islamists to power in 1992. It's better to have the Islamists in office -- making mistakes, learning the disciplines of serving electorates -- than to back autocracies that fail their people.
Another question mark over the administration's commitment to democracy abroad is its attitude toward democracy at home. Democracy is something more than red-state majority rule. The democratic faith also requires respect for the judiciary, deference to constitutional separation of powers, decent respect for the opinions of mankind, not to mention democratically ratified treaty law like the Geneva Conventions and, last but not least, the humility that goes with knowing that you serve the people, not a providential design that only you and other true believers can understand.
Ian Buruma: 'An Islamic Democracy for Iraq?' in The New York Times of 5 Dec - see here:
Muslims have rarely been ruled by clerics. Worldly and spiritual authority have usually been kept separate in the Middle East. And until not so long ago, religious minorities, like Jews, were treated with more tolerance in the Muslim world than in Christendom. When worldly authority becomes intolerably oppressive, however, religion is often the only base of resistance. Such was the case in Poland under Communist rule, when the Catholic Church provided a source of dissent. Under Saddam Hussein, the mosque had begun to play a similar role. Political Islam was a way to fight back against secular Baathism, and Ali al-Sistani was its main Shiite spokesman. The pope played a somewhat comparable role under Communism.

Still, the neoconservatives around President Bush mostly favored a secular route toward democracy in Iraq. ...the administration pinned its hopes on secular exiles like Ahmad Chalabi, not Shiite mullahs exiled to London and Tehran. This line of thinking fell in easily with the views of another administration favorite, Bernard Lewis, the Princeton scholar who says that Kemal Ataturk got it right in Turkey: to promote modernism, religious authority must be forcibly expunged from politics.
Unfortunately, what came out of all this secularizing zeal was not democracy but militarism, absolute monarchy, fascism and variations of Stalinism. The religious revolution that now stalks the Muslim world has come as a reaction, in part, to the failure of modern secular politics. ... Neoconservatives are not alone in their distrust of clerics. This distrust split the left-leaning anti-Communist opposition in Poland too. It was hard for some dissidents to support the priests against the commissars. As Jerzy Urban, one of the last spokesmen for the Communist regime there, once remarked, it's either us or the Black Madonna of Czestochowa [see].
The idea that modern democracy has to be secular in its ethos is, of course, rooted in European history. The Enlightenment was partly an assault on the authority of the church, especially in France. Political arrangements were to be subject to reason, not to theology. To be modern was to reject religion, or ''superstition,'' and to believe in science. It was not enough, in the view of Voltaire, among others, to put organized religion in its place; it was necessary to ''wipe out that rubbish.''
In fact, anti-clericalism, much more than a history of religious zeal, formed the basis for many of the Middle East's bloodiest political failures: Nasserism in Egypt, Baathism in Syria and Iraq, the shah in Iran. ... When organized religion is destroyed, something worse often takes its place, usually a quasi religion or personality cult exploited by dictators. When it is marginalized, as happened in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, it provokes a religious rebellion.
It is always tricky for an agnostic in religious affairs to argue for the importance of organized religion, but I would argue not that more people should be religious or that democracy cannot survive without God, but that the voices of religious people should be heard. The most important condition for a functional democracy is that people take part. If religious affiliations provide the necessary consensus to play by common rules, then they should be recognized.
This [the Iraqi situation] sounds complicated, but it is not more so than the situation in Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world. ...  The transition to democracy in Indonesia has not been easy, following as it has years of secular dictatorship, during which political Islam was suppressed, much as it was in Iraq. Yet the outcome has not been a fundamentalist Islamic regime but a democratic system, however flawed, in which Islamist parties have to cast around for votes like any other party.
You might conclude from this [Bali etc] that Suharto had it right. His rule may have been harsh and corrupt, but at least he kept the Islamists in their box. Democracy is resulting in terror. Yet this would be the wrong conclusion. Not only were Suharto's authoritarian methods largely responsible for the birth of religious extremism; democracy is proving to be the best cure -- for moderate Muslims, still the majority in Indonesia, are so appalled by the bloody mayhem caused by the terrorists that they won't vote for any party associated with them. This has forced the Islamist parties to publicly reject the extremists.
But the Iraqis have problems that the Indonesians did not have to face. They have to build democratic institutions under a hated foreign occupation.

It is very difficult to build a democracy as pupils of foreign tutors who arrived in bombers and tanks. Even though the foreign occupiers say they want an Iraqi democracy too, anyone or any party believed to be on the side of foreigners is discredited from the start. The more those foreigners insist on secularism, the more the local people may turn to radical Islamism. ... ''There is no perfect election in the world,'' [Sa'ad Jawad Qandil of Sciri said. ''If there are some minorities who cannot participate because of security, that is not a reason to cancel the decision of the majority.'' Well, yes, it is. For if the Sunnis can't vote, Iraqi democracy won't work, because without the consent of this minority, the majority can never govern in peace.


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