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July 19, 2003

"Islamic democracy"

I am all for letting other cultures develop at their own pace-but I also think we should be honest about their differences from liberal democracy. Chris Mooney points out what "Islamic Democracy" usually means in practice. Here is an excerpt of a recent post:


More evidence comes from a 2000 piece in the Washington Post by Abdo, which celebrated the moderate Islamist movement in Egypt. "Unlike in Saudia Arabia," wrote Abdo, Egyptian Islamists "would not advocate cutting off the hands of thieves or gouging out the eyes of other criminals." (How generous of them.) "Rather," Abdo continued,

...they would seek an accommodation between Islam and modernity, not a return to the Medieval Islamic period. They would, however, insist that books and films that do not conform to Islamic principles be banned. But this is in line with the wishes of a majority of Egyptians.

As if the wishes of the majority can justify censorship! If this is multiculturalism, I want no part of it. I'm not saying that we Americans need to go out and thoroughly Westernize every corner of the globe. But I do believe that principles like freedom of expression and thought, which are enshrined in U.N. documents as basic human rights, should not be negotiable in any government daring to call itself democratic.

What Chris is pointing out is that not all democracies are liberal - and that majority rule can sometimes lead to the curtailment of individual freedoms, something that Americans forget too often (and often fall prey to as well, for instance, the movement for the Flag Burning Amendment). This is the central theme of Fareed Zakaria's new book, The Future of Freedom. We should also note that these restrictions on "universal freedoms" are not just limited to Islamic countries-censorship is accepted in much of the European continent, and to a lesser extent in England (blasphemy laws), when there is an overwhelming perception of detracting from the social good (particularly in areas of "hate" or defamation of character more broadly interpreted). Even in the United States, the First Amendment was not generally applied to state laws until this century, and even when it was broadened, the material still had to have some "redeeming social value."

Apologists for Islamism as an acceptable form of political organization among the Western intelligensia are clearly among those who I consider "the enemy." Though as a practical matter I do not believe we can change the world in our image (the Western, and more specifically Anglospheric & American) by force of arms, ceding the moral high ground is tantamount to admitting defeat. It's an assertion of equivalence between liberal democratic regimes which serve as immigration magnets and repressive societies mired in neo-feudal stagnation and only now stumbling towards the Enlightenment (this last empirical point is telling, for though majorities often wish others to be controlled, they themselves yearn for freedom of action). To be more specific, I do admit that perhaps in this generation the women of Islamic countries may have neither control of their bodies/sexual lives nor equality before the law and society...but just because there are practical issues involved does not mean that I do not believe that one day all humanity will bend the knee before the principles of equality before the law and justice for all.

Posted by razib at 12:35 PM




"What Chris is pointing out is that not all democracies are liberal, majority rule can sometimes lead to the curtailment of individual freedoms, something that Americans forget too often"

Thus the importance of the integrity of our Constitution and the rule of law in general. Democracy without the rule of law is the tyranny of the majority.

"Apologists for Islamism as an acceptable form of political organization among the Western intelligensia are clealry among those who I consider "the enemy." "

I don't know if I'd go so far as to call them the enemy but they are clearly misguided. Did you know Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage recently called Iran a functioning Democracy? Wonder if he'd think the US was a functioning Democracy if he got to vote from a slate of candidates picked by say...Pat Robertson.

The only thing I would add is that religion in general is unsuited to governing regardless of which faith we are talking about. See the feedback thread. I agree with you Razib.

Posted by: Katy at July 19, 2003 01:55 PM


well, since i suspect that 'religion' arose to faciliate certain social & psychological needs for our species at a time when we were likely hunter gatherers, no wonder it does not scale well when it tries to intrude onto the temporal/public sphere. even the 'universal' religions that arose during the 'axial age' are retrofits onto the human psyche, ie; they expand the notion of the ingroup/tribe/elect/saved to all members of the particular faith.

Posted by: razib at July 19, 2003 02:13 PM


Well said. It's easy to make a fetish of democracy alone and forget that without laws and traditions to protect the freedom of the minority, you won't end up with a free country just because you have elections. In some cases, too, (where you don't have freedom of the press) democracy ends up being democracy in name only -

Posted by: bbartlog at July 19, 2003 06:39 PM