by Raymond Ibrahim
Hudson New York
February 16, 2011
Note: This version of the article differs slightly from that which appeared in Hudson New York.
It is axiomatic in the West that democracy equates liberty and freedom. 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 democracy and the universal rights that all human beings deserve”—as if the two are inseparable.
But are they? Does “democracy” necessarily always lead to “universal rights”—and all of the other boons associated with the word?
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 the notion of democracy. Whereas the near institutionalized misogyny of “democratic” Athens would make the Taliban proud, women in “authoritarian” Sparta enjoyed a comparatively high level of equality. For these reasons, 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 government, democracy is a means to an end: based on whether that end is good (freedom) or bad (fascism) should be the ultimate measure of its worth.
Recent examples of “people-power”—literally, demos-kratia—helping to empower individuals or organizations culminating in fascistic governments are many: the Palestinians elected the terrorist organization Hamas; free elections in Algeria in 1991would have brought Islamists to power. Most famously, the Shah of Iran, whose monarchy was socially liberal, was overthrown by the people, who brought the Khomeini and fascism to power.
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 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 more 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 their 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, limited terms, a constitution, rule of law, and a separate judiciary. But what if all of these are built on Islamist, that is, fascistic principles, agreed to by the people? A government can have a constitution, law, and judiciary and still all be based on sharia—which literally means “the way.” After all, part of the Brotherhood’s by now infamous slogan is that “the Koran is our Constitution”; likewise, Iran has a “constitutional government”—yet based on sharia principles.
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 a “philosopher-king,” as opposed to popular support, so be it; if that end can be achieved by supporting secularists while openly 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 for the overall good of a people. This will also help fend off the ubiquitous charge, emanating from America’s ivory towers of academia to the Arab streets, that America is hypocritical for befriending and supporting dictators while constantly singing praises of democracy.