The Scatterbrained Syncretist








Tuesday, April 15, 2003

David Weisman at The Art of Peace links to an article from the University of Michigan News Service about a survey in the Western and Muslim worlds of opinions on democracy and gender issues. The survey found similar levels of admiration for democracy but a divergence on questions of homosexuality, women's rights, abortion and divorce.

He comments:

"Maybe the reason those nations don't have a liberal democracy despite having the same desire for it we do have to do with needing experience, or institutions built up over time."

Although the responses to the survey show high regard for democracy in both the West and the Islamic world, it would be reasonable to assume that democracy is understood quite differently in societies that are democratic and societies that see democracy as foreign. Those of us who enjoy the benefits of living in democratic countries have experience with the regularity and tolerance that make civil society so...civil. Inhabitants of Islamic countries (with a couple partial exceptions) only know that democracies are prosperous and powerful leaders in the community of nations. It is clear from the survey responses about gays, women and divorce that these "admirers" of democracy fail to recognize the importance of equality under the law and tolerance (of minorities) that are necessary underpinnings of any modern democratic polis.

The survey does not make clear that different people have the same desire...just that they hold the same word in high esteem. The contrasting positions about tolerance and equality indicate that they desire a society quite different from anything we'd recognize as a liberal democracy. It is that different desire that explains the failure of the Islamic world to import democracy. (That and the Muslim opposition to individualism and the secular state).

David focuses on the lack of institutional infrastructure, but while civil institutions are a necessary condition for a democratic society, they are not sufficient. Islamic societies have evolved institutions that embody their own values. To transplant democracy we must transplant democratic values...not just institutions.

These values include; rule of law, respect for private property, personal responsibility (meritocracy), equality and individual self-determination. When a society lacks these essential values, elections and legislatures are merely a phony front. We have seen too many examples of countries erecting the institutional forms of democracy without the required cultural values. The false promise of "instant democracy" has betrayed the hopes of people around the world. Much of the tragedy of post-colonial Africa is, alas, instructive on this point.

We have had some discussion of David's opinion that America should be planning Iraq's democratic transformation. Democracy will be possible in Iraq when Iraqis adopt the full panoply of democratic values.

How can we transmit those values? We can show the relationship between the admired qualities like wealth, power and prestige and the values that lead to their realization. If a nation wishes to be wealthy, it must fully use all the talent available. Excluding people from the work force because of gender or clan reduces the talent pool and makes an economy uncompetitive. If you wish to have the democratic good of a prosperous society, you must choose to use the democratic means of an egalitarian meritocracy to get there. If you desire the social stability of democratic societies, you must achieve it the same way they adopting tolerance, secularism and a respect for law. If you envy the prestige of the Western democracies, you can earn it embracing pluralism, education, responsibility and individualism. Some of these values are more consistent with Islam than others. The creation of a democratic Islam will be a wrenching change. Some of these new values are very different from Arab values (which are not identical to Muslim values).

David says:

"Sometimes it isn't enough to want something. You have to believe in it with your gut deep down, you have to believe it's possible and natural, even necessary."

I couldn't agree with him more.

We can work to demonstrate the advantages of these values and we can try to impose some degree of civil order in Iraq so there aren't too many obstacles, but while education programs and policing can be planned, learning and choosing must be done by the people not the planners. It is a messy process that will require great patience and commitment.

For many people this is a conundrum. Imposing our tolerance and egalitarianism onto other cultures can seem both intolerant and elitist to a multi-culturalist.

To cut the Gordian Knot we must discover a way to reconcile Islam with secularism, individualism, empiricism, tolerance and egalitarianism...and oh yes...freedom. Only then will Muslim countries be able to build the kinds of institutions that make democratic societies possible. This is a gargantuan undertaking...but what are our options?

It will be a long war.


Wednesday, April 16, 2003


In an extensive article in Foreign Policy by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, the authors of the survey say, "But this sentiment needs to be complemented by deeper underlying attitudes such as interpersonal trust and tolerance of unpopular groups—and these values must ultimately be accepted by those who control the army and secret police." Saddam no longer controls the army and secret impediment removed.

More on creating democracy in Iraq from Fareed Zakaria...and the curse of oil wealth.