Very clearly, that wasn’t it at all. The United States, the self-professed “best” democracy in the world, has engaged in a massive program to spy on its own people, conjuring ominous 1984-type scenarios that go beyond the wildest fantasies of the craziest Faux News commentator. European democracies are struggling (and likely will be for a long time) with both internally and externally generated economic woes that may lead to the collapse of their common currency, thus dealing a potentially fatal blow to the European project of political union.
The only rising superpower in the world is China, most certainly not a democratic country, though one whose citizens (by and large) seem surprisingly (to a Western eye) content to abdicate civil rights in exchange for better financial terms. And then there is the mess in the Middle East, with the Turkish elected leader ordering the beating of his fellow citizens because they dare engage in civil protests, Palestine split into two democratically elected factions that do not respect the rights of their own people and that are making any prospect of peace with Israel increasingly remote (not that Israel itself has been helping anyway), and now Egypt on the brink of chaos because of a popularly acclaimed coup (not an oxymoron, it appears) against its first democratically elected leader.
Bet you didn’t see any of that coming, dear Francis!
I’ve recently commented on the challenge from China over at The Philosophers’ Magazine, explaining why Eric Li’s famous essay in Foreign Affairs — which argues that China has successfully shown how one can have a thriving country and reasonably happy citizenry without democracy — is deeply flawed and dangerously wrong headed. But what about cases like Egypt (or Turkey, or Palestine), where democracy quickly turns into that very tyranny of the (sometimes slim) majority that Plato so abhorred?
What’s happening in Egypt has put the Obama administration in a really awkward position, as noted by a number of commentators. The US has not as yet acknowledged that what happened was a coup, and Obama has called for the restoration of “a” (not “the”) democratically elected government. Justifiably, supporters of the deposed President, Mohamed Morsi, and his Muslim Brotherhood party, are claiming that the US is not serious about democracy in the Middle East, but only wants governments that serve American interests.
They have a point. A quick glance at recent and not so recent American history quickly reveals even more egregious instances of US interference in other countries’ affairs that can hardly be characterized as championing democracy or the interests of the countries involved: Syria (1949), Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Indonesia (1958), Democratic Republic of Congo (1960-65), Iraq (1960-63), Dominican Republic (1961), South Vietnam (1963), Brazil (1964), Chile (1970-73), Turkey (1980), Nicaragua (1980-81), Angola (1980s), Venezuela (2002, attempted), and Gaza (2006, attempted), to mention only the major episodes. There are more benign cases, of course, such as the US forcing dictator Ferdinand Marcos to step down in the Philippines, which led to the election of a democratic government in 1986. Too bad that the US had previously supported Marcos for decades. The point is that for the US to be so squeamish concerning the unfolding events in Egypt is seriously hypocritical, given its own well established record of supporting other countries for its own reasons, quite regardless of whether that support was being given to a democracy or a tyranny.
The big deal with Egypt, of course (and, to a lesser extent, with the similar situation in Palestine and Turkey) is that much ink and diplomatic effort has gone into convincing Islamist movements that they have just as much to gain as other parties when they accept the rules of democracy. Indeed, Turkey was — until recently — one of the few good examples of an essentially Islamic country where a secular type of democracy works well. Not coincidentally, the trouble started precisely when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan began to push a religiously conservative agenda on behalf of his Islamist Justice and Development Party. The same pattern is at the root of the unrest in Egypt, where Morsi did win the elections fair and square, but soon began to implement the priorities of the Muslim Brotherhood in a way that was glaringly inconsistent with the sort of respect for pluralism that we in the West associate with the idea of democracy.
This particular quote from the New York Times seems to me to capture an essential aspect of the problem: “Didn’t we do what they asked,” asked Mahmoud Taha, 40, a merchant. “We don’t believe in democracy to begin with; it’s not part of our ideology. But we accepted it. We followed them, and then this is what they do?” Notice the “we don’t believe in democracy to begin with” part of it. Yes, they did accept it nonetheless, but apparently only as a vehicle to gain power and then act as if they were in charge of a theocracy.
Lest I be accused of Islamophobia, however, let me add that the very same attitude can be found among a number of Christian fundamentalists in the United States (and, arguably, among some Jewish fundamentalists in Israel). So the problem isn’t Islam per se, it is the fundamentalist religious mindset, which cannot truly embrace the type of constitutional democracy that arguably is the best system of government (as faulty as it often is) that human beings have been able to devise so far. That’s because in a constitutional democracy (unlike, say, in the mob-ruling type of democracy of ancient Athens, which drew the ire of Plato) rights and minorities are protected from too much change imposed by the particular majority who happened to have won the latest elections. What the Muslim Brotherhood and similar outlets don’t seem to see is that having won an election is not carte blanche to reshape the country according to whatever doctrinal dictates the winners subscribe to.
The turmoil in Egypt, Turkey, Palestine and other places highlight what may be a fundamental incompatibility between strong religious doctrines and the concept of secular democracy, which is why the Enlightenment-inspired Founding Fathers of the United States instituted a solid (if increasingly permeable, these days) wall of separation between Church and State. I would go even further and suggest that any strong ideology is incompatible with democratic government, even if such ideology has nothing to do with religion — witness the failure of the various Marxist-inspired governments throughout the 20th century.
Does it therefore follow — as perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other groups (including the extreme Christian right in the United States) are contemplating — that there is no room for religion in a secular democracy? Of course not. The term “secular,” in this context, does not at all mean non-religious. It simply means neutral with respect to any particular ideology, political or religious. The problem lies rather in two aspects of constitutional democracies that are hard to relate to for fundamentalists of any stripe (again, political or religious): respect for pluralism and ability to articulate one’s positions in neutral language.
The quotation above from a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood summarizes the problem with pluralism that a lot of fundamentalists have: “we don’t believe in this system, but we’ll play by the rules (until we get the upper hand and can proceed to do whatever we want).” This attitude is radically incompatible with the idea of constitutional democracies, and it is up to the ideological radicals to find a way to come to terms with the problem. As far as I can see, however, this is always going to be very difficult, because we are talking about people whose entire worldview has a built-in sense of certainty, superiority, and purity which will perennially be in tension with the democratic practice. Ideally, we can educate people out of any kind of fundamentalism, but it will be a long, tortuous and possibly never quite ending road to get there.
The second problem is, I think, a bit easier to deal with, as suggested by John Rawls. Contra what many of my secular humanist and atheist friends seem to think, it is not necessary for religious discourse to be sealed off from the public square. It is perfectly all right — indeed, inevitable — for politicians, say, to be guided in their thinking by their religious faith. What is not acceptable is the advancement of religious arguments when it comes to policy debates. Rather, the religious person needs to translate his objections (or positive proposals) into neutral language that can be debated on secular (in the sense above, not as in “secular humanism”) terms.
For instance, take the issue of abortion. It is legitimate for someone to hold that abortion is immoral because his god says so. But that “argument” won’t carry any water within the context of a pluralistic society where some people believe in other gods (with other dictates) or in no gods at all. So the objection needs to be reformulated — translated, in Rawlsian terms — in a way that can be engaged with by all parties concerned. The reformulation could take the form of talk about the balance between the rights of the mother to control her body and reproduction and the rights of potential persons to live and flourish. Which will bring to the table naturally complex discussions of rights, personhood, and so forth. Now both parties can engage in an open debate and attempt to reach compromises based on facts and reason.
Doing so, by the way, does not have to constitute an instance of hypocrisy on the part of the religious: presumably, god has some reason to decree that abortion is immoral, and the religious are simply attempting to articulate those reasons to people who are not willing to accept their god’s word at face value. This way of doing things also does not constitute a built-in advantage for “the secularist” because in an open society we are all secularists: remember that the word doesn’t apply just to people who don’t believe in gods, but to all members of a diverse society who are willing to engage in the democratic discourse and its continuous give and take.
None of the above, of course, is going to help Egyptians in the next few days, nor is it going to make it easy for the Obama administration to pick a course of action concerning the unfolding events. But it does constitute a broad framework for how to think about these sorts of issues, issues that recent history has clearly shown will keep coming up again and again in the near future.
Originally appeared on Rationally Speaking, July 8th, 2013