A Problem in Democracy

This article by Ishtiaq Ahmed raises an issue I fret about a lot. It’s one which doesn’t get discussed much, especially not in unequivocal and non-euphemistic terms. The issue is: democracy is widely seen as a good thing, and in many ways it is a good thing, but – there is a problem. The problem is that there is no magic mechanism that prevents majorities from voting to take away or deny the rights of some people – of even a majority, such as for instance women. The disputes over the Iraqi constitution are all about that problem, obviously, and yet the problem is seldom put in quite those terms. But it is a very real problem, which is why constitutions and bills of rights are also seen as good things. Democracy is seen as a good thing, constitutions and bills of rights are seen as good things; it’s not always quite in the front of everyone’s awareness that the two are more in tension than they are complementary – that bills of rights are needed to correct democracy at least as much as to collaborate with it.

After World War II when the United Nations proclaimed peace, democracy and human rights as antidotes to tyranny and war, it was assumed that as the new states developed and modernised, they would also embark upon the road to democracy…A problem which was never resolved in the UN Charter or the UDHR was that of people voting into power a government which would abolish private property or institute racial laws or religious dogma as state ideology.

Just so. A problem that was never resolved, and still plagues the world.

Would Islamists become good democrats if they take part in elections and gain power? Some people think that if the FIS had been allowed to assume power in Algeria it would have become a moderate party. On the other hand, critics point out that Abbas Madani, one of the leaders and ideologues of FIS, had declared that they will not take away women’s right to vote but would convince them to transfer it to their husbands or fathers!

And some women in Iraq took part in counter-demonstrations when women’s rights campaigners demonstrated for women’s rights in the constitution – carrying placards that said ‘No Equality!’ That’s it in a nutshell. What if a majority agrees that all women should be deprived of rights? Would I think ‘That’s democracy’ and feel obliged to submit? I damn well wouldn’t. A majority once thought slavery was a fine institution. They were wrong. It’s important to be clear about that. Majorities can be wrong, tyrannical, unjust – there is no God of Democracy seeing to it that that never happens.

Under the circumstances, we need to ponder upon the prospects for democracy in the Muslim world. There can be no denying that Islamists are now a major constituency in all Muslim states. Can one establish democracy by excluding them? Equally, the question is why should I support the right to vote for Islamists if I fear that they will undermine my freedom to think and write and express myself? These are dilemmas that we face at present when discussing democracy in the Muslim world. I believe a middle path can be found. One should in principle allow all parties to take part in elections if they do not openly advocate violence and intolerance and commit themselves to respecting the equal rights of women and non-Muslims. However we need to develop mechanisms which ensure that a parliamentary majority is not abused by Islamists or any other extremists.

And the question is why should I support the right to vote for Islamists if I fear that they will undermine my freedom to leave the house without permission, to leave the house at all, to be independent, to be autonomous, to own myself? I shouldn’t, I can’t, I don’t. I don’t support the right of anyone to vote to take away anyone’s basic rights. I don’t.

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