Science, Democracy and Islam: And other essays


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Democracy is an idea and a set of practices that emerged in ancient Athens millennia ago, vanished around BCE, and only reappeared in Europe around the seventeenth century, principally in the works of writers such as John Locke — The essential idea, that the people demos are sovereign and therefore entitled to depose a tyrannical ruler, may even be traced to the works of certain medieval schoolmen, such as John of Salisbury d.


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Locke, and his fellow Englishman the poet John Milton — , broadened the grounds for the removal of rulers to include general despotism and based their argument on doctrines of natural law and hence the natural rights of the people. In the eighteenth century, other social contract theorists, including Rousseau — , Adam Ferguson — , and Immanuel Kant — , further elaborated on the points made by their illustrious predecessors.

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While doctrines of democracy have become ever more sophisticated, democracy as a Western institution—despite its ancient Greek pedigree—is really not more than four centuries old. Accordingly, when Muslims are considered in the context of discussions about democracy, the fact that it is relatively new in the West is sometimes forgotten. It is worth noting that, at least since the French Revolution of , democracy has been considered in terms not just of individual freedom and liberty, but also in terms of the equality of the people.

A moment's reflection will suffice to understand that liberty may actually conflict with equality. Considerations of individual liberty demand that the state and its government not interfere in the ability of the citizen to optimize his or her opportunities in life. In contrast to this, equality may even mandate the state's interference to equalize opportunities or even redistribute wealth and other scarce resources, in the interests of achieving an egalitarian society. The legacy of this approach reverts to the eighteenth century, when leaders of Muslim majority societies, such as the sultans of the Ottoman empire or the shahs of Iran, were depicted as exemplars of Oriental despotism.

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Although the roots of this term, ironically, appear to extend back to ancient Greece and its application by Aristotle to Alexander the Great d. Voltaire — greatly admired English political culture, advocating its values for monarchical France. Fanaticism is obviously incompatible with democracy.

Although Thomas Carlyle — considered the Prophet of Islam a hero, the prevalent view seemed to be that he was the leader of a false religion that could only establish itself by means of physical force. These seventeenth- to nineteenth-century views of Islam as a religion of coercion were the predecessors to the generalizations of the twentieth-century Harvard scholar, Samuel P. Trenchant critiques have been made of its argument on both theoretical and empirical grounds.

An empirical shortcoming of his argument is the premise that religion, used to promote violent ends, is unique to Islamic societies; it is not, rather religion has been used to justify violence in non-Muslim areas of the world, such as Northern Ireland, India, Sri Lanka, and even the United States consider the Oklahoma City terrorist attack. Additionally, many Muslim states and governments have pursued accommodationist, not conflictual, policies toward the West. Researchers found that when polled to express their views of democracy, Muslims gave responses that were virtually indistinguishable from answers given by those in the West.

Science, Democracy and Islam: And other Essays, Vol. 34

It is true that important Muslim leaders have spoken derisively about democracy. Sometimes this contempt is directed at Westerners who emphasize the virtues of this model of politics but who tend to ignore derelictions. Egypt under British rule — experimented with parliamentary democracy; however, the British manipulated the Egyptian political system so that outcomes were frequently authoritarian, not democratic. Moreover, many of those elected to parliament during those years actually subverted its workings. Many members of parliament were large landowners who, through a combination of threats and bribes, gained the votes of the peasant farmers on their land.

This gave the landowners free reign to do as they pleased, until the next election cycle. On other occasions, Muslim leaders have criticized democracy because embracing it seemed to be an implicit criticism of belief in Islamic truths. Hence, Ayatollah Khomeini often expressed unhappiness with the desire of those who advocated the creation of a democratic Islamic order, as though, as he saw it, there could be such a thing as a non-democratic Islamic order. Some Muslim spokespersons, moreover, have decried democracy as being a prelude to secularism and the separation of religion and politics; they believe the two cannot be separated.

Finally, some Muslim leaders have denounced democracy because they fear the application of its principles would lead to their loss of power. Furthermore, even if some—especially the latter—of these points are true, this point does not mean that Islam and democracy are incompatible. International organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the European Union have extended their influence.

There is a compelling logic to much of this: how can a single country deal with problems like climate change or tax evasion? National politicians have also responded to globalisation by limiting their discretion and handing power to unelected technocrats in some areas. The number of countries with independent central banks, for example, has increased from about 20 in to more than today.

From below come equally powerful challenges: from would-be breakaway nations, such as the Catalans and the Scots, from Indian states, from American city mayors. All are trying to reclaim power from national governments. The internet makes it easier to organise and agitate; in a world where people can participate in reality-TV votes every week, or support a petition with the click of a mouse, the machinery and institutions of parliamentary democracy, where elections happen only every few years, look increasingly anachronistic.

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Douglas Carswell, a British member of parliament, likens traditional politics to HMV, a chain of British record shops that went bust, in a world where people are used to calling up whatever music they want whenever they want via Spotify, a popular digital music-streaming service. The biggest challenge to democracy, however, comes neither from above nor below but from within—from the voters themselves. Democratic governments got into the habit of running big structural deficits as a matter of course, borrowing to give voters what they wanted in the short term, while neglecting long-term investment.

France and Italy have not balanced their budgets for more than 30 years. The financial crisis starkly exposed the unsustainability of such debt-financed democracy. With the post-crisis stimulus winding down, politicians must now confront the difficult trade-offs they avoided during years of steady growth and easy credit. But persuading voters to adapt to a new age of austerity will not prove popular at the ballot box.

Slow growth and tight budgets will provoke conflict as interest groups compete for limited resources. To make matters worse, this competition is taking place as Western populations are ageing. They will increasingly have absolute numbers on their side. Many democracies now face a fight between past and future, between inherited entitlements and future investment.

Adjusting to hard times will be made even more difficult by a growing cynicism towards politics. Voter turnout is falling, too: a study of 49 democracies found that it had declined by 10 percentage points between and Meanwhile the border between poking fun and launching protest campaigns is fast eroding.

And in a quarter of Italians voted for a party founded by Beppe Grillo, a comedian. All this popular cynicism about politics might be healthy if people demanded little from their governments, but they continue to want a great deal. The result can be a toxic and unstable mixture: dependency on government on the one hand, and disdain for it on the other. The dependency forces government to overexpand and overburden itself, while the disdain robs it of its legitimacy.

Democratic dysfunction goes hand in hand with democratic distemper. The Obama administration now seems paralysed by the fear that democracy will produce rogue regimes or empower jihadists. And why should developing countries regard democracy as the ideal form of government when the American government cannot even pass a budget, let alone plan for the future? Why should autocrats listen to lectures on democracy from Europe, when the euro-elite sacks elected leaders who get in the way of fiscal orthodoxy? At the same time, democracies in the emerging world have encountered the same problems as those in the rich world.

They too have overindulged in short-term spending rather than long-term investment. Brazil allows public-sector workers to retire at 53 but has done little to create a modern airport system. India pays off vast numbers of client groups but invests too little in infrastructure. Political systems have been captured by interest groups and undermined by anti-democratic habits. Democracy has been on the back foot before.

In the s and s communism and fascism looked like the coming things: when Spain temporarily restored its parliamentary government in , Benito Mussolini likened it to returning to oil lamps in the age of electricity.

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Things are not that bad these days, but China poses a far more credible threat than communism ever did to the idea that democracy is inherently superior and will eventually prevail. The elite is becoming a self-perpetuating and self-serving clique. At the same time, as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in the 19th century, democracies always look weaker than they really are: they are all confusion on the surface but have lots of hidden strengths. Being able to install alternative leaders offering alternative policies makes democracies better than autocracies at finding creative solutions to problems and rising to existential challenges, though they often take a while to zigzag to the right policies.

But to succeed, both fledgling and established democracies must ensure they are built on firm foundations. THE most striking thing about the founders of modern democracy such as James Madison and John Stuart Mill is how hard-headed they were. They regarded democracy as a powerful but imperfect mechanism: something that needed to be designed carefully, in order to harness human creativity but also to check human perversity, and then kept in good working order, constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon.

The need for hard-headedness is particularly pressing when establishing a nascent democracy. One reason why so many democratic experiments have failed recently is that they put too much emphasis on elections and too little on the other essential features of democracy. The power of the state needs to be checked, for instance, and individual rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to organise must be guaranteed.

Science, Democracy and Islam: And other essays

The most successful new democracies have all worked in large part because they avoided the temptation of majoritarianism—the notion that winning an election entitles the majority to do whatever it pleases. India has survived as a democracy since apart from a couple of years of emergency rule and Brazil since the mids for much the same reason: both put limits on the power of the government and provided guarantees for individual rights.

Robust constitutions not only promote long-term stability, reducing the likelihood that disgruntled minorities will take against the regime.


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They also bolster the struggle against corruption, the bane of developing countries. Conversely, the first sign that a fledgling democracy is heading for the rocks often comes when elected rulers try to erode constraints on their power—often in the name of majority rule.

Foreign leaders should be more willing to speak out when rulers engage in such illiberal behaviour, even if a majority supports it. But the people who most need to learn this lesson are the architects of new democracies: they must recognise that robust checks and balances are just as vital to the establishment of a healthy democracy as the right to vote. Paradoxically even potential dictators have a lot to learn from events in Egypt and Ukraine: Mr Morsi would not be spending his life shuttling between prison and a glass box in an Egyptian court, and Mr Yanukovych would not be fleeing for his life, if they had not enraged their compatriots by accumulating so much power.

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Even those lucky enough to live in mature democracies need to pay close attention to the architecture of their political systems. Some countries have already embarked upon this process. A few states have introduced open primaries and handed redistricting to independent boundary commissions. Other obvious changes would improve matters. Reform of party financing, so that the names of all donors are made public, might reduce the influence of special interests.

Science, Democracy and Islam: And other essays Science, Democracy and Islam: And other essays
Science, Democracy and Islam: And other essays Science, Democracy and Islam: And other essays
Science, Democracy and Islam: And other essays Science, Democracy and Islam: And other essays
Science, Democracy and Islam: And other essays Science, Democracy and Islam: And other essays
Science, Democracy and Islam: And other essays Science, Democracy and Islam: And other essays
Science, Democracy and Islam: And other essays Science, Democracy and Islam: And other essays
Science, Democracy and Islam: And other essays Science, Democracy and Islam: And other essays

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