Democracy in question – the persecution of the believers and the imprisonment of faith

Developing Just Leadership

Saied Reza Ameli

Jumada' al-Ula' 01, 1424 2003-07-01


by Saied Reza Ameli (Features, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 9, Jumada' al-Ula', 1424)

Critical assessment of the true nature of Western democracy is one of the key needs of contemporary Muslim thought. Here we publish an extract from a paper on the subject by DR SAIED REZA AMELI, professor of sociology at the University of Tehran.

The question arises: why is it that America or Western governments are continually insulting Muslims for not having democracy in Muslim lands? Why are they always encouraging us to establish liberal democracy in our lands – because they argue for us to do otherwise would mean that we are an uncivilised people with a barbaric culture?

I feel that there is a connection between the democracy they want us to practise and the imprisonment of faith, i.e. between the terms of democracy that they put forward for us to follow and the isolation of faith and religion from society.

This presentation will briefly define democracy, and will go on to look at what the concept of the democratisation of the world, as currently being pursued in Western political theory and practice, entails. Further I will explain in more detail my concept of the imprisonment of faith or the processes of secularisation. I will then look at and reflect on 9/11 and the concept of power and powerlessness.

Democracy, like many central terms of politics, is in origin a Greek word, combining two shorter words, demos and kratos. Both terms have more than one meaning. Demos could mean the whole citizen body living within a particular polis, or city-state, but might also be used to mean ‘the mob’ or ‘the rabble’ or ‘the lower order’. Kratos could mean either power or rule; the two are not the same, so a formal democracy, in which the people or the people’s representatives appeared to rule, might conceal a very undemocratic distribution of actual power. Democracy meant rule by the people or the many; but because the many were also poor, it was often taken to mean rule by the poor, or by the rabble. Aristotle is particularly clear about this. He did not think that a state in which a rich minority governed could be properly called a democracy, according to Arblaster.

In democratic systems there have to be regular and fair elections. Anthony Giddens wrote: "This right of democratic participation runs parallel with the civil liberties, freedom of expression and discussion together with the freedom to join political groups or associations." This is democracy as they define it, though there are many interpretations of democracy and this would entail a lengthy discourse explaining the subject.

In order to answer the first question as to why democratisation of the world as an agenda for Western governments is so important we should keep in mind the following.

The first, commonly held perception is that democratisation is providing a better position for society, which these powers want to share from their goodness with the aim of initiating the betterment of human society globally. Unfortunately this is not a reality, and we cannot observe this utilitarianism or international philanthropy anywhere in the world. Further, we see that six hundred million Muslims are living in democratic countries, and yet Muslims are still being blamed and accused by these powers for not practising democracy. Despite this political reality we are condemned as undemocratic – for what reason?

The second reason why democracy is demonstrated as highly significant is because democratisation concerns the expanding of a particular political agenda to the rest of the world. This is an American agenda through which Americanisation can be put into effect in all aspects of life in all communities. We are not criticising democracy per se. It is not a negative factor to be able to come together collectively and decide for the future or best interests of society. However we need to ascertain what is behind this concept of democracy, and what consequences its hidden implications have on the type of democracy that they want to impose upon us.

Democracy even in western societies is not an old phenomenon. Only at the turn of the 20th century did they begin to open the discussion on democracy. Before the First World War women had the right to vote in only four countries: Finland, Norway, Australia and New Zealand. In Switzerland women did not get the vote until 1974. During the last three decades, the number of democratic countries has enormously increased. Since the mid-1970s, democratic systems have spread to over thirty countries. This process began in Mediterranean Europe, with the overthrow of the military regimes in Greece, Spain and Portugal. In the early 1980s, some twelve countries in South and Central America have changed to democracy, including Brazil and Argentina. Yet the political system of the west has preoccupied itself with targeting Muslim countries and reprimanding them for not recognising women’s rights.

Democratization in many cases means Americanization and Westernization of the world. This is because democratization has an underlying concept of Americanization as its backbone. Even sometimes humanistic values are used as tools for expansion of American territory in the world. During Clinton’s election campaign in 1991 his vice-presidential candidate Al Gore gave a talk that later translated into a book entitled Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. It clearly states that today the world environment is subjected to ‘pollution’ and because of this America cannot ignore this issue. By referring to environmentalism, which is a nice humanistic concept, Al Gore was trying to expand the political geography of America.

Let us look at the theories legitimising this idea and supporting the political foreign policies of America and those that criticise them, appearing as it were to consider all aspects of reality, professing to objectivity and dissociation from any sort of political influence.

Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory (1996), Frances Fukuyama’s theory about the end of history (1992), and Benjamin Barber’s theory regarding jihad versus McDonalds (1996) all legitimise the foreign policies of America. When Huntington talks about the clash of civilizations, and then something like 9/11 takes place, it appears to validate his argument, and its significance is compounded by the fact that Huntington is part of the American political policy-making machine. The idea that other cultures/ civilizations are inimical to American super-culture is reinforced by various events subsequent to Huntington’s (highly political and not solely academic) setting of a conflict scenario between the West and all or different facets of the rest [of the world].

When Fukuyama expounds his theory of how history has come to its end, he is essentially reflecting that people ought to completely forget their past and start afresh. This concept of denial is elucidated in the Qur’an, when past peoples have said with regard to revelation: ma hadha illa asaateerul-awwaleen ("This is nothing but stories of the ancients", 46:17). The same dialogue found here in the Qur’an applies to this theory of "the end of history". It means to say that the history belonging to non-liberal democracy has ended. It implies that no society can survive without practising liberal democracy. Ignoring former civilizations and defeating the stability and continuity of cultural heritage is part of the philosophy of America-centrism.

There is an assumption that American civilization is unique and glamorous. Margaret Mead, a well known American anthropologist, emphasized the novelty and creativity of American civilization, saying: "American civilisation is new, based on a philosophy of production and plenty, instead of saving due to scarcity of resources. For three centuries, men of vastly different ways of life have come to America, left behind their old language, their old attachments to land and river, their kin, their old joint families and their icons, and have learned to speak, walk, to eat and dress in a new fashion. As we have learned to change ourselves, so we believe that others can change also and we believe that they will want to change, that men only have to see a better way of life to reach out for it spontaneously. We conceive of them as seeing a light and following it freely."

The mentality of American civilization has excessive emphasis on the value of ‘change’, ‘innovation’, ‘newness’ and ‘youth’ as the supreme and ultimate Good. On the contrary, they have contempt for the past, tradition and anything old (including old people). Islam, its civilization, and its institutions are condemned and rejected on the pretext that any order based on a Divine law revealed fourteen hundred years ago could not possibly be valid and relevant to modern life. Lerner clearly stated that "the conception of the Qur’an as a practical handbook of rules for daily life is feasible for people who still live in a Bedouin desert setting much like that in which Muhammad addressed his vivid message of Allah. The historic development of public communication has been largely the work of groups excluded from the majority of Arab-Muslim syndrome." Lerner puts Muslims between choosing either Islam or modernity. For him "the religious diversities and political rivalries in the Middle East suggest that a collective identity symbolized by pan-Islam can hardly be viable. Indeed, such sentimental sorties into the symbolism of a majestic past have mainly obscured the conditions of genuine area unity in the future. The key is modernization. The top policy problem has been for Middle Eastern leaders to choose between Mecca or mechanization and how they can be made compatible."

I feel that this exemplifies what I mean by the hidden face of democracy, or that democracy that Western powers wish us to pursue. More clearly, it is believed by many that there is a hidden ideology behind American democracy, concealed in a feigned image, and this is what Newman, in the wake of 9/11, has clarified. Bush was continually saying that if they – the terrorists, the Others, Muslims, whoever – attack us they are not attacking us or our government or our people, but they are attacking the freedom and democracy of the liberal countries. Newman told him that if this is an attack on freedom then surely they should attack also Canada, Sweden, Switzerland etc.; yet nobody is attacking them. It is because these countries do not display ideological hatred of Muslims as overtly as is demonstrated by the American government.

I have referred to democracy as an ideology and Americanism as an ideology as well. But what does ideology mean? Ideology – and unfortunately this has become mixed up within Islamic thinking, as have many other alien concepts – in the west means there is no acceptance of the rest of the world, instead deeming it meaningless and giving importance to American interests alone. This is part of American exclusivism, which entails rejection of those who are not in the camp of America.

[This is an extract of a paper presented at a ‘Prisoners of Faith Conference’ convened by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) in London in February 2002. The full paper may be read on the website of the Islamic Human Rights Commission,]

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