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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Democracy Isn't 'Western'

March 24, 2006; Page A10

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are
underlings." Culture too, like our stars, is often blamed for our failures.
Attempts to build a better world capsize, it is alleged, in the high sea of
cultural resistance. The determinism of culture is increasingly used in
contemporary global discussions to generate pessimism about the feasibility of a
democratic state, or of a flourishing economy, or of a tolerant society,
wherever these conditions do not already obtain.

Indeed, cultural stereotyping can have great effectiveness in fixing our way
of thinking. When there is an accidental correlation between cultural
prejudice and social observation (no matter how casual), a theory is born, and it
may refuse to die even after the chance correlation has vanished without
trace. For example, labored jokes against the Irish, which have had such currency
in England, had the superficial appearance of fitting well with the
depressing predicament of the Irish economy when it was doing quite badly. But when
the Irish economy started growing astonishingly rapidly, for many years faster
than any other European economy, the cultural stereotyping and its allegedly
profound economic and social relevance were not junked as sheer rubbish.
Theories have lives of their own, quite defiantly of the phenomenal world that
can be actually observed.

Many have observed that in the '60s South Korea and Ghana had similar income
per head, whereas within 30 years the former grew to be 15 times richer than
the latter. This comparative history is immensely important to study and
causally analyze, but the temptation to put much of the blame on Ghanaian or
African culture (as is done by as astute an observer as Samuel Huntington) calls
for some resistance. Mr. Huntington closes his contrast with a spectacular
formula: "South Koreans valued thrift, investment, hard work, education,
organization and discipline. Ghanaians had different values. In short, cultures
count." Ghanaians, and perhaps many other Africans, seem doomed to stagnate,
according to this analysis.

In fact, that cultural story is extremely deceptive. There were many
important differences, other than any differences in cultural predispositions,
between Ghana and Korea in the 1960s. First, the class structures in the two
countries were quite different, with a very much bigger -- and proactive -- role
of business classes in Korea. Second, the politics were very different, too,
with the government in South Korea eager to play a prime-moving role in
initiating societal reform and economic development in a way that was not true in
Ghana. Third, the close relationship between the Korean economy and Japan, on
the one hand, and the U.S., on the other, made a big difference, at least in
the early stages of Korean economic expansion.

Fourth -- and perhaps most important -- by the 1960s South Korea had
acquired a much higher literacy rate and a much more expanded school system than
Ghana had. Korean massive progress in school education had been largely brought
about in the post-World War II period, mainly through resolute public policy,
and it could not be seen just as a reflection of cultural difference. This
is not to suggest that cultural factors are irrelevant to the process of
development, but they do not work in isolation from social, political and economic
influences. Nor are they immutable.

The temptation of founding economic pessimism on cultural resistance is
matched by the evident enchantment, even more common today, of basing political
pessimism, particularly about democracy, on alleged cultural impossibilities.
While it is easy enough to understand the widespread -- and increasing --
doubts about armed intervention allegedly aimed at jump-starting democracy in
Iraq through largely foreign and military planning, it would be quite a leap
from there to become skeptical of the general possibility of the emergence of
democracy in any country that is currently nondemocratic. It is worth
remembering that democracy has developed well enough in many countries in Asia,
Africa and Latin America, and in the case of some, such as South Africa, even
foreign assistance to local democratic movements (for example through economic
boycott) has positively helped.

When it is asked whether Western countries can "impose" democracy on the
non-Western world, even the language reflects a confusion centering on the idea
of "imposition," since it implies a proprietary belief that democracy
"belongs" to the West, taking it to be a quintessentially "Western" idea which has
originated and flourished exclusively in the West. This is a thoroughly
misleading way of understanding the history and the contemporary prospects of

Democracy, to use the old Millian phrase, is "government by discussion," and
voting is only one part of a broader picture (an understanding that has,
alas, received little recognition in post-intervention Iraq in the attempt to
get straight to polling without the development of broad public reasoning and
an independent civil society). There can be no doubt at all that the modern
concepts of democracy and of public reasoning have been very deeply influenced
by European and American analyses and experiences over the last few centuries
(including the contributions of such theorists of democracy as Marquis de
Condorcet, Jefferson, Madison and Tocqueville). But to extrapolate backward
from these comparatively recent experiences to construct a quintessential and
long-run dichotomy between the West and non-West would be deeply misleading.
There is a long history of public reasoning across the world, and while it has
gone through ups and downs everywhere, the sharp priority of liberal tolerance
that has emerged in the West over the past three centuries reflects how
social evolution can strengthen and consolidate one tendency to the exclusion --
or near exclusion -- of other tendencies.

The belief in the allegedly "Western" nature of democracy is often linked to
the early practice of voting and elections in Greece, especially in Athens.
Democracy involves more than balloting, but even in the history of voting
there would be a classificatory arbitrariness in defining civilizations in
largely racial terms. In this way of looking at civilizational categories, no
great difficulty is seen in considering the descendants of, say, Goths and
Visigoths as proper inheritors of the Greek tradition ("they are all Europeans," we
are told). But there is reluctance in taking note of the Greek intellectual
links with other civilizations to the east or south of Greece, despite the
greater interest that the Greeks themselves showed in talking to Iranians, or
Indians, or Egyptians (rather than in chatting up the Ostrogoths).

Since traditions of public reasoning can be found in nearly all countries,
modern democracy can build on the dialogic part of the common human
inheritance. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela describes how influenced he was, as a
boy, by seeing the democratic nature of the proceedings of the meetings that
were held in his home town: "Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was
democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance
among the speakers, but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and
medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer." Mr. Mandela could
combine his modern ideas about democracy with emphasizing the supportive part of
the native tradition, in a way that Gandhi had done in India, and that is the
way cultures adapt and develop to respond to modernity. Mr. Mandela's quest
for democracy and freedom did not emerge from any Western "imposition."

Similarly, the history of Muslims includes a variety of traditions, not all
of which are just religious or "Islamic" in any obvious sense. The work of
Arab and Iranian mathematicians, from the eighth century onward reflects a
largely nonreligious tradition. Depending on politics, which varied between one
Muslim ruler and another, there is also quite a history of tolerance and of
public discussion, on which the pursuit of a modern democracy can draw. For
example, the emperor Saladin, who fought valiantly for Islam in the Crusades in
the 12th century, could offer, without any contradiction, an honored place in
his Egyptian royal court to Maimonides, as that distinguished Jewish
philosopher fled an intolerant Europe. When, at the turn of the 16th century, the
heretic Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Campo dei Fiori in Rome, the
Great Mughal emperor Akbar (who was born a Muslim and died a Muslim) had just
finished, in Agra, his large project of legally codifying minority rights,
including religious freedom for all, along with championing regular
discussions between followers of Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and
other beliefs (including atheism).

Cultural dynamics does not have to build something from absolutely nothing,
nor need the future be rigidly tied to majoritarian beliefs today or the
power of the contemporary orthodoxy. To see Iranian dissidents who want a fully
democratic Iran not as Iranian advocates but as "ambassadors of Western
values" would be to add insult to injury, aside from neglecting parts of Iranian
history (including the practice of democracy in Susa or Shushan in southwest
Iran 2,000 years ago). The diversity of the human past and the freedoms of the
contemporary world give us much more choice than cultural determinists
acknowledge. This is particularly important to emphasize since the illusion of
cultural destiny can extract a heavy price in the continued impoverishment of
human lives and liberties.

Mr. Sen, the 1998 Nobel laureate in economics, is the author of "Identity
and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny," published next week by Norton


Mike Ghouse
With a few exceptions, every human being seeks to be free, seeks to be fair,
and seeks justice that is inherently embedded in us. Humans are born free
and the only environment that allows them to flourish is where they are heard,
where they have a say in how things are run for their society. Pakistani’s
are no different in their aspirations.
In Democracy Freedom of press is a major test, on this score, the President
has done well. People have the freedom to speak what they wish, the internet
and blogs are thriving, a healthy sign of democracy; people speaking without
In Democracy Freedom of speech is a must, indeed, all the demonstrations
that went on prior to President Bush’s arrival, during and after is a great sign
that people do express themselves in the hour of need. A few of the
Demonstrations though were destructive, are certainly symbols of democracy.
In Democracy Freedom of Religion is critical – the right to practice one's
faith is essential. Encouraging things have been happening but a lot must be
done in this area. The Federal Govt has given a grant to re-store the Sikh
Center in Lahore, the rights of Hindu couple was respected by the judiciary and
several other developments are a happy welcome towards democracy –Live. The
Shia difference from Sunnis is nearly as old as Islam itself, and it has been
accepted without a qualm as a part of existence, Ahmadia need to be given
the same value and right to believe what they believe as Shia. The declaration
that Ahmadia are non-Muslim needs to be repealed, it was politically
motivated and did not have any religious underpinnings to it, the people of Pakistan
will support it. No citizen should live in any fear. They have a born right
to practice what they believe.
In Democracy things are done openly, the public at large needs to know the
budget; they need to have a clear understanding of their country’s economic
plans. President Musharraf has to score at least 50 out of 100 on this front,
he has not done well on this front… in laying the steps towards democracy and
keeping the public informed. He has got to trust his people and their
intelligence and share the plans.
In Democracy the political process has to be open. President Musharraf needs
to lay out the process for 2007 – so that there is healthy well planned and
well times debates and participation. At this time, given the form of
governance, only the President can let the opposition flourish, let the one with
good plans win, let there be competition. Democracy and Opposition are
interdependent. One cannot function without the other.
Islam liberated the individuals from the clutches of clergy, put into
practice “Mahmood o Ayaz in the same saf … no koi banda no koi banda nawaz…”
Islam literally removed the class distinction. No wonder Islam ordained “ pray 5
times a day so that Mahmood o Ayaz concept becomes part of you, and that you
get rid of the distinctions, and walk out with the sense that every one is
on par. The first Caliph was more or less elected, he was not appointed nor
did he usurped the power. That is democracy at work my friends.
Culturally, the people of the subcontinent have always been independent,
they functioned with many cultures, religions, languages and forms of worship to
a point they had to learn to live with every one… and yet find a consensual
leader to run their affairs. “Amin’s” had to be born to take that role.
Religiously and culturally the Pakistanis are inherently democratic, it is
just that they have let their jazba of unselfishness lay dormant. They over
look that the definition of good deed per our prophet is doing things that
benefit others like planting a tree that you know well that it will benefit the
future wayfarers with fruits and shade and you do not benefit. They forget
that “ hum layee hain toofan say kishti nikal kay..” If they can do silent
protest for democratic reforms, things will change.
The Pakistani public on the other hand can encourage dialogue with those who
diagonally differ from them, as a practice for 2007. Survival of democracy
depends on opposition, a true believer; a true free person will never want one
set of value to prevail, for it will corrupt one with absoluteness.
Pakistani’s have seldom called any one un-patriotic if some one had
criticized their leaders.
Mike Ghouse
_www.FoundationforPluralism.com_ (http://www.foundationforpluralism.com/)
_www.WorldMuslimAgenda.com_ (http://www.worldmuslimagenda.com/) (coming up)
_www.MikeGhouse.net_ (http://www.mikeghouse.net/)


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