By Erik Goepner
Promoting democracy, particularly in Muslim-majority countries, has been a cornerstone of America’s war on terror since the early days after 9/11. To many Americans, including our policy makers, democracy is virtually synonymous with liberty and freedom. Not everyone shares this perspective. Some view democracy as incompatible with freedom and liberty.
After perceived initial successes in Afghanistan, President Bush frequently spoke of America’s responsibility to help free other peoples. In 2003, he spoke of a “new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.” The President’s State of the Union addresses delivered during his two presidencies reached a crescendo in 2005, when he mentioned “democracy,” “liberty,” “freedom” or some variant thereof 46 times. The following year, the White House’s National Security Strategy celebrated the “extraordinary progress in the expansion of freedom, democracy, and human dignity” that had had occurred over the past four years in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Such concepts are interwoven throughout our nation’s history, whether declaring our independence or stating that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We elect our leaders. We have the right to assemble and to protest. We have an active press and we enjoy the right to worship (or not) as we please. Give me liberty or give me death. Live free or die. It is no wonder, then, that for Americans, the words democracy, liberty, and freedom may often substitute one for another.
Other perspectives, however, while endorsing the concepts of liberty and freedom, reject democracy. Sayyid Qutb, an early member of the Muslim Brotherhood, outlined such a perspective in his provocative book, Milestones. Written in 1964, two years before the Egyptian government executed him, Qutb argued that freedom and liberty were antithetical to democracy. He asserted that Americans were ignorant and rebellious, as evidenced by our legislating of rules for collective behavior and our perceived right to “choose a way of life…without regard to what Allah has prescribed.” God, he said, is the Regent, while the faithful followers are to be his vice regents. How, then, he argued, could the vice regent legislate on issues that the Regent had already decreed as good or bad? For Qutb, Western democracy was the enslavement of one man over another. By encouraging the vice regent to elect human leaders who would then fashion laws in opposition to the will of the Regent, democracy would keep the people in darkness. Only the equivalent of a Muslim theocracy, he argued, offered people the opportunity to be truly free and sufficiently liberated to pursue life.
Polls suggest a majority of Muslims prefer democracy, seeing it as complementary to freedom and liberty. Recent democratic victories, however, for groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas raise interesting dilemmas. Some argue that, absent pre-existing democratic institutions and culture, democratic elections can be used effectively by illiberal groups to trap their countries into undemocratic futures, while others see a decidedly brighter short-term future for Islamic democracy.
Image Credit: Bluszczokrzew