November/December 2002 -- Suppose that you noticed the following worldwide trend: In country after country, tyrants were being ousted and replaced by armed gangs. You would hardly consider that a victory for human liberty. After all, a gang's power to violate individual rights is no more constrained than a tyrant's. Suppose, then, that you noticed editorialists and columnists in the West welcoming this global shift in governance as a gain for freedom. You might wonder why.

Unfortunately, these scenarios are not hypothetical. Around the world, unchecked power is being transferred from the one or the few to the many, while Western commentators are heartily applauding this transfer of power. They call it a democratic revolution, which it is, and speak as though it meant the coming of a freer world, which it does not.

This is not to say democratic institutions have no proper place in government. After all, the fundamental principle of liberty is that people ought to be in charge of their lives, and since government is the means by which people carry out the activity of defending themselves against coercion, it follows that they ought to be in charge of that aspect of their lives. It is desirable, therefore, that citizens should democratically choose the persons who will ensure the protection of individual rights. That was the system of America's constitutional republic while it lasted, from 1787 to 1937, and, pace Winston Churchill, it was superior to democracy.

But protecting individual rights is the essence of political freedom, and when voters are allowed to go beyond that highly circumscribed role—when, as is now the case, voters are allowed to elect leaders who violate individual rights—then democracy ceases to be an aspect of liberty. Certainly, it was no victory for freedom when Adolf Hitler became chancellor in the manner prescribed by his democratic country. Likewise, many democratically elected African leaders of the 1960s—such as Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere—went on to trample individual rights to liberty and property. And so have many democratically elected leaders in Latin America, from Juan Perón to Salvador Allende.

Democracy and Foreign Policy

These philosophical and historical observations are especially relevant at present, for U.S. foreign policy has come to recognize that it has a long-term interest in seeing human liberty established around the globe. It has come to recognize that free states tend to foster the prosperity of other free states and tend not to confront them with aggression. But any attempt to pursue this policy is doomed to failure if democracy is confused with liberty. For instance, when the democratically elected tyrant of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, was temporarily ousted in a coup last April, a State Department spokesman said: "We wish to express our solidarity with the Venezuelan people and look forward to working with all democratic forces in Venezuela to ensure the full exercise of democratic rights." Did that mean Washington was anti-coup or pro-coup? It is not clear that anyone in Washington knew.
The confusion is even more damaging to America's war on Islamic terrorism. Essential to that war, we are told again and again, is the replacement of Muslim dictatorships with democracies. The absence of democracy in Muslim countries, however, is not the source of terrorism, and the introduction of democracy will do nothing to stop the rampage of Islamic fundamentalism.
Indeed, the opposite seems more likely. After the thirty-six states of Nigeria were allowed to institute their own legal systems, ten proclaimed Islamic law (shari 'a) in their territory, including such punishments as death by stoning for adultery and amputation of the hand for theft. "This is the benefit of democracy," an academic advisor to one of the Nigerian state governments told a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor. "The people can come forward and demand something. Under previous regimes, people didn't have that freedom."
Last September, a Moroccan party that advocates the adoption of shari'a doubled the number of its seats in Morocco's parliamentary elections, making it the third largest party in the country. In Pakistan, a coalition of Islamic parties won enough seats last October to dominate the governments in two provinces bordering Afghanistan. Said the group's secretary-general: "We will stop the ongoing pursuit of Taliban and Al Qaeda when we form the government."
Or consider the results of a recent election in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, where Islamists won half the available seats—and might have won many more had a radical religious party not called for a boycott of the election. Turkey—a strategically located NATO member with long traditions of both secularism and democracy—held elections in November, and a party with Islamic roots won two-thirds of the parliamentary seats.
Clearly, democracy provides no answer to the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalism, but neither does it provide any answer to more secular Muslim terrorists, such as Yassir Arafat. On June 24, President George W. Bush delivered a major address on U.S. policy in the Middle East. At the heart of the address was this statement: "I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders." In response, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said, "President Arafat and the Palestinian leadership have been directly elected by the Palestinian people in free and direct elections under international supervision. President Bush and everybody else around the world should respect the Palestinian people's democratic choice."
It was a telling rejoinder. According to Freedom House: "Elections for the first Palestinian legislative council and head of the council's executive authority were held in January 1996 and were considered to be generally free and fair. Independents won 35 of the 88 council seats, while Arafat's Fatah movement won the remainder. Arafat won the chairmanship of the executive authority with 88 percent of the vote." If Washington claims to be upholding democracy, what right has it to demand different leaders than those that the Palestinian people elected? Of course, Washington would like to negotiate with a Palestinian leader who has different ideas about terrorism and the destruction of Israel, but simply holding new elections will not produce such a leader—since it seems likely the current leader reflects the views of most Palestinians.

Enlightenment and Foreign Policy

America's problem with Islamic fundamentalists, and with many others in the Muslim world, stems not from their autocracies but from their hatred of Enlightenment values: reason, individualism, the pursuit of worldly happiness, and liberty. People who hate such values are the natural enemies of the Free World and therefore enemies of America as the leader of the Free World.
Of course, Muslims are not born hating Enlightenment values, but they quickly adopt such a hatred, because of the education that they receive through the media, in the mosques, and in the schools. Democracy in such a climate will ensure only that their hatred finds political expression.
What the Muslim world needs is a group of leaders—intellectuals and politicians—who will transform the culture of Islamic civilization. It needs new leaders who will impart to their peoples a love for the values of life and liberty, rather than a hatred of them. Then, and only then, will the Muslim world be ready for democracy. The United States and other Western countries can help with this transformation by insisting that they will deal only with such leaders, and when such leaders emerge the West should support them in every way possible, diplomatically and militarily.
Admittedly, very few individuals possess the capacity to take on the formidable task of transforming the Muslim world. Even fewer are brave enough to challenge a culture that does not tolerate dissent. The late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat paid with his life for challenging Islamic fundamentalists and other groups who called for the destruction of Israel. Yet unless the prevailing culture of death and oppression is challenged, its purveyors will continue and become even more dangerous as they acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Why Democracy Seems Attractive

The American preference for exporting democracy rather than Enlightenment culture is not merely the result of a mistaken belief that democracy equals liberty. It is based in part on an epistemological and moral relativism that dares not criticize even the most depraved culture, much less point out the superior values that first emerged in the West and are therefore currently most fully realized in the West.
This relativism explains why politicians and intellectuals in the West are reluctant to demand radical changes in school textbooks that depict the West as Satan, in religious sermons that preach hate, and in a popular media that incites violence against the infidel. This relativism is also what prevents world leaders from saying outright that Islamic culture needs to undergo an Enlightenment of its own. Making such assertions and claims in a world that considers truth relative and no one culture superior to another is judged by Western intellectuals and semi-intellectuals as tantamount to imperialism.
One of the most notorious "scandals" following the September 2001 attack on America arose not from any glee displayed in the Islamic world but from Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's remark: "We must be aware of the superiority of our civilization, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and—in contrast with Islamic countries—respect for religious and political rights, a system that has as its values understandings of diversity and tolerance." He added that Western civilization is superior because it "has at its core, as its greatest value, freedom, which is not the heritage of Islamic culture."
The outcry that followed Berlusconi's statements was overwhelming. The prime minister was attacked by intellectuals and politicians; religious leaders of all faiths; the Right and the Left; Europeans, Americans, and, of course, Arabs. He was deemed a racist and a bigot. Very quickly, he withdrew his statement and apologized.
A relativistic culture that will not uphold the values of reason and individualism is often drawn to recommending democracy as the solution to all disagreements. If people believe truth is culturally relative, if they feel that no value is objectively good or bad, then it makes sense to determine the truth for a specific culture by means of a popular vote. But as the educator Parker Palmer says, "One sure way to miss truth in any field is to count the votes: Had Copernicus and Galileo done so, the sun might still be circling the earth."
Truth is not confined to the physical sciences; universal truths exist about man and society. One such truth is that a culture that promotes life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is superior to a culture that promotes death, oppression, and sacrifice—better for its own members and less dangerous to members of neighboring countries.
To be sure, legitimate value differences may exist between cultures as different as European civilization and Islamic civilization. One such legitimate difference, ironically, is the place and weight given to democracy in political society. To insist that Muslim countries adopt the all-powerful, restriction-free, "one-person, one-vote" democracy currently prevailing in Western countries would indeed be imperialistic. But it is not imperialism to insist that Muslim countries protect a citizen's right to think for himself and to pursue his own happiness as he sees fit—nor is it imperialistic to insist that Muslim countries refrain from supporting terrorism and the initiation of force against other countries.
Thus, those who see the need for a value change among Muslims are only half right, for it is true that the Muslim world must discover the Enlightenment values of reason and individualism. But it is also true that the West must rediscover them.

Tal Ben-Shahar is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University and author of A Clash of Values: The Struggle for Universal Freedom (forthcoming from iUniverse). Roger Donway is the Director of the Atlas Society's Business Rights Center, and was previosuly the editor of Navigator magazine.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.


Donate to The Atlas Society

Did you enjoy this article? If so, please consider making a donation. Our digital channels garner over 1 million views per year. Your contribution will help us to achieve and maintain this impact.

× Close Window

logo cymk 400x200

Newsletter Signup

Sign up for our email newsletter to receive the most recent news and articles directly to your inbox.