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Sunday, August 27, 2006


democracy and the ummah

posted by russell at Sunday, August 27, 2006 permalink View blog reactions
American foreign policy in the Middle East claims to seek the spread of democracy among the Arab and/or Islamic nations found there. They are currently ruled by autocratic, unresponsive governments, who restrict the freedom of the citizens, giving rise to resentment, frustration, and eventually political violence and intolerant "Islamo-fascism".

I think we all agree that many of the governments in question are autocratic, unaccountable and unresponsive, and that this creates enormous problems for the people they govern.

Is Western democracy the solution?
What do the people of the region actually want, and do they get a voice in choosing?

What we in the West call "democracy" is the product of almost 1,000 years of effort to make the state accountable to the people governed. That history has gone hand in hand with other political, social, and economic changes. Our understanding of what "the state" itself is has changed from a more or less tribally based polity, ruled by an elite land-holding warrior class, to the modern nation-state, governed by elected representatives of the population according to the rule of law. Western democracy relies on a literate, informed, and responsible population, which historically goes hand in hand with a robust middle class. Western democracies are also associated with a more or less market economy, in which economic affairs largely consist of the interactions of private persons, each seeking their own best interest.

Overall, it works pretty well for us. It's a good solution to a number of problems which have, historically, plagued us.

Western democracy assumes the division of everyday human life into a number of more or less separate spheres -- political, economic, religious, family, personal. In each of these spheres, citizens are accountable to different authorities -- nation and state; employers, business partners, customers, and the market; religious leaders and traditions; members of our family; ourselves. These spheres interact, for sure, but they are really separate. We do not want the government telling us what or how to worship; we don't want our boss telling us how to vote; we don't want religious leaders telling us how to organize our finances.

What the west does not have, or really want, is a concept akin to the Ummah. As I understand it, the Ummah is a concept of community that encompasses all of the various aspects of life -- religious, political, economic, family, personal -- in an integrated whole. Within the Ummah, life is not divided into separate spheres, each accountable to different authorities. Within the Ummah, in all spheres of life, each person is responsible to God. Muslim readers will, I hope, forgive and correct me if my understanding of what is meant by the Ummah is incorrect.

I'm not sure that political institutions that enforce crisp boundaries between different spheres of life fit well in a culture informed by something like the Ummah. And, I'm not sure people who live in those cultures will want to give up such a concept in return for whatever they might get from secular, Western style governance.

What does a responsive, accountable, transparent government look like in a culture and society informed by a concept like the Ummah?
Is something like a Western democracy what is wanted?
What institutions and traditions *already exist* within the Islamic world that embody, encourage, and support responsible government?
Who are the people advocating for those institutions and traditions?

What are we doing to understand and encourage those institutions and traditions?
What are we doing to identify, understand, and encourage the people who champion those institutions and traditions in the Islamic world *now*?

Do the people who live in Islamic nations get a voice in how they want to order their lives, or must they choose between autocracy and Jeffersonian democracy?

It should go without saying, but it may not, so allow me to be clear about a couple of things. I *do not* believe that Muslims, Arabs, or any combination thereof, are incapable of governing themselves well. I *do not* believe they are uninterested in freedom. I *no not* believe, as some claim, that they "only understand force".

My questions are simply these:

What does good government look like in the context of Islamic culture?
How can we encourage it to emerge and take root?

The reason I ask is because what we are doing now does not appear to be working all the well.

No hat fits every head. We have found, and jealously guard, the hat that fits ours. The Islamic nations deserve the opportunity to do the same.

Thanks -


perhaps russell you may be better off questioning the obvious. Never mind 'Western democracy' - look at the rather amusing fact that a highly autocratic government goes around hoping its citizens won't notice hte very fact and highlight other countries' shortcomings. yep there are a lot of undemocratic countries around, i'd rather a fascist dictator stood up and said im a fascist dictator so we all know where we stand. the problem i find is that a lot of people who come from countries that pretend not to be autocratic don't actually know where they stand.

let's all be honest about the situation the world is in. at least then we can work out what needs doing - instead of listening to 'our leaders' about what we ought to be thinking.

incidentally - perhaps you can shed some light on how successful democracy is in America. any ideas why so many voters are apathetic? are they taking their rights for granted? do they not want their democratic right to vote?

as your blog doesn't allow anonymous comments - i had to use my blogger account - you can generally find me here


if you are actually interested in working this out - there isn't anything particularly 'western' about democracy - democracy is democracy. social groups are social groups.

So let's not imagine there's great difference in people in the 'West' wanting to have a say in their own lives vs. people anywhere else. Authoritarianism is authoritarianism. The question of course is does the US administration actually understand the word democracy? i can't see that they do - because if they did, they'd see that it's not something you can 'impose' obviously. that is so obvious - that makes me think clearly the politics is politics, democracy must be an excuse. otherwise let's paraphrase it as 'authoritarian democracy'.

it's like saying 'i'm gonna force these guys to be free!' erm..if you've 'forced' them how exactly are they free?

there are big differences between the rhetoric of freedom and democracy and the reality on the ground. it's one thing 'encouraging' democratic conditions and quite another to go around 'imposing' democracy from the top.


Saki -

Thanks for your thoughtful replies.

Rather than question the obvious, I will simply state the obvious. US policy toward the middle east is not now, nor has it ever been, motivated only, primarily, or perhaps at all, by a selfless desire to increase the general level of freedom there. It has been motivated, at least for the last 60 years, by a desire to insure the availability of oil, lots of oil, at the lowest possible price.

What we see now, I think, is an attempt to characterize the projection of power in the region as an effort to "reform" it politically.

Regarding democracy in the US, yes, I think people here take what we have for granted. I also agree that what we have here is at enormous risk. There is nothing "magic" about the US that will prevent us from sliding into authoritarianism, and in fact IMO that is exactly what we are doing now. The only thing that will prevent it is deliberate and determined effort on the part of Americans.

The reason for my post is this:

Many governments in the Middle East are, in fact, authoritarian. Many are not, in fact, accountable to the people they rule. Many people there would, in fact, have better lives if this were not so.

I don't know that the way we do things here, even on our best day, is a good solution for that problem. People and cultures aren't all the same.

So, if not the status quo, then what?

What does "democracy" -- government of, for, and by the people -- look like in an Islamic context?

Thanks -


What does "democracy" -- government of, for, and by the people -- look like in an Islamic context?

that really is the million dollar question. My feeling is that the seeds of the democratic system planted now in the middle east - particularly in Gaza, Lebanon, and Iraq - are going to bear Islamist fruit. And that is ok, because only by going through that phase will democracy in an Islamic context mature fully and become that thing which we all desire - genuine liberal governance.

Of course the neocons dont put democracy on teh pedestal they claim to - the outcome of elections can be "bad" (as in Gaza) and therefore are punishable. This is a setback. We do need to let Islamists access to power via the ballot box. Its a two edged sword as they will soon realize. I simply have more faith I think than they do in our own ideals.


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.