June 3, 2023


Is Democracy More Precious than Liberty? (MUSTAFA AKYOL, MAY 07, 2023, Acton)

Theoretically, the most interesting--and to me the most unacceptable--part of Hamid's argument is his dismissal of the very concept of universal rights. "Rights are not," he asserts, "freestanding, self-evident, or morally transcendent." Therefore, rights cannot be held above any democracy. Instead, "rights would be derived from the democracy." This inevitably means that majorities should rule as they wish, without being constrained by "individual freedoms and minority rights." A classical liberal, however, would insist that there are, in fact, universal rights, which are rooted in natural law. But Hamid seems uninterested in that argument. The term "natural law" does not even appear in the book.

There is a key flaw in Hamid's argument against universality, however: It cuts down the branch on which he is sitting. For if there are no universal rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, why should there be an absolute right to vote? If his dismissal of liberalism is valid--that it is a subjective Western system that other civilizations don't need--why is the same dismissal not valid for democracy as well? In fact, that is exactly what pro-regime ideologues in Beijing and Moscow, and pro-ruler clerics in Riyadh and Dubai, argue.

Hamid seems to push this theoretical argument mainly to substantiate the legitimacy of democratically elected Islamists in the Middle East. I can see how it will be music to the ears of those Islamists, as well as many conservative Muslims who may be uninterested in the rights of secular individuals or non-Muslims in their midst, let alone the rights of those branded as "heretics" or "apostates."

But these Muslims deserve to be cautioned: Hamid's argument cuts both ways. In other words, it also means that in contexts where Muslims are minorities, their rights can be curbed as well, this time by non-Muslim majorities. I confirmed this with Hamid on a lively panel about his book sponsored by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. I asked him whether, in his worldview, it is legitimate for French secularists to ban Islamic veils of Muslim women or for India's Hindu supremacists to punish Muslims for eating beef? His answer was that he would not favor such bans, but, yes, it would be legitimate. [...]

"In this book, there is no "resolution" to the problem of religion and politics. The problem of deep difference over the role of Islam will remain, with neither side able to conclusively defeat the other. There will be Islamists and there will be secularists, with many shades in between." [...]

 Liberalism, he says, "can't but clash with Islam." Islamic reformers can try to change things, but they have little chance: "This is not Islam as it 'should' be, but Islam as it has been--nearly uninterrupted for the better part of fourteen centuries."

Yet this argument, too, has an ironic blind spot: for some 13 centuries, "Islam as it has been" did not include democracy, Hamid's favorite political system, either. Medieval Islamic political doctrine never advocated free elections, political parties, parliaments, and term limits. Such ideas appeared in the Islamic civilization only in the 19th century, with Western influence, and thanks to thinkers such as the New Ottomans. They are often called "Islamic liberals," as they advocated not just political representation but all the key features of political and economic liberalism as well, finding inspiration from the Qur'an and the Prophet's example. (I myself am an admirer of such pioneers in this regard as Namik Kemal and Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi, as I highlighted them in my book Why, as a Muslim, I Defend Liberty.

So if Muslims had stuck simply to "Islam as it has been" and never advocated new ideas, democracy would also not have occurred to them. Similarly, "Islam as it has been" included slavery until the 19th or even 20th century--when it was abolished thanks to international human rights campaigns from outside, as well as efforts of Islamic and secular liberals from within.

That convinces me that "Islam as it has been" can change even more--toward liberty. And I find that absolutely necessary, for without liberty, democracy easily collapses into the tyranny of the majority. But I also believe that the people of the Middle East, and people elsewhere from East to West, deserve better than that. They deserve the dignity of liberty.


Posted by at June 3, 2023 12:06 AM