By Mohammad Mazhari

Idea of exporting democracy is undemocratic: Oxford professor

July 4, 2021 - 16:51

TEHRAN - A professor of history at the University of Oxford says that the idea of exporting democracy as a technique or technology is undemocratic.

“The American idea of democracy as an export item is not only undemocratic but a product of neoliberalism,” Faisal Devji tells the Tehran Times.

Devji also says, “Democracy here has been reconceptualized as a technique replicable like any other and meant to produce freedom without the initial involvement of the many who are meant to be represented by it.” 

In the past two decades two devastating wars were launched under the pretext of democratizing the region: the U.S.-led wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the result was catastrophic. Just in Iraq researchers-mainly epidemiologists from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and medical personnel- estimated 98,000 "excess deaths" due to the war on Iraq. 

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: Is there any clear definition of democracy or do we have different types of democracy? Is there any standard?

The most ancient definition of democracy, as the rule of the many or demos in Greek, is also the most recent. Despite an unimaginable change in circumstances, our political categories still derive from a long-dead civilization. They include monarchy and aristocracy as legitimate forms of rule alongside democracy, with a tyranny being their illegitimate opposite. These categories were inherited by Muslims as much as Christian political thought in medieval times and cannot be considered Western. But they were also supplemented by others deriving from the monotheistic tradition beginning with Judaism, including a focus on the prophetic founding of political communities by means of unalterable law. Modern constitutions are heirs to such theological ways of thinking. 

Of course, the rule of the many can itself be conceptualized in many ways, and from ancient times societies have chosen to do so by two major principles. Either by securing the power of the many against the institutions meant to operate in their name, or by safeguarding the latter against a multitude deluded by destructive passions. Another way of putting this is to say that democracy must simultaneously represent the majority of citizens, while yet preventing them from constituting a social identity excluding minorities of all kinds. In modern times this has meant a struggle to repudiate given or unchanging social majorities for varying political ones based on issues rather than identities. 

The democratic majority, in other words, must be made up of individuals rather than groups, which is why it is ascertained by the secret ballot so that voters can resist the influence of all external power and collective identity. While we tend to understand democracy in terms of collective voice and communication, then, equally important is individual silence and the freedom to choose without speaking. These are all difficult liberties to ensure, and different societies pick one or another way of doing so, depending on whether they see individual freedom or social order as being at greater risk. There can be no standard of democracy, only a democratic debate about what it should be at any time.

Q: Do think democracy is exportable? What were the results of the U.S. regime change in Iraq for example?

Democracy as an idea has travelled from one place to another throughout its history, so like any other idea, it cannot be seen as belonging to any particular people. But to remain democratic it would have to be adopted freely rather than imposed on society by force of arms. For to do so would turn democracy from a discussion and debate for the many into a technology of rule by the few. Only technologies, like goods, can be exported or imported. This does not mean that forms of government are ever instituted without force, and almost all the democracies existing today have come into being either through violent revolutions or as an indirect result of colonial rule. But they must be made by those who claim to represent the citizenry of a future state of which they are themselves, members. 

The American idea of democracy as an export item is not only undemocratic but a product of neoliberalism. Democracy here has been reconceptualized as a technique replicable like any other and meant to produce freedom without the initial involvement of the many who are meant to be represented by it. The idea is that once democratic institutions and procedures are put in place, citizens will come to identify with them if only because they have much to gain from the system. This has clearly not worked in Afghanistan, where the system has bever been inclusive. And while such an imposed democracy has brought Iraq’s Shia majority to power for the first time, it is as a social or sectarian rather than political identity. But the growth of political parties in Iraq and the political fragmentation of the Shia is a positive sign because it may end up democratizing the state from below. 

Q:  Some Western observers claim that democracy is not appliable in the Arab world. Is religion at odds with democracy?

The West does not own democracy, which indeed has often been at risk there, and in some cases is so again today. Until the middle of the 20th century, all the important Western European countries possessed colonies and were so the major obstacles to democracy globally. Similarly, the United States tolerated racial and sexual discrimination by law, while at the same time preventing democratic movements abroad. Europe itself was threatened by fascism and Nazism at its very heart, showing that there was nothing inherently democratic about its geography or history. 

Emerging from colonial rule, which clearly did little to promote democratic sentiments there, the Arab world has had to struggle to achieve economic as much as political autonomy from the West. In the days of the Cold War, some of its members could play one superpower off against the other and gain some autonomy in the process. But since the 1990s there has been one choice: bow to the dictates of the West or be sanctioned if not bombed and invaded by it. But with the gradual emergence of a multi-polar international order, this alternative may become a thing of the past. 

Religion has never been an obstacle to democracy, and the first modern democracy, the United States, was founded in the name of religious freedom and remains one of the world’s most religious societies. In the Muslim world, all the Islamist parties are republican rather than monarchical in character and all entertain some version of democratic rule. They do, of course, tend to suspect if not repudiate the idea of popular sovereignty, but this is because it is seen as a theological category that belongs to God. The Islamist debate focuses on the scope of the legislation and under what authority it can be extended.

Q: Do you think that democracy and globalization support each other? 

The end of the Cold War made possible a new global arena for trade and communication which some American thinkers saw as heralding the final victory of liberalism and democracy. This did not happen in part because global governance, like foreign policy in general, has remained resolutely undemocratic. The foreign policies of empires and nation-states alike have conventionally been the sites of a monarchical form of sovereignty untrammeled by the need for democratic consultation. This way of doing politics has been translated into the global arena, in which governance experts and unelected officials proliferate. This is clearly a good thing where the institutions of international finance or health are concerned, but the problem is that they entertain little public oversight.

Even regional formations such as the European Union are defined by a famous ‘democratic deficit,’ governed as they are by a caste of bureaucrats with Members of the European Parliament responsible as well as subordinate to their national parties. But this is a structural problem since we have no model of pairing global governance with national sovereignty. Issues like climate change cannot be dealt with at the national level whose interests still take precedence over those of others. But more importantly, climate change, like the possibility of nuclear war, is an issue that concerns not nations but the whole of humanity. Indeed, the human race has achieved a kind of prospective reality precisely because it is now at risk from the actions of its own members. And yet, despite being named in innumerable UN documents, it has no political status or reality. 

How might it be possible to conceive of democracy at a scale that encompasses humanity? If the EU cannot even guarantee a democratic culture between its constituent units, apart from treating its member states as if they were individual voters, what hope have we of doing so for the globe as a whole? It is technically possible to secure the opinion or vote of all adults the world over, even without absorbing them into some universal state, but how can we guarantee their freedom from national influence? The old problem of democracy, how to guarantee the individual’s political choice, reappears in the globe’s vastly more expanded context. Except for this time, it is the state itself rather than any social majority that poses the greatest obstacle to democracy.                


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