Democracy or theocracy? A response to Barnett & Hilton

Roger Scruton
12 October 2005

In its silence about Islam and its hostility to the United States, Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton’s definition of the threats to democracy fails to convince Roger Scruton.

Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton point in their openDemocracy article to the difference between “the open politics of democracy and human rights” and “a majority rule which may lead to majority tyranny”. In this context they warn against “fundamentalism”, defining democracy as “a form of anti-fundamentalism”. At the same time they recognise that democracy is not self-sustaining, but requires “a community that experiences itself as such – still most commonly the nation-state”.

Roger Scruton is a writer, philosopher, and frequent contributor to openDemocracy. His website is here

Roger Scruton is responding to the article by Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton, “Democracy and openDemocracy

Democracy and Islam

These thoughts identify what to my mind are the deep issues facing democrats in the world today. Getting clear about them is hard; and I suspect that the more we explore what is involved in the conflict between democracy and fundamentalism, the more difficult will it seem to achieve the kind of clear prescriptions for the world that Barnett and Hilton are looking for.

By using the term “fundamentalism” the authors deftly avoid engaging with Islam. “Fundamentalism”, as Malise Ruthven shows in his recent study of the topic, originally referred to the Protestant reaffirmation of the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith. But in the modern context the term invariably refers to the disposition to reject the idea of secular government, an idea which is also, on one interpretation, a fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith (the doctrine of the “two swords” announced by Pope Gelasius I in 494 CE). Almost all Christians and Jews accept secular government; Muslims do not accept it so easily, since it seems difficult to reconcile secular government with the teachings of the Koran or with the sharia.

It seems to me to be misleading to describe both terrorism and fundamentalism as threats to democracy, while failing to point out that the terrorism and the fundamentalism in question are both conducted in the name of Islam. We are not dealing with two threats to democracy here, but one.

It is surely no accident that Islamic countries have found it so difficult to sustain democratic institutions. Barnett & Hilton mention Indonesia’s 2004 presidential elections. But they do not mention the long-standing persecution of Christians and Buddhists in Indonesia, a persecution entirely legalised by the sharia law that prevails there. Nor do they point to the origins of the Islamist threat: in Saudi Arabia, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and an Egypt which both suppresses and nurtures the Muslim Brotherhood.

Globalisation is, as they say, part of the problem: it has exported the grievances that arise under Islamic government to the places where people are free to express them – places, in other words, that are governed by a secular law in which faith is pushed into the background, as a more or less private concern.

The danger that democracy will degenerate into a tyranny of the majority was clearly expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill. Both of them recognised, however, that democracy is not some kind of new departure which repudiates all that had gone before, but a system of government built upon a specific legal inheritance. Barnett & Hilton rightly refer to the rule of law and individual rights as the first of their principles of democratic government. These were historical achievements of the European legal and judicial systems. They preceded democracy and have not been replicated everywhere. Until they are in place, the introduction of elections may merely let the majority loose upon whatever minority provokes its indignation.

We see this problem clearly in the Islamic states of the middle east, where majorities either are kept in place by tyranny, like the Iraqi Shi’a under Saddam Hussein, or (when freed from tyranny) look around to assert themselves against their sectarian rivals, like the Shi’a in Iraq today. Democracy is all the things that Barnett & Hilton say it is: but it is also something else – the ability to grant a share in government to people with whom you profoundly disagree, including people of another faith.

Land and law

The crucial point in all this is to recognise secular government as the sine qua non of democracy, and theocracy as its natural opponent. And secular government depends upon finding some other focus of communal identity and solidarity than religious faith. That is why Barnett & Hilton’s reference to the nation-state is so important. The secular law in a country like the United Kingdom is made possible by territorial jurisdiction, and the territory in question is defined by permeable but historically vindicated national boundaries. Our political culture is a culture of the home and the homeland, rather than the faith and the faithful. We are brought up – or were brought up until recently – on a conception of national history and national identity which promoted mutual trust and solidarity between neighbours. Although religion had a part to play in our political education, it was that of the “Church of England”; an expression in which it was “England”, not “Church”, that was the operative term.

That kind of territorial patriotism has suffered erosion, not only from globalisation, but also from the mass immigration of minorities that do not share it, who define their communities in terms of religion rather than territory, and who do not in their heart accept the authority of a merely secular law. It has suffered too from a culture of repudiation among intellectuals who, for a variety of reasons, not all of them bad, have tried to discard national loyalty and to replace it with the cosmopolitan ideals of the Enlightenment.

The problem as I see it is that cosmopolitan ideals are the property of an elite and will never be shared by the mass of human kind. Moreover, when embodied in transnational institutions, they have an innate tendency to degenerate into the kind of corrupt and profoundly anti-democratic bureaucracies exemplified by the United Nations and the European Union nation, suitably tempered and purged of its endogenous excesses, may be the best we can hope for, by way of a pre-political community that can accept the jurisdiction of a purely secular law.

World and idea

Barnett & Hilton are right in seeing globalisation as posing both opportunities and threats, in the context of an international order founded on the European nation-state. But I don’t see the matter quite as they do. By incorporating Islamic states into the communion of nations we have presented their people with a mirror, and they don’t like what they see in it. By promoting the global movement of populations, we have imported resentments that we can do nothing to cure, since the cure depends upon a shared national loyalty. And by entrusting the resolution of conflict to an ineffective system of international law, we have failed to take the pre-emptive measures necessary to safeguard our future.

Also in openDemocracy, a debate over the open society in the United States:

Gara La Marche, “The crisis of democracy in America” (June 2005)

Roger Scruton, “The United States and the open society: a response to Gara La Marche” (July 2005)

Gara La Marche, “America’s closing society: a reply to Roger Scruton” (July 2005)

Reading between the lines of Barnett & Hilton’s piece, I sense a profound hostility to the American approach to democratisation, which is to use force so as to remove the tyrants and put the people in charge. And of course there is an assumption behind the American approach that I too would reject: the assumption that democracy, rather than priest-haunted tyranny, is the default position of human societies.

Still, any comparison of the United Nations with the United States, as a democracy-promoting force, would give a head-start to the second. The US followed its victory in the second world war by imposing democracy on Germany, Italy and Japan. It fought for the survival of democracy in Korea, deposed the Taliban in Afghanistan and has actively promoted democratic governments elsewhere. The invasion of Iraq may or may not have been wise. But it has led to elections there, to a mass movement to restore democracy in Lebanon, to presidential elections in Egypt, and to a serious attempt to resolve the conflict in Palestine.

As a democracy-creating force, it seems to me that the United States has no match apart from the British empire, from which it derives. The fact that there is serious worldwide opposition to American power is to be expected: but Osama bin Laden is asking us to take sides in the matter, and I know whose side I am on.

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