Whose Democracy?

Austin Dacey

Is democracy the gift of Western civilization? Some commentators, among them enthusiasts of the Bernard Lewis–Samuel Huntington thesis of a “clash of civilizations,” proudly answer yes. Others, anxious to avoid such a clash, say no. One way to support a negative answer is to question the construct of Western civilization itself. In a world becoming ever more flat, what sense does it make to divide the complexities of human life into discrete superstructures carved at cultural and religious joints? After all, Ayallotah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran was launched by his fiery sermons recorded in Paris and circulated on cassette tapes (patented by a Dutch company and based on the work of the German inventor Semi Joseph Begun).

Another way to loosen the West’s special claim to democracy would be to loosen the definition of democracy. The Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen argues that the essential insight of democracy is just the idea of public deliberation and decision, “government by discussion,” which can be found throughout human history and across cultures. Sen observes that while public reasoning did flourish in ancient Greece, it also flourished no less in other ancient civilizations. He cites the example of the so-called Buddhist councils of India, a forum for adherents to express and negotiate differences of opinion. In the third century b.c.e., Sen reports, Emperor Ashoka attempted to codify and propagate rules for such councils: “To choose another historical example, in early seventh-century Japan, the Buddhist prince Shotoku, who was regent to his mother, Empress Suiko, insisted in ‘the constitution of seventeen articles,’ promulgated in a.d. 604: ‘Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone. They should be discussed with many.’ This, as it happens, is six hundred years earlier than the Magna Carta signed in the thirteenth century.”

Of course, the great moral innovation of the Magna Carta was not the idea of collective decision making as such but instead a systematic limitation on the arbitrary exercise of power over individuals, a new realization of the arguably uniquely Roman conception of the rule of law.

If the historical experience of Europe and America is to be a guide, then, as Fareed Zakaria explains in his influential book The Future of Freedom, democracy will best serve human needs and rights when it arises only after liberal practices have been embodied in enduring public institutions, political culture, and civil society.

Since 1945 Western governments have, for the most part, embodied both democracy and constitutional liberalism. Thus it is difficult to imagine the two apart, in the form of either illiberal democracy or liberal autocracy. In fact both have existed in the past and persist in the present. Until the twentieth century, most countries in western Europe were liberal autocracies or, at best, semidemocracies. . . . Only in the 1940s did most Western countries become full-fledged democracies, with universal suffrage. But one hundred years earlier, by the late 1840s, most of them had adopted important aspects of constitutional liberalism—the rule of law, private property rights, and increasingly, separated powers and free speech and assembly. [Zakaria, p. 20]

Zakaria cautions against illiberal democracy in the democratizing societies around the world and argues for a series of moves toward economic and political liberalization as a precondition for robust electoral practices. Economic reform would mean “the beginnings of a genuine rule of law (capitalism needs contracts), openness to the world, access to information, and perhaps the most important, the development of a business class” (p. 152). Political reform would mean greater freedom for opposition parties and the revival of the tradition of “constitutional liberalism”—often viewed with suspicion by populist forces around the world—with its complicated system of checks and balances to prevent the accumulation of authority and power by any small number of people.

If democracy is a Western idea, it is an idea that is nonetheless embraced by non-Westerners. Democracy is not universally viewed as an “imposition” of a foreign and unwanted scheme. The World Values Survey, conducted in more than seventy countries from 1995–1996 and 2000–2002, has shown a high degree of approval for democracy among the publics of Muslim-majority societies. In Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Egypt, Morocco, and Turkey, for example, 92 to 99 percent of the population reports a positive attitude toward democratic government (the proportion in the United States is 89 percent). Indeed, many observers are concerned not about the possibility of democracy in Muslim societies—more specifically, the Arab societies of the Middle East—but about its arrival prior to the development of a liberal tradition that safeguards the freedom of citizens from arbitrary power.

It is difficult to deny that European and American societies have led the way when it comes to the practices of constitutional liberalism. Nevertheless, as a new Center for Inquiry report on the “clash of civilizations” argues, it would be a mistake to describe such practices as belonging to these societies. (The full report is available at www.centerforinquiry.net/UN.) By analogy, the values and practices of various music forms have specific historical origins in particular cultures and places. While some practices (e.g., the sonata or hip-hop) have a uniquely Western origin, others (e.g., the use of meter or a tonal center) have parallel origins in other cultures. Even in cases of practices with uniquely European or American histories, there is no reason to think that such practices cannot be discovered, understood, appreciated, and even improved upon by others. Like musical practices and the varieties of beauty they create, liberal values and practices just do not belong to any person, culture, or civilization.

Government by discussion is not a “Western” innovation, but constitutional, liberal democracy is. Still, liberal democracy belongs to the world, and, we should hope, to the future of the world’s peoples.

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey is an associate editor for Free Inquiry and a representative to the United Nations for the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of the book A Secular Conscience (Prometheus Books, 2007).


Is democracy the gift of Western civilization? Some commentators, among them enthusiasts of the Bernard Lewis–Samuel Huntington thesis of a “clash of civilizations,” proudly answer yes. Others, anxious to avoid such a clash, say no. One way to support a negative answer is to question the construct of Western civilization itself. In a world becoming …

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