A large number of countries in the world like being called democracies on the basis of holding periodic elections in the presence of international observers and on the laws that they enact through their functional cabinets or parliaments. Many also claim to be governed by the rule of law, stating that they are guided by their constitutions in keeping their social contract and taking important public decisions.
Many resources are committed by the US in developing democracy promotion strategies. However, the experience of EU accession agreements with the new applicants setting up clear targets for membership suggests that conditionality may be more effective in promoting democracy than mere incentives. There are also periodic reports which “name and shame” countries on the basis of democratic yardsticks such as political rights and civil liberties, human rights violations, corruption and on meeting international goals. What is, however, needed now is investment in resources and tools for building the architecture of democracy in countries which are democracies only in name. This is a gigantic task. The design of democracy requires that in order to be effective, several of its components should be working efficiently and in accordance with international treaties, non-binding declarations and political commitments of national leaders.
These components consist of a modern constitution; separation of powers with proper checks and balances; an independent judiciary; electoral and political processes that deliver representative and responsible government; instruments of accountability, public scrutiny and transparency; the contribution made by women in politics and conflict-resolution; the comfort level of minorities and other marginal groups in the political system; protection of human rights and freedom of assembly, belief and expression; and devolution of powers.
The weakening of any of these important components of democracy can endanger the very foundations of democracy and it would take years to restore trust and millions of dollars to rebuild institutions. Also, when elected governments become complacent and self-serving, they become corrupt and devoid of imagination to reform.
Experience suggests that the design and capacity for democratic institutions cannot be imported. The local population must be consulted fully in any reforms agenda and must own the changes before constitutions can be written or improved in a country. Afghanistan is a permanent example of why things have never gone right with this country. For most part of their history, the Afghan people remained strangers to the policies of the government in Kabul which were framed with outside consultation without involving the people in the discussions on the nature and composition of their governance.
It is, therefore, unfair to assume that Hamas, having won the elections in Palestine would behave like its counterpart right wing political party in Israel or that a monarchy like Swaziland which has welcomed democracy and adopted its first indigenous constitution limiting the powers of the king, could now be compared to a constitutional monarchy in Europe which has gone through a long democratic transition from monarchy to liberal democracy for almost a century.
Should these suspect regimes be given the benefit of doubt and room for engagement, or should they be thrown out and replaced by their western educated counterparts who have been in exile abroad, and who may be very articulate and good-intentioned, but who may not have popular support in their home countries to pursue long-term reforms?
This brings us to the point of where Muslim countries stand in regard to the western democratic model. While the former group of countries may still exhibit signs of authoritarianism, countries in the latter category are in the final stages of liberal democracy where the focus is entirely on the freedom of the individual.
A further stage in the evolution of democracy is secular democracy where the emphasis is on the separation of state from religion in all aspects of social and political issues, such as the constitution, administration, legislation, policymaking and culture.
Only two countries would find trouble with this definition; namely Pakistan and Israel because both were founded in the name of religion. Over the last 60 odd years there have been robust debates in both these countries on separating religion from politics.
The traditionalists in these countries take the view that this is tantamount to challenging their very reason for existence. Others, who are also in a majority, take a more general view and regard their independence as a result of historical forces which is no longer relevant in a modern world. The emerging social contract in both these countries today favours separation of state from religion.
Secular democracies have been very popular in pluralistic and multi-ethnic societies such as India and South Africa where unity is achieved by treating all citizens equally and keeping religion out of public discourse. In secular societies, the tyranny of the majority is balanced by the rights of the minorities protected by law and efficient justice. In this type of democracy, justice plays a central role. It guarantees a stable and just society despite divisions created by religious, philosophic and moral doctrines.
Despite its open view, secular democracy is not liberal democracy which is the next step in democracy’s higher evolution. In liberal democracies, top priority is given to individual liberty over all other human endeavours such as equality, social justice, democracy, stability and order.
Except for western democracies, many emerging democracies are not aware of what liberalism means to their societies. They have not yet faced issues such as legal protection for same-sex marriages, right to euthanasia, etc. In fact, this horizon is further expanding with political scientists talking about the state-plus vision of global democracy.
The question that is often asked is how the promotion and building of democracy can be successful in the Muslim world which has been slow to implement reforms. Many traditional Muslim countries which are now experimenting with democracy find it hard to feed the western theories of democracy to their traditional populations beyond deliberative democracy. This is because secular democracy still raises doubts in the minds of many Muslims as to its implications for their ideology and family traditions.
Irrespective of the clear definition of secularism, which is not to be confused with communism, these countries suspect that it is a way of bringing a godless culture into their lives through the backdoor.
It is also inconceivable that if some Muslim countries indeed embrace secularism as their political philosophy, such as Turkey, they would find it easy to move to liberal democracy in the next stage of their democratic evolution. What is, therefore, required is a new marker on the horizontal line of democracy’s evolution for Muslim states and its recognition by the international community as an important stage in their transition. Pakistan has called this intermediate stage “enlightened moderation”. Some others call it “decent democracy’.
Malaysia, for instance, would argue that in the Muslim world, the aim should be to replace illiberal democracies or authoritarian regimes not with secular or liberal democracies but with decent democracies where human rights, democratic and institutional reforms and constitutions correspond to the core values of the local population and sit well with the social makeup of their respective communities.
The model of decent democracy also sets aside endless debates about whether Islam is compatible with democracy or is democracy compatible with Islam. Instead of highlighting the definition of sovereignty in Islam, the linkage between political Islam and religious Islam or the limits placed on man as the creation of God, decent democracy lays emphasis on those positive aspects where there is no difference of opinion between the West and Islam.
These common values highlight developing democratic institutions and processes; good and honest governance; effective social and economic development; respect for all faiths, cultures and human rights; legal, administrative, political and structural reforms; development of free media and independent civil society; participation of women in politics, both in numbers and the quality of their input; and an active engagement with the external actors in the western world who are perceived not as enemies but as partners.
In addition to that, some way should be found to gainfully utilise the experience of very senior and experienced leaders in the Muslim world whose continuation as kings or heads of state or government may no longer be fashionable or popular in their respective countries, but who remain a valuable source of political advice, guidance and inspiration for the younger leadership.
Regrettably, apart from a few selective efforts, no global attempt has been made to tap this important resource and encourage more such leaders who do not see an active political future for themselves in their countries to retire early and play a regional and global role as mediators, special envoys and guardian angels of peace and democracy worldwide.
Perhaps the United Nations can take the first step in setting up a global institution which keeps former presidents and prime ministers occupied in lecture tours and resource-building efforts to make it worthwhile for them to retire and give democracy a chance.
PS: This article was published by the author in the daily Dawn on 25 May 2007 http://www.dawn.com