Reformist Muslim

Exploring possibilities for the future of Islam and other thoughts

Location: London, United Kingdom

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Is Democracy Western?

The belief in the allegedly "Western" nature of democracy is often linked to the early practice of voting and elections in Greece, especially in Athens. Democracy involves more than balloting, but even in the history of voting there would be a classificatory arbitrariness in defining civilizations in largely racial terms. ...[T]there is reluctance in taking note of the Greek intellectual links with other civilizations to the east or south of Greece, despite the greater interest that the Greeks themselves showed in talking to Iranians, or Indians, or Egyptians (rather than in chatting up the Ostrogoths).

The above quote is taken from this article by Amartya Sen (via 3QuarksDaily). He makes important arguments, addressing both non-Westerners and the West. For me the two key themes are,

a) Democracy isn't Western and
b) The West doesn't own democracy.

These overlap nicely to create a coherent critique of the false west/non-west dichotomy. That democracy isn’t just a western concept is an important argument for those who aren’t western.
Sen provides interesting examples, and these need to be emphasised, of leaders such as Mandela and Gandhi who combined modern notions of democracy with their own 'native' traditions which, which while not containing voting, were similar to a democratic system in many ways.

This is not to say all desi's should rely upon such a fusion (although I feel that those who don't are missing out). If some would like to become 100% westernised, that is their choice. However for those who want to continue some of their cultural heritage, adopting concepts such as public reason should not make them feel as if they are 'selling out', or being brainwashed to think in a certain way.

This is where the second point comes in. As Sen points out, seeing Iranian dissidents as 'ambassadors for Western values', is both incorrect and counter-productive. To take an example, why should the Afghan convert to Christianity not be executed for apostasy? I would suggest because as Muslims, we should not consider it either a humane or rational thing to do. This is not to say that the West has nothing to contribute to this discourse - they should make their voices heard. However this should preferably be done in the spirit of reflection rather than conversion.

Cross posted on Pickled Politics.


Blogger liberal fundo said...

I think your point about applying native values to native issues is an important one. People often talk about how the West has a responsibility to protect human rights in Eastern (or other undeveloped) nations as if those nations are void of any morality or value system.

Though, I am wondering why Muslim scholars aren't speaking up to say that there is no evidence in the Qur'an to support execution as a punishment for apostasy.

9:19 am, April 04, 2006  
Blogger reformist_muslim said...

I guess its because the traditional methods of scholarship interpret apostasy as a part of Islam. If you haven't already read it, I'll refer you to Ali Eteraz's analysis of the subject.

10:16 pm, April 05, 2006  
Anonymous sonia said...

damn! i missed seeing this on the pickled politics site when you posted it there, and for some reason i cant post a comment there anymore.

interesting points. I would of course say democracy is universal. to say democracy is 'western' is non-democratic! but with any of these things, i find most people with their heads in the ground. understanding what the hell anyone means by 'Western' first and foremost needs to be discussed. and what is the opposite of 'Western' then? Such a bipolar dichotomy isn't useful - at all. is sex 'western'? some people would have you think so¬!

but this is where the history of classical thought is so useful. i've a mind to write more about this - cos most of us, frankly don't know much about history - well why would we - it comes across as a boring subject ( thanks to schools teaching it so badly).

i find one of the single biggest problems of the day is this great readiness on most people's part to ascribe some civilization/nation/group with a 'monopoly' on a concept or an idea. Someone may have thought of something first - big deal. You can't copyright life - though some do try.

still, its all part and parcel of our failure as human society to understand just that - human society.

2:24 pm, April 28, 2006  

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