Can democracy be exported to the Middle East?

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 3: Freethought II: Freedom of Expression

Fukuyama Giving Up on the Arabic World

In 1989 Francis Fukuyama (1952– ) proclaimed the spread of democracy and human rights, in short, modernization, in his widely read essay The End of History.[38] But in 2007 he wrote: “the problem of jihadist terrorism will not be solved by bringing modernization and democracy to the Middle East. Modernization and democracy are good things in their own right, but in the Muslim world they are likely to increase, not dampen, the terror problem in the short run.”[39]

The question is an old one, of course.[40] Basically, it is the question of whether democratic values are ripe for export. There have always been skeptics on this question, the most notorious being the late Samuel Huntington (1927–2008).[41] But there are many others besides him. For instance T.D. Weldon (1896–1958) writes: “To my mind it makes no sense to conclude that all men ought to be democratically governed if experience convinces me (as it does) that large groups of human beings are, for whatever reason, so made that they do not want a constitution of this kind and could not work it if they had it.”[42]

That seems to me an unacceptable sort of resignation. We should be careful not to juxtapose a reified system of basic Western beliefs and values against another reified but incompatible system of equally basic Muslim beliefs and values. As Sadik J. Al-Azm (1934– ) puts it:

This means that such values as liberalism, secularism, democracy, human rights, religious toleration, freedom of expression, etc. are to be regarded as the West’s deepest values, from which the contemporary Muslim World is permanently excluded on account of its own mostly deeply cherished values – theocracy, theonomy and theonomism, scripturalism, literalism, fundamentalism, communalism, totalitarianism, sexism, absolutism, and dogmatism – which are antithetical to the core to liberalism, secularism, democracy, and the rest.[43]

Let us consider what the consequences of Weldon’s idea would be for the matter of free speech. The implications for free speech are clear: because it is an integral part of liberal democracy and modernization, rejecting modernization and democracy for the Middle East would also imply portraying the dispersion of freedom of speech as an impossible ideal (at least in the short term). And that brings us to a catch 22. The only way to change a situation is to have the opportunity to criticize a current state of affairs. If that opportunity is frustrated, there is no prospect of change.

It may be possible that we have to subscribe to Fukuyama’s pessimistic diagnosis, but we should not do this lightly and we must be aware of the consequences of this “give-them-some-time argument.”[44] In fact, it is a sort of fatalism. Using this argument implies that we not only condemn a considerable part of the world to backwardness, but – and this is even more serious – we also deny citizens in that part of the world the means to improve their condition, because every improvement in the world starts with criticism and free speech.

There is another element in the quote from Fukuyama that requires our attention. He writes about democracy and modernization in the Muslim world. And he suggests that we should not be too optimistic about prospects for a change in that context. But what does that mean for our world?

Does that mean that we have to learn to live with fatwas condemning writers to death in our part of the world? Is that simply part of the new dispensation that we are living under? If that were true, some parts of the world would not only be stifling their own development, but their mores would be dragging down the Western world as well. We are living in a globalized world. In earlier times we could perhaps say that this was a problem “in the Muslim world” that did not affect our situation. This no longer holds true. The reason is that from their world people like Ayatollah Khomeini send messages right into our world.

Another problem is that multicultural societies comprise ethnic and religious minorities who consider the words of a foreign spiritual leader to be – to say the least – something that competes with national law in the struggle for their loyalty.[45] So withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq is easy enough, but that does not solve the problems we are discussing here. Religious terrorists not only demand the withdrawal of troops from what they consider to be Islamic territory, they also want to change the democratic order in Western countries, as appears from the conviction of three terrorists in Denmark.

On November, 24, 2007 three militant Muslims were sentenced by a Danish court of law on the charge of preparing a terrorist attack.[46] Their attack was presented as a protest against two phenomena: first, Denmark’s military presence in Iraq, second, the publication of cartoons satirizing the Prophet in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten (for the sequence of events see Freedom of Speech and Philosophers on the Index below).[47]

The first point is repeatedly emphasized by people who want to create understanding for the terrorist cause, but we should also take cognizance of the second point: the intended terrorist attack was intended to be in retaliation for the publication of some cartoons in a newspaper. That newspaper was not in the hands of the government, but in the hands of private actors. That implies that, in a liberal democracy, it is very difficult for the government to negotiate with potential terrorists. The government of a dictatorship can promise everything because everything is in its power. A democratic government, though, cannot “give away” what is not theirs to give. And what is particularly non-negotiable in a democracy, is the set of limits to its own jurisdiction that the government has acknowledged. This set of limits is defined by the declaration of civil rights and freedoms enshrined in the national constitution or in treaties that are binding on the territory of the national state (i.e. by constitutionalism). Civil rights and freedoms limit the power of the state. So the last thing a democratic government can do is to give away those freedoms to people who want them abrogated (i.e. the terrorists). Yet that is exactly what some contemporary religious terrorists demand (and some democratic governments are inclined to give in to, as appears from the incident on the Dutch television in 1987).

John Stuart Mill wrote: “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”[48] The situation we are familiar with nowadays is that a few religious fanatics are trying to silence mankind, and they have been remarkably successful in that undertaking. In that sense the affair of the Danish cartoons is more relevant than the more or less random attacks by terrorists on the public transport systems in London and Madrid, or on symbols of capitalism like the Twin Towers. In the Danish cartoons affair and in the murder of Theo van Gogh (1957–2004) the terrorist attacks were directed at a principle that is held dear in democracies and that distinguishes them from dictatorships: the principle of free criticism, even when this annoys the defenders of the status quo. What we see happening now in contemporary democracies, viz. more limitations on free speech to protect the sensibilities of radical religious groups,[49] is de facto a concession to religious terrorism. It looks as if we are in a downward spiral: the limits of free speech are not drawn by the state or the national community, but by religious groups prepared to use violence to substantiate their claims. And in this aim the terrorists have been fairly successful.[50]

I introduced this excursion on the fatwa on Salman Rushdie to make a point about free speech. Let us return now to the problem of free speech and its limitations.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[38] Fukuyama, Francis, “The End of History?” also in: Paul Schumaker, Dwight C. Kiel, Thomas W. Heilke, eds., Ideological Voices. An Anthology in Modern Political Ideas, The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., New York 1997, pp. 409–417.

[39] Fukuyama, Francis, “A Question of Identity,” Weekend Australian, February 3, 2007.

[40] A similar analysis is to be found in: Wilson, James Q., “Islam and Freedom,” Commentary, December 2004, pp. 23–28.

[41] Huntington, Samuel P., The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon and Schuster, New York 1996.

[42] Weldon, T.D., States and Morals: A Study in Political Values, John Murray, London 1946, p. 17.

[43] Al-Azm, Sadik J., “Time Out of Joint,” Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum, October/November 2004, pp. 1–8, p. 7.

[44] See on this the critique of historicism by Hegel’s rival Arthur Schopenhauer in: Schopenhauer, Arthur, “On History,” in: The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, Dover Publications, New York 1967 (1818), pp. 439–446.

[45] For the situation in the Netherlands see: General Intelligence and Security Service, From Dawa to Jihad: The Various Threats from Radical Islam to the Democratic Legal Order, AIVD, The Hague, December 2004. For the situation in Great Britain: Mirza, Munira, Senthilkumaran, Abi, and Ja’far, Zein, Living Apart Together: British Muslims and the Paradox of Multiculturalism, Policy Exchange, London 2007; Selbourne, David, The Losing Battle with Islam, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2005; Gove, Michael, Celsius 7/7, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 2006; McRoy, Anthony, From Rushdie to 7/7: The Radicalisation of Islam in Britain, The Social Affairs Unit, London 2006.

[46] “Deense moslims cel in na beramen aanslag” [Danish Muslims Imprisoned after Plotting Attack], NRC Handelsblad, 24/25 November, 2007.

[47] See on this: Klausen, Jytte, The Cartoons that Shook the World, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2009.

[48] Mill, On Liberty, p. 20.

[49] See on this process: Appignanesi, Lisa, ed., Free Expression is No Offence, Penguin Books, London 2005.

[50] See: Dershowitz, Alan, Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge, Yale University Press, New Haven 2002; and Guiora, Fundamentals of Counterterrorism, p. 8 where he states that “in many cases, terrorism works.”

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

Paul Cliteur: Towards a Secular Europe

Salman Rushdie on Bill Maher discussing “9/11 liberals”

Hitchens Don’t bow to Islam

Flemming Rose and Dave Rubin: Muhammad Cartoons, Islamism in Europe, Charlie Hebdo

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here