Editor's Note | Lana Cable is responding here to a piece by Milton Viorst titled Why They Don't Want Democracy published by truthout on Sunday 25 May 2003. - wrpBy Lana Cable
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Monday 08 June 2003
While analyzing the potential for democracy in Iraq, Milton Viorst raises
questions about democracy to which Americans newly responsible for Iraq
should pay careful attention ("Iraq: Why They Don't Want Democracy''
Truthout 5/27). His assertion that "democratic values do not slumber in
the subconscious of the Islamic world'' compels us to inquire further into
why Muslims passed up those ancient Greek values during the Islamic Golden
Age, leaving them for Europeans to bring up to date. As Viorst sees it, the
Bush administration's democracy project in Iraq will fail because Islamic
culture, particularly as practiced by Iraqi Shiites, is antithetical to the
secular individualism "at our system's heart'' that took "a thousand years
in the making.'' Just how alien to democracy the Islamic world really is
needs to be examined.
If Golden Age Muslims skipped a chance at working toward democratization in
the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, it was not because of
insularity but because Islamic governance served admirably the needs of the
expanding Ottoman empire's flourishing mercantile, artistic and scientific
culture. Europeans feared and fought the empire's power, but they also
coveted its grandeur and wealth. Venture capitalists risked fortunes and
lives to bring home shiploads of luxury goods. Muslims, by contrast, were
curious about Christians, but they saw little to be gained beyond military
technology from what they saw as mostly backward European cultures.
Meanwhile European traders, some of them former slaves, began to bring home
not only silks, spices and gorgeous carpets but also potentially subversive,
altered perspectives on Christian culture and individual identity. With
their own eyes they had seen remarkably clean and beautiful Muslim cities
whose healthy, well-fed citizens showed no sign of the poverty then common
in Europe. Some adventurers had found that it was possible to be a slave
and yet well treated, with legal rights that in certain cases actually led
to power and wealth. Life in Islamic countries was not Utopian, but in many
economic and cultural respects, it seemed better than life in European
countries. Most subversive of all for these Europeans was the discovery
that it was possible for ordinary persons to be piously monotheistic and
socially responsible without being Christian.
As these interesting notions found their way into early modern English
imaginations, playwrights created ostensibly Muslim characters as a safe
means of exploring in drama the anarchic potential of individual autonomy.
Some Muslim characters were demonized in order to defend Christian values,
but others were used honorably to inform cross-cultural perceptions. In
addition, the dramatized "renegado'' or Christian convert to Islam, for
whom there were actual precedents, staked out adventurous new territory in
moral relativism, with his unlimited claims for personal autonomy. So in a
heavily censored Christian culture, fractured by Protestant reform and
headed toward civil war, experiences with Islamic culture invigorated the
early modern English free conscience debate in its most far-reaching
The point of this thumbnail historical sketch is that the path to western
definitions of secular individualism is neither exclusively western nor
obviously secular. Neither is it the only path, since democracy is simply a
governance system in which the people are empowered to secure their own
individual and collective rights. Given that the hunger for justice is
stimulated by concrete experiences of injustice, people must shape the
system by which they secure their rights to suit their own historical and
cultural needs. The experience that gives American democracy its
distinctive capitalist and Calvinist slant cannot be treated as a
one-size-fits-all formula for the pursuit of happiness.
Many doubt that the Bush administration was ever committed to genuine
democracy in Iraq. But were it to become so, democratic values could
themselves bridge differences that make it seem as if, in Viorst's words,
"we are dealing with people we don't know.'' Westerners shocked by the
spectacle of some Shiite men flagellating themselves should be aware that
Saddam Hussein banned the ritual not because he considered it "barbaric''
but because he knew that it could generate powerful forces of resistance to
oppression. Protests against injustice in any culture incorporate symbolic
actions that promote solidarity among the protesters and strengthen their
will to resist. This particular ritual re-enacts the suffering of Imam
Hussein, son-in-law of the prophet Mohammad, whose uprising against the
oppressive Islamic caliphate was crushed in a hideous massacre near Karbala.
In its cultural context, the ritual makes as much sense to Shiites as does
the Boston Tea Party to Americans-not because the two protests are
comparable acts but because they serve comparable symbolic purposes. Imam
Hussein's followers want religious and political freedom; the Boston
colonialists wanted no taxation without representation. Having achieved
representation, Bostonians no longer throw tea into the harbor; should
genuine freedom and prosperity ever come to Iraqi Shiites, self-flagellation
would certainly dwindle. To regard our instinctive recoil from such
practices as a sign that Shiites are beyond our cultural reach is to succumb
to the unsupportable hypothesis of the clash of civilizations.
Shiite Muslims are no more intrinsically antipathetic to democratic process
than are devout Buddhists, Catholics or Orthodox Jews. Like any other
religious community, they debate among themselves, and there is a wide range
of strong opinion. Their opinions vary because as human beings they are
already individuals: they do not require American lessons to become
individuals. Moreover, even the most conservative clerical leadership is
not as monolithic as it appears to outsiders. In any community, religious
or secular, internal divisions dissipate when the community comes under
siege. But given the opportunity and a degree of economic security, Shiite
Muslims are as capable as are westerners of working through their
differences to frame a secular democracy of their own.
This was demonstrated in Iran with the 1906 Constitutional Revolution, which
by the late 1940s and early 1950s had produced a thriving polity, a free
press, freedom of association, and free elections. The Iranian exercise in
secular democracy ended when Prime Minister Mossadeq was overthrown by the
1953 CIA sponsored coup that brought back the Shah as a near-absolute
monarch. Unsurprisingly, that oppressive regime led to widespread civil
unrest which the clerical establishment used their organizational capacity
to exploit. But it was the CIA and not Shia Islam that overthrew democracy
in Iran, and now the painstaking process of rebuilding democracy continues,
albeit once again under foreign threat.
Iraqis have good reason to mistrust American claims for democracy made on
their behalf. If we assume that American lectures on democracy will fail in
Iraq because they ``fall on uncomprehending ears,'' we are making the same
mistake as British colonialists did when they regarded their Civilizing
Mission as the White Man's Burden. Such analyses fail to recognize that the human impulse toward liberty and justice is the prerogative of no single
And to the extent that universal justice eludes us, every
democracy, including this one, can at best be regarded as only a work in progress.
Lana Cable teaches English Renaissance literature at SUNY Albany and is currently writing a book on early modern freedom of conscience.