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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

09 February 2006

Democracy in the Mid East

Hamas’ victory in the recent Palestinian elections has brought into focus an acute problem: what happens when people vote into office Islamists or other parties whose conception of democracy differs so radically from ours? For an American administration so attached to ideology, the idea that something good (democracy) may lead to something bad (Islamists winning) is uneasy since it does not comfort to the presumed continuity between democracy, liberalism and peace. Yet it is that presumed continuity which threatens democracy promotion; it is a skewed conception of democracy that undermines sensible polities to promote it.

The reactions to Hamas’ victory fell into two broad camps. The first used the opportunity to point out the futility and perils of trying to bring democracy to the Middle East; it perceived Hamas’ victory as an obvious step back that is at odds with what a society should be doing to advance. The second camp maybe sympathized with the first but believed that America should practice what it preaches and that isolating Hamas would betray America’s message of democracy in the region.

Both conceptions shared the view that Hamas’ victory was a problem and a regression from where the region should be headed. In fact, it was no such thing: it was a step forward for the region and for democracy’s role in it. This is an unorthodox view, I admit. But it is our own rhetoric on democracy that has made it so: we speak so much of “winning hearts and minds” that we forget how democracy triumphed in the West. It is easy, in retrospect, to develop theoretical and philosophical justifications which attach permanence and inevitability to a murky historical process, but the reality is more complex.

What I am trying to say is that democracy did not triumph in the West because it was the better idea in an abstract sense; it triumphed because it worked better than all others. Much as Marxism is deplorable, it is not in the maxim “From all according to their abilities, to all according to their needs” that communism can be defeated. In fact, anyone who heard such things often found democracy undesirable. It was not in philosophy but in politics that democracy triumphed.

What does this say for Hamas? Our aversion to its victory underlines our own confusion about the history of democracy: we believe that democracy, as practiced in the West, makes sense and yet we forget the cultural and historical map which leads us to think so. It is only after we tried empire, dictatorship, communism, fascism, and other systems that we landed with democracy. Our faith in democracy came not from our reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or John Locke or Baron de Montesquieu but of our practice of democracy.

It is in this sense that Hamas’ triumph has to be thought of: not an unfortunate step back for freedom and democracy but rather as a necessary component of that path to liberalism. It should be easy, for those who profess so much faith in democracy, to accept democracy’s inevitable triumph. Our problem has been to forget the word “inevitable,” which means that other political systems will precede it. Hamas is just that. It should be welcomed not for what it is, but for where it may take us.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hamas' triumph has two possible outcomes. Either they will de-radicalize in order to face the reality of governance or they will continue to be radical but have to protect their power de-democraticizing Palestine. In a lasting democracy a complete failure to govern effectively by a ruling party will end the rule of that party at the next election. That is Hamas' true test. It will be nearly impossible for them to govern effectively on a policy of violence towards Isreal and nothing else.

That being said, there's also a history of scapegoating in democracies as a move to protect power. The Jews even have a history of being that scapegoat. Hamas might be able to hold onto power without tempering their rhetoric and policies by blaming every problem they fail to solve on Isreal. But for how long?

6:48 PM  

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