Not All Change Is Progress

by Haider on May 6, 2013

My friend Hamad Mufleh recently wrote an article about the stance of the liberals in Kuwait towards the Kuwaiti opposition, and presented the argument that liberals should support the opposition, regardless of the conservative and Islamist elements within it.

Before I offer my own views on the matter, I would like to point out something you’ve probably noticed: the vast majority of political discussions are useless.

Why?

Because those who care to comment about politics have already formed a political opinion. They then go on to disagree with their opponents, citing the facts and incidents that support their stance, while overlooking facts presented in support of opposing perspectives.

Confirmation bias is insanely strong in the charged climate of political discourse, and most opinions expressed about politics only serve to please supporters, while opponents scramble to look for facts and counter arguments to defend their own views.

I’m not interested in adding fuel to the fire. Instead, I’d like you (yes, YOU!) to question your fundamental assumptions about politics and what makes for an ideal political system.

The point I would like to challenge about Hamad’s article isn’t whether liberals should support the opposition or not, but whether democracy should be the goal of our political efforts.

I’m of the opinion that democracy is not a political ideal to pursue, whereas Hamad believes that it is, and presents the liberals as sharing his ideal.

I will begin by tackling Hamad’s assumptions about democracy before I address the main point of his article on whether liberals should lend their support to an opposition contaminated with the desire for theocratic rule.

Democracy As A Political Ideal

Hamad presents democracy as follows:

At its core, democracy functions as a basic set of rules to resolve political conflict in a civil manner. Its main benefit in the short run is in reducing the prospects for violence (and civil war) and sustaining longer periods of peace.

Democracy offers neither promises nor guarantees to reduce political conflict or resorting to a civil manner. Democracy is the rule of the majority, and the potential oppression of minorities. If the majority values civility, then civility will flourish. If the majority values violence, then violence will flourish. In fact, when a democracy does not protect minority rights, the chances of minorities resorting to violence will be high, as they cannot rely on the political system for protection.

Democracy effectively shifts the basis of power from dominance through force to influence through ideas.

Again, democracy makes no such shifts. This would only be true if freedom of speech is recognized as an absolute right (which is possible under a “benevolent ruler”), but the conservatives and Islamists within the opposition do not support such rights. Therefore, the ability for opposing ideas to spread will be stifled through censorship and blasphemy laws.

Those who are skeptical of the introduction of democracy in a religious society want to rid people first of the fundamentalist ideas before we make this shift. Their reasoning rests on the assumption that religious ideas are harder to fight when coupled with political power.

In the same way the opposition cannot depend on autocratic rule for the protection of their rights (a fear I share with the opposition), democracy should be met with similar fears by liberals, as authority shifts to a fundamentalist majority. The solution isn’t to spread ideas of secularism and tolerance before introducing democracy, but to never introduce democracy without clear constitutional protections of individual rights and personal freedoms that limits the scope of the people’s authority to dictate how others should lead their lives.

The benefits Hamad attributes to democracy should be attributed to liberal values, which are under threat in conservative societies.

Should Liberals Support The Opposition?

The essential point Hamad makes in his piece is this:

Even if there are contradictions in the demands and political stances of the Kuwaiti opposition (e.g. Islamists defending freedom of speech when only months ago they proposed a law to execute those who insult God and his prophet), liberals should still back the opposition against autocratic rule, because the path to democracy is a long and winding road.

Hamad suggests – based on his discussions with liberals – that liberals expect an intellectual foundation to political movements, and that “Kuwait is clearly skipping a chapter here.”

Presenting the liberal view he has encountered, Hamad writes:

In the European book, the process starts with philosophers writing extensively about democracy. And because the opposition in Kuwait is nowhere near the intellectual movement of Europe, we should be skeptical.

My view of the opposition is that it’s intellectually mature in its understanding of democracy, and it does not lack any philosophical foundations to its movement. However, I disagree with the opposition’s political ideals, be it in their pursuit of democracy or the Islamist pursuit of a theocracy (under the present guise of democracy). The issue isn’t a philosophical deficiency, but the philosophical stance they hold.

To support his point, Hamad gives the United States as an example of a path towards democracy that’s riddled with contradictions:

When Americans called for freedom from British oppression, they did so while maintaining a slave society. And when they declared independence in 1776, the slave population had grown to 500,000, about one-fifth of the new nation’s residents.

This contradiction does not parallel the Kuwaiti opposition in the least. The liberals are afraid of a democratic system that hands over authority to the majority, without any safeguards for individual rights and personal freedoms. Doing so could deal a strong blow to the freedoms we currently enjoy. The US demand for greater liberties meant that the majority of the population was able to secure their freedoms, but the slave population was, unfortunately, unaffected by the newly acquired political liberties.

Even then, the issue of emancipating slaves was debated, and measures to free slaves were being taken by the founding fathers of America. It was a step in the right direction, which cannot be said about supporting the Kuwaiti opposition.

The Path Forward

Hamad tries to alleviate liberal concerns about Islamist rule by suggesting that it could very well be the experience society needs to go through in order to recognize the value liberalism has to offer, when contrasted with the hideous experience under a theocratic regime:

But what if the last thing we want to happen – Islamists coming into power – turns out to be the one thing we need to happen?

It is sensible to learn from past mistakes, but a disaster to intentionally make new ones for the learning experience. One does not enter a bad relationship knowingly for the opportunity that it might teach him a few lessons. There’s a difference between looking back and looking forward, and we should never confuse the two.

History offers ample evidence that demonstrates the horrors of theocratic rule. If people will not learn from history, then they will repeat the same mistakes again and again, without ever learning. And if modern day theocracies (The Islamic Republic of Iran, Afghanistan under Taliban rule, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the budding theocracy in Egypt) aren’t enough of a deterrent from theocracy, then will a brush with theocracy in Kuwait help enlighten the masses to its evils?

This is an unrealistic hope, especially since theocrats have the tendency to “blame the practitioner and not the practice”: It’s not that theocracy has failed over and over, it’s the implementation of it. So why don’t we try it out again in a better way?

The opposition is right in highlighting the dangers of autocratic rule, but the solution isn’t democracy.

The solution is constitutional reforms that offer explicit safeguards of individual rights and personal freedoms, without the vague references to Sharia law (that can be interpreted in any Islamist direction), or autocratic authorities that turn rights under the rule of law into privileges under the rule of man.

To win liberal support and to achieve a liberal society that values rights and freedoms, the opposition needs to shift its focus from establishing a democracy to protecting individual rights, without resorting to pragmatic alliances with theocrats eager to use democracy as a means to theocracy.

I would urge you to question your political assumptions about democracy and the Kuwaiti opposition before looking to respond to the points presented. After you do that, please share your own thoughts so I can have an opportunity to question my own assumptions.

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