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Is democracy only a western concept?

by Shariq on 2nd April, 2006 at 4:55 am    

Amartya SenThe 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).

Amartya Sen in the World Street Journal (via 3QuarksDaily) makes a compelling argument. For me the two key themes are:
a) Democracy isn’t Western
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 examples of leaders such as Mandela and Gandhi who combined modern notions of democracy with ative traditions. While these may not have contained things such as voting, Sen argues that they were similar to modern democratic system in many ways. Take this example:

…the Great Mughal emperor Akbar (who was born a Muslim and died a Muslim) had just finished, in Agra, his large project of legally codifying minority rights, including religious freedom for all, along with championing regular discussions between followers of Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and other beliefs (including atheism).

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. As another example, why should an Afghan convert to Christianity be executed for apostasy? As Muslims we should not consider it either a humane or rational thing to do (Ali Eteraz has a detailed analysis). The West can contribute to this discourse by making their voices of protestation heard, however it should be done in the spirit of reflection rather than triumphalist conversion.

Sunny adds:
Amartya Sen’s newest book has just come out: Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. He made some excellent points on British multi-culturalism that Jay Singh previously mentioned here.

Another article by Sen caught my eye this week. In Slate he focuses on religious identity and the Danish cartoons controversy:

The increasing tendency to overlook the many identities that any human being has and to try to classify individuals according to a single allegedly pre-eminent religious identity is an intellectual confusion that can animate dangerous divisiveness.

An Islamist instigator of violence against infidels may want Muslims to forget that they have any identity other than being Islamic. What is surprising is that those who would like to quell that violence promote, in effect, the same intellectual disorientation by seeing Muslims primarily as members of an Islamic world.

Spot on. This happens all the time, most notably during the Paris riots when our right-wing friends were promoting it as an attempt by African/Arab French to ‘establish’ an intafada. The hyperbole spouted by The Spectator with its ‘Eurabia’ cover was quite amusing and a perfect example of this foolishness.

Anyway, both articles are worth reading for the depth of knowledge and understanding by this fine intellectual. One of these days, we need him blogging on here. :)

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  1. Jay Singh — on 2nd April, 2006 at 12:58 am  

    Hey I blogged a little on this earlier - looking forward to reading this book.

  2. Reformist Muslim — on 2nd April, 2006 at 1:11 am  

    Have read and added the link to your piece. Without a doubt Amartya Sen is a heavyweight intellectual equally at home in India as he is in the West. I still haven’t gotten down to reading the Argumentative Indian. I guess I’ll move straight to this book :)

  3. Jay Singh — on 2nd April, 2006 at 1:23 am  


    The Argumentative Indian is a brilliant book - put it high on your list of ‘to reads’ please. I might write some more posts on Amartya Sen when his new one comes out. He has specifically turned his attention to what is happening in the UK and what he thinks is wrong with the current ‘multicultural’ model and his voice is badly needed. Pickled Politics should do all it can to promote his voice at this time, especially when the new book comes out and he will be doing interviews and articles.

    We should think of him as our Uncleji ;-)

  4. Debbie(aussie) — on 2nd April, 2006 at 5:11 am  

    will have to see if I can get his book/s at the library.
    I think we westeners can be a little arrogant at times, when it comes to democracy. It would certainly be more productive if we were really open minded enough to debate this issue and discuss the miriad forms democracy could/might take. The form of govt. we (AUS/UK/US) have is far from perfect and expecting that it can be transplated, complete, to nations of the east(?) is extremely arrogant.

  5. Tasneem — on 2nd April, 2006 at 9:30 am  

    Democracy is not western and the west does not own democracy, agreed. But, the specific strain of democracy in practise in the modern era, take note of the context, is by all means western. For any further debate on issues relating to this, we must remember. Only then we will not limit ourselves whenever we evaluate attempts by different schools aimed at formulating, drafting other variations of democracy: theocratic to socialist to capitalist to egalitarian.

  6. Lopakhin — on 2nd April, 2006 at 10:13 am  

    There’s a slight gloss in Prof. Sen’s article, where he says the philosopher Maimonides fled ‘intolerant Europe’. Indeed he did, but the intolerant people he fled were a fundamentalist branch of Muslims in Moorish-run Southern Spain. btw on ancient Greece’s debt to the Middle East as regards democracy, a good book to read is Black Athena by Martin Bernal. V. controversial among historians though.

  7. Jay Singh — on 2nd April, 2006 at 10:42 am  


    India has Westminster style democracy. So it is not a question of ‘Western arrogance’, and as Taseen points out the Westminster model is something that is followed in India, Bangladesh etc

    I think that the point which Uncle Amartya makes is that there are democratic and secular traditions in non Western societies - and I think his observations are addressed as much to those who refute that both in the West and in countries in say, the middle East and Asia. Those kleptocrats and dictators and scoundrels and even occasionally who say that democracy is not for ‘their people’

  8. Jay Singh — on 2nd April, 2006 at 10:46 am  

    One other thing : either certain beliefs and practises are self evident and universal or they are not. Either the principles of secularism and the mechanics of Westminster style democratic process are universal or they are not. In which case, talk of them being innately copywrited belongings of ‘the West’ to which ‘the East’ can borrow are erroneous.

    So what are they, universally applicable ideas, or part of the Western sphere that nobody else may be a part of without bowing their head to the white man?

    I know the answer - and the opposite makes crude the whole question and the person who questions it.

  9. Roger — on 2nd April, 2006 at 11:20 am  

    Democracy is no more a western idea than zero is a hindu idea. However, democracy and freedom- which are taken to go together now- aren’t necessarily connected. Greek cities were dictatorships of the majority; eighteenth century England wasn’t a democracy but it was free because no-one was interested enough to stop people doing what they wanted most of the time.
    However, even if it isn’t western, modern democracy developed in western societies- very recently too- and the underlying philosphical attitudes also began there. The theory that we cannot be sure enough of our beliefs to force other people to do what is positively right is a consequence of the European enlihgtenment. It’s worth remembering that intolerance and rulers forcing people to behave properly has a much longer history in the west and there is an equally powerful philosophical tradition supporting it.
    One of the most important aspects is that religion is no concern of the state’s and that religion has no power over the state. That differentiates it very strongly from Akbar [who was not a democrat, but a tolerant autocrat] and from every previous state, including European states.
    The best defence of democracy, I think, is The Open Society and its Enemies by Karl Popper, which makes the case through attacks on two of its enemies- Plato and Marx.

  10. Jay Singh — on 2nd April, 2006 at 11:29 am  

    I love the google ads here - one mention of ancient Greek civilisation and there are ads appearing for timeshare villas in Crete!

    Good post btw Roger I will hunt down the Karl Popper book

  11. Old Pickler — on 2nd April, 2006 at 12:47 pm  

    England wasn’t a democracy but it was free because no-one was interested enough to stop people doing what they wanted most of the time.

    Unlike New Labour, who want to ban everything.

  12. Stephen — on 2nd April, 2006 at 1:06 pm  

    I still plan to read the Amartya Sen book yet but have read the reviews and excerpts. A very similar and excellent book is:

    In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong
    Amin Maalouf

    Maalouf is a lebanese writer living in France and he wrote a favourite book of mine the excellent Samarkand too which is concerned with Islams golden age (or one of them), Omar Khayyam and fundamentalism.

  13. Sunny — on 2nd April, 2006 at 1:43 pm  

    Insighful comments from everyone on here….

    I wanted to add something else. This ‘democracy is a flawed western concept’ is an argument that I’ve seen religious fundamentalists use a lot of time, which is another reason not to subscribe to that view.

    Hizb ut Tahrir for example trot out this line all the time, forgetting that religious tolerance has a long history in the Middle East (albeit not today).

    In Abraham Eraly’s Gem In The Lotus, a fantastic book, he talks about how 6th century India was a hive of debate where the public would pay to watch philosophers and religious evangelicals (the most popular being Buddha, Mahavir - founder of Jainism, and Hindu philosophers) slug it out openly. The money would then go to the winner etc.

    Having since become insecure about their religion, most countries in the eastern world have since then shut off any rigorous debate.

  14. Vikrant — on 2nd April, 2006 at 6:04 pm  

    Unlike New Labour, who want to ban everything.

    yea the hosepipe ban here in the South East is ridiculous.

  15. Roger — on 3rd April, 2006 at 10:55 am  

    “yea the hosepipe ban here in the South East is ridiculous”
    I wonder how much money the Car-washers Association gave the Labour Party?

    “religious tolerance has a long history in the Middle East ”
    Wasn’t/Isn’t islamic toleration restricted only to People of the Book though and very much “We let you do what we do not object to your doing?”?
    Toleration and democracy don’t necessarily go together- the Athenians democratically, after a fair trial, convicted Socrates of blasphemy and condemned him to death.

  16. Reformist Muslim — on 3rd April, 2006 at 5:27 pm  

    Very interesting comments. Roger, theologically Islamic toleration can be interpreted either as only to the ‘people of the book’ or the ‘there is no compulsion in religion line’. Context is important here - at the time apostates for example weren’t just dissident individuals but tribes who converted for benefit and then tried to undermine the Islamic project when the Prophet died.

    History wise Akbar is a good example of toleration towards people of all faiths (despite the fact that he was somewhat of an egomaniac). The Middle East has never had a significant non people of the book population so it is difficult to tell.

    However the Muslim population in Egypt for instance has lived peacefully with Coptic Christians. Throughout North Africa, the Jewish community has and is treated with due respect.

    Btw, completely agree with your toleration and democracy point. Have you read Fareed Zakaria’s book? He argues very very persuasively that freedom has to become democracy for a state to develop successfully.

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