Democracy in Iraq?

Ranald Macaulay



“Democracy in Iraq? You must be joking!” says the common person today. Even the Prime Minister seems to realise that the original vision is a lost cause. As someone said recently, ‘only one condition is worse than an oppressive dictatorship, anarchy’. Too true! The evidence is before us daily.

The point at issue, however, is how anyone could have thought democracy would work in Iraq in the first place. Not that Iraqis are less able or more misguided than other nationals in the Middle East - or anywhere else for that matter. The opposite is probably the case.

The fault lies, rather, with ourselves. Why? Because for many years western ideology has assumed that democracy is value free. In other words that democracy has nothing to do with religion or worldviews and that it is more like a machine than a plant. A piece of machinery, after all, can be assembled and work efficiently wherever needed, just like that. Isn’t it the same with democracy? American liberals and neo-conservatives have operated this way for decades and the UK and the whole of Europe have followed suit. A ‘democratic’ Iraq, then, simply illustrates this contemporary view – but is a chimera nonetheless. For a democracy is not like a piece of machinery. It can’t ‘work’ just anywhere. Instead it is a plant which requires a particular soil and a certain aspect towards the sun if it is to take root and flourish. Democracy’s equivalent, then, is an environment which combines ‘form’ and ‘freedom’ within a creative tension: a society, that is, with definite structures, institutions and legal safeguards but where individuals are given maximum freedom – to create, to invent, to disagree, to explore, to challenge.

On one hand, government (the ‘form’ side) acts with real authority without needing to be oppressive. On the other individuals are free without the whole thing turning into a free-for-all. Partly this is because the political structures are designed this way, with external checks and balances and representative government etc. More importantly it results from an internal and self-regulating system of checks and balances within society itself. How? because its members act according to a higher moral order – and in Europe and the States, thinking historically now, specifically the Judaeo-Christian world-view. Hence the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville’s prescient challenge to the American nation after his visit in 1830: if moral qualities like these are vital to a democracy, make sure you maintain them – or else!

The soil within which democracy took root and flourished, then, was a society steeped for centuries in the Christian faith. The fact that reformation countries like England and Holland brought the Rule of Law and representational government to fruition doesn’t mean that essential steps in the process didn’t take place beforehand. The soil was ploughed and harrowed since the early Middle Ages: then came the Reformation and Puritan revolutions which were vital.

This in essence is the burden of Professor Rodney Stark’s fascinating book entitled ‘The Victory of Reason’ (Random House, 2005, ISBN 1-4000-5228-4). Does the author really intend to sing the praises of ‘the age of Reason’, the early 18th century forerunner of the French Revolution? No. The subtitle makes it clear that his intention is quite different: ‘How Christianity brought Freedom, Capitalism and Progress to the West’.

A full review in a short comment like this is impossible. Nor am I suggesting that the book doesn’t deserve some of stringent criticism it has already received. Expressions like freedom, capitalism and progress, for example, need further clarification. None is without serious problems when removed from a Christian framework, which is largely the case today. And the idea that the West has somehow ‘made it’ is, of course, ludicrous. The overarching thesis, however, is important and should be absorbed by Christians everywhere as a matter of urgency. Amongst other things it helps explain why democracy could never arise within a Muslim culture like Iraq - or a Confucian, Hindu or Animistic one either – or, for that matter, having taken root within a Christian West then survive within a materialistic and hedonistic West! We ourselves according to this analysis are in bad trouble.

Extracts from Stark’s conclusion and final paragraph (which is in turn a quotation from a Chinese academic) will hopefully spur you to read it.

‘Christianity created Western Civilization…The modern world arose only in Christian societies. Not in Islam. Not in Asia. Not in a ‘secular’ society…There are many reasons people embrace Christianity, including its capacity to sustain a deeply emotional and existentially satisfying faith. But another factor is its appeal to reason and to the fact that it is inseparably linked to the rise of Western Civilization. Consider this recent statement by one of China’s leading scholars:

“One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focussed on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion, Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of freedom and then the successful emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this”

‘Neither do I’ says Prof. Stark. And with that the book closes.

Ranald Macaulay, Photo: Chris Christner, 24/01/2007