Saturday, October 20, 2007

Understating perniciousness

A few times over the past year or so, I've noticed Dave Osler saying something along the lines of (and I paraphrase)...
"The problem with those who advocate democracy in the middle east have to face is that the people will vote for authoritarian Islamicist governments given the chance."
... and each time I see it, I promise myself that I'll write a long post pointing out the holes in that argument: That it fundamentally misrepresents what democracy means - and reduces it to the simple process of voting. Democracy is about a robust civil society, entrenched liberties and other important factors as much as it is about voting. A state is not a democracy if a vote results in the election of an authoritarian regime. If it is possible to win an election and then abolish - say - freedom of conscience / subsequent elections / press freedom etc, then the election has not taken place in a democratic state.

But I'm in a hurry today, so I'll confine myself to a few corrections to his latest post about Tony Blair's use of the F word in relation to Islamicist regimes. Dave says:
"If one were to rank the world’s undemocratic governments on a scale of one to ten, Iran would surely exceed the median. There’s no question that Ahmadinejad & Co merit a rating of something like six or seven."
Bollocks. A gander at The Economist Intelligence Unit's Index of Democracy (pdf) has Iran very firmly in the lower quartile, describing it as an 'authoritarian regime'. He goes on:
"....there is some political space in Iran. Constricted and limited political space, but political space nevertheless."
Well, OK. I suppose this is true - but in 169 countries ranked by Reporters Without Borders in their 'press freedom index' (linked to here yesterday), Iran runs in as a creditable 166th. That means that there is a greater political space there than in, say, North Korea - but less that Burma. Not quite Dave's description, I think we can agree?

As it happens though, I'm broadly in agreement with Dave's view about over-use of the F word. But I think that his post contains concrete proof that he is underestimating the perniciousness of the Iranian government - and the threat that it poses. And this isn't a error that is confined to Dave's blog either. Very far from it. Sometimes - under those circumstances, you can understand it when people indulge in a bit of reductio ad Hitlerium to make a point in a public space that is so distorted in other directions.


mikovswinton said...

A couple of points; the first is that what struck me about the Dave Osler piece that is that there is no clear and considered effort to state just what would constitute a fascist regime. We are offered the word totalitarian, and unlike some I actually think that this might be a useful concept for political analysis if used clearly. However, recent work on Nazi Germany might suggest that used in such a blanket way it might not even apply to that state. (ie there was some "political space" within the Nazi movement; the whole notion of competing sections of the regime etc "working towards the Fuhrere as Kershaw puts it.)
Second point relates to your statement about if an election is won and an authoritarian government results etc then the election did not take place in a democratic state - are you thereby suggesting that the Weimar Republic, with its vibrant civil society, was not a democratic state? I'd like to see your justification for this. I'm not saying you are wrong, but I'm interested in what you have to say on that example.

Dave said...

Well, very quickly ... yeah, I am probably overstating the case on the nastiness of Iran. Blame hurried posting plus admitted lack of special expertise.

But I think you are wrong on the nature of democracy. After all, under the British constitution, there is 'nothing parliament cannot legally do', as I think the expression has it.

It not only could limit democratic freedoms, there are precedents for it doing so. Mosley and his pals were rounded up in WWII, while the Daily Worker was banned.

And the fact that Islamists would win free elections in many Middle East states does have to be faced up to. In any fair poll, the Muslim Brotherhood would walk it in Egypt.

Paulie said...

But, Dave, I don't think that there is any reasonable definition of democracy that would not include the right of an elected government to *temporarily* suspend some liberties at a time of extreme danger, and Orwell commented that it was a uniquely British trait that - in a time of war even - the UK was prepared to offer some toleration to defeatists and even sympathisers with the enemy.

There is open-mindedness, and there is being so open-minded that your brains fall out though.

Indeed, the ability to ban organisations that would seek to destroy democracy is a central issue here.

There is a strong pro-democracy case for the banning of Hizb ut Tahrir here in the UK today, for example. Your line that "there is nothing that parliament can't reasonably do' - the sovereignty of parliament - rests partly upon the fact that this sovereignty happens in the absence of a constitution here.

It isn't the case in other liberal democracies (though personally, I'd take a chance and keep our settlement because I'd oppose a written constitution on other grounds).

Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood may be able to win an election in Egypt, but in the absence of a functioning civil society and effective constitutional safeguards (or ample precedent as we have in the UK) to stop them banning subsequent elections / freedom of concience / speech, etc, it would not be a democratic election that they would have won in the first

Sen. Peter Higham Paul said...

There is open-mindedness, and there is being so open-minded that your brains fall out though.

This is an old chestnut which will never be resolved, Paulie. The moment you countenance restraint on political grounds, it's the thin edge of the wedge.