I complained on this page last week about Western efforts to force their ideals, especially democracy, on other countries and societies without any consideration of time, context and circumstances. Many readers commenting on the column argued that the West does this largely because we depend on them for money to finance our public expenditures. According to the promoters of this view, if our leaders were not going to the West with a begging bowl, these lectures and threats would not exist. Others argued that the West carries this moral hubris because we are poor.
I used to think the same way but time and experience have taught me that this is only a part of the explanation, in fact a very tiny part. For instance, the West does not give financial aid to Burma, North Korea, Cuba, Eritrea, etc. which are poor. But it still lectures them on how they should govern themselves – insisting that they adopt is cultural values (like respect for homosexual rights) and political institutions (liberal democracy). There are countries that are very rich such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar and others that are fairly rich, fiscally independent and even militarily powerful such as China and Russia that are also subjected to the same lectures and threats. And the US depends on Chinese loans to sustain herself yet China does not lecture to America but instead the opposite happens.
Secondly, the biggest source of funds for governments in Africa today is no longer the West but China. Yet Beijing is not asking governments in Africa that depend on it for funds to build roads, airports, hospitals, dams, powerlines etc. to govern as it does at home or asking them to adopt Chinese values. Japan is a rich country at the same level as the West and so is South Korea. Both are major sources of funds to poor countries. Yet Tokyo and Seoul do not demand that the recipients of their money adopt Japan’s or Korean cultural practices or governance models.
Therefore, giving us money and/or being richer does not necessarily make a country have a messianic and evangelical approach to foreign relations. Thus, there must be something in the Western cultural mind, which is absent in the Eastern cultural mentality, that makes the peoples and governments of the Western world have this impulse to lecture to others and seek to impose their values on them. In one of my previous articles, I claimed that Western intrusions into the affairs of other countries are implicitly driven by racism. But in fact the Chinese and Japanese are racist too, even more racist towards black people than Caucasians.
Now I want to amend that argument and locate the source of Western hubris away from race and wealth to culture, specifically the Christian faith. Although the “Enlightenment” or the “Age of Reason” in Europe presented itself as opposed to religion, it was fundamentally shaped by Christian values. The secular people of the West that we meet today are actually profoundly Christian in their thinking and mentality. The missionary zeal with which they seek to promote democracy and human rights can best be explained by the Christian evangelical urge to convert everyone.
Christianity, like Islam, believes in one God (monotheism) to whom all human beings are subject and claim universality hence an evangelical mission to spread “The Word” to everyone, everywhere, at any time and in any circumstances. This could be the major reason for the clash of these two cults – one dressed in secular garb; the other retaining its religious tunic. They are involved in strategic competition for “the soul of man,” leading to structural stress. Judaism, although monotheist, is purely concerned with the salvation of a particular people – the Jews. That is why it does not claim universality and lacks an evangelical creed.
The first signs of how Christian evangelism shaped the secular Western mind was the French Revolution of 1789. France was at the same level of development with the rest of Europe. The French revolutionaries were secular but they did not see their revolution as local. They felt a strong imperative to export it to the rest of Europe with the battle-cry: “peace to the people, war against the tyrants”. Revolutionary France declared war on the rest of Europe in a vain effort to spread its ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity. The French revolutionaries acted with religious zeal, driven by faith in the redemption of all mankind from tyranny and exploitation even though they were openly hostile to religion.
Indeed 19th and 20th century political movements in Europe such as socialism and communism claimed universality. Although communism was against religion, its promise to politically liberate the whole world from capitalist exploitation reechoed the Christian evangelical mission to pursue global spiritual redemption. Liberal democratic capitalism has joined this lexicon of militant political religions based on science and reason but promising to emancipate all human beings. I suspect this belief in and desire to create perfection in human affairs is based on the Christian belief in universal redemption. The difference, of course, is that Christianity promises paradise after death. These militant secular religions of today promise paradise here on earth, and that is why they are dangerous.
Like the cadres of the communist international before it, the liberal democracy mujahedeen of today is a messianic movement. It sees itself as based on reason and science, yet it is actually driven by faith. Here the Christian promise of universal salvation is reborn as a political project of universal emancipation. Colonial interventions were justified on the basis of promoting Christianity. Postcolonial interventions are justified on the basis of promoting democracy. Democracy has replaced Christianity as the new religion.
It is because of faith as opposed to reason that the West and its activists believe that you can have democracy anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances. This first struck me when I first visited Somalia in 2012. The country had not had a functioning state in two decades. It was in anarchy. The limited semblance of stability was enforced by foreign troops from Uganda and Burundi. Yet Western governments were involved in that country trying to engineer Somalia to look like Belgium – helping them organize “elections”, a “parliament”, a free press etc. and were funding a host of NGOs whom they called “civil society.”
The moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, has argued that religion (or faith) first blinds then it binds. I have met very smart people from the West who defend these “democratization” programs in Somalia and Afghanistan. I am an admirer of liberal democracy. In an ideal world I would want to see it everywhere. But trying to implement it in Somalia and Afghanistan which don’t even have the rudimentary elements of a state to ensure order, is absurd. Why then do highly intelligent people, Westerners and elites from other societies, believe it can work? Because it is no longer a system of government but has become a religious cult.
Because it has become a faith in the West and among elites in other countries, the test of a country’s politics and governance today is reduced to the existence, or lack of, democracy. Listen to debates in the media and academia and you will hear smart people equate democracy to “good governance”. On this religious faith, they make arguments on how democracy and its accompanying checks and balances, a free press and freedom to organize; reduces corruption, leads to accountability, promotes economic growth and development, ensures service delivery etc.
These arguments are made even when there is overwhelming evidence that in many poor countries, democracy leads to increased corruption, undermines accountability, induces governments to focus on short-term vote-winning policies that may be economically harmful in the long-run. In poor, ethnically diverse societies, democratic competition has led to increase ethnic polarization. In Uganda, as democracy as deepened so has the quality of parliamentarians deteriorated. Slowly but steadily, public spirited individuals have pulled out of politics as crooks with ability to raise money to fund campaigns have grown in number and strength.
India is the longest lasting and successful democracy in a poor country. Across that country, hundreds of politicians facing criminal charges have enjoyed long and successful careers as politicians both at the national and state level. Democracy has deepened alongside the growth in illegal financing of elections. Consequently, criminals have become embedded in its political life. For instance, in his book, Rogue Elephant; Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy, Simon Denyer shows that in the elections of 2009, voters elected 162 politicians who were facing criminal charges in the country’s 545-member parliament, almost 30% of the total. Of them, 76 were facing “heinous” charges such as murder, robbery, extortion, kidnapping and rape; 33 won elections from jail.
The interesting thing about democracy in India is that the numbers keep rising. In 2004 elections, only 128 MPs facing criminal charges had been elected of whom only 58 were facing the aforementioned heinous offenses. In 2017, Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment published his famous book, When Crime Pays; Money and Muscle in Indian Politics. It is the most detailed (in data) analysis of the role of crime in India’s democracy. Vainshnav argues that in embracing democracy before it developed stable institutions, India became a fertile ground for criminals to get involved in politics and eventually to become politicians themselves.
This trend has strengthened as a growing economy has increased the spoils available to the victor. Based on their election filings, candidates facing criminal charges are three times more likely to win than those who aren’t. Worse still, Vainshnav shows that the share of criminals getting elected grows by 3% in every election, not just at the national level but at state level as well. Hence, it doesn’t matter which party wins elections in India and forms a national or state government. One thing is assured, the share of criminals getting elected keeps increasing in every election.
This article is not against democracy. It is against Western efforts, supported by many elites in poor countries, to see it as the solution of all our every problem. Some form of democracy is desirable if the conditions are favorable, its implementation given time and allowed to adapt to local circumstances by rooting itself in local mentalities and culture. But where democracy is a foreign transplant or an external imposition then the results can be disastrous. Nations need time and space to shape their destiny by deciding what to prioritize and do first and what to do later.
Democracy should not be seen as an abstract ideal applicable to any country, anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances irrespective of history, culture and context as Christianity is. Neither should it be seen as the only criteria for judging the quality of governance of a country. For many countries, the ability to ensure a stable political order, promote ethnic harmony in ethnically polarized societies, sustain rapid economic growth and development, ensure delivery of public goods and services, curb misuse of public resources – all of which do not necessarily need democracy and can be undermined by it – should take top priority.
The best example of rapidly improving quality of governance with a slower speed of democratization is post-genocide Rwanda. Yet sections of the Western media, academia and diplomacy always seek to ignore the reforms that have led to massive improvements in the quality of life of ordinary Rwandans, ensured stability and social harmony among people who were killing each other only yesterday. They do this in an unreasonable demand for democracy in an instant. For Rwanda, Uganda and other Africa countries, democracy should not be a journey traversed at a creep – as was the experience of Europe and North America. It should happen exactly as the Christian God created the universe by saying – “let there be” this or that and in an instant it all happened.
The point here is not the reject democracy. Rather it is to acknowledge that different societies have different histories and circumstances which give them different priorities. They need to be given time and space to experiment with different forms of government. It is the political struggles of their citizens over time that will shape the democracy they get or lack of it. To demand and expect that the whole world should converge on one form of government that evolved organically out of the experience of Europe and her offshoots in North America and Oceania is simplistic, utopian and even dangerous. It is an attempt to impose the values, and indeed the history, of one society onto all other societies. And that is undemocratic.