Ethics @ Work: The only democracy in the Middle East

There is no democracy without an open society.

By ASHER MEIR
March 12, 2010 02:06
4 minute read.
Ethics @ Work: The only democracy in the Middle East

Business ethics 88. (photo credit: )

Israel often boasts of being the only democracy in the Middle East. The implication seems to be that there is something hard about being a democracy here, and we have succeeded.

A recent article by Larry Diamond in the Journal of Democracy asks: “Why are there no Arab democracies?” His findings shed light on the negative side of our island of democracy: Why have our neighbors failed? But they can also shed some light on the positive side – Why have we succeeded? – and on some possible dangers we need to be on guard against.

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While Israelis often boast that we have built a thriving economy and society “despite” our lack of natural resources, more than a few commentators have speculated that mineral wealth can actually impede economic and social development.

Diamond finds support for the idea of an “oil curse.” Oil wealth enables the government to function, and repress, without the support of the citizenry; thus citizen involvement is lacking. He cites Samuel Huntington, who wrote: “‘No taxation without representation’ was a political demand; ‘No representation without taxation’ is a political reality.”

Diamond notes that “Not a single one of the 23 countries that derive most of their export earnings from oil and gas is a democracy today.”

However, many Arab autocracies, such as Egypt, have little mineral wealth. The problem is the attitude toward democracy. Surprisingly, the problem is not that Arabs do not want democracy. In surveys, large majorities in major Arab polities affirm that “having a democratic system would be good for our country.”

The problem is, what does “democracy” mean?

It seems that many Arabs conceive of democracy narrowly, as a political system of representative government involving free elections and majority rule. But the scope that government has to legislate may be constrained by religious and cultural factors. For example, close to half of the supporters of democracy in the Arab countries surveyed support a system that institutionalizes Islamic law and that gives political power to men of religion.

Even among the “secularist” supporters of democracy, the term has a rather limited meaning. Diamond quotes researchers Amaney Jamal and Mark Tessler, who suggest that in Arab countries, “proponents of secular democracy vary little from their compatriots who back Islamic democracy when it comes to support for democratic values such as openness, tolerance and equality.”

Now, if what they got from these preferences was in fact an Islamic democracy or one with limited civil rights, then the Arab regimes might be places unpleasant for us, but they would be pleasant for the Arabs themselves. The problem is not that the Arabs end up without a liberal democracy; the problem is that they end up with no democracy at all.

It seems that if all you want from democracy is majority rule, then you end up without even that. This is important because there is an intensive difference of opinion in Israel regarding the appropriate boundaries of democracy.

At one extreme (the Left) are the acolytes of the Supreme Court who consider “democratic values” the essence of democracy and representative government merely among its trappings. Their zeal to insulate democracy from representative government is so great that they believe even the selection of judges must not be entrusted to elected officials; in some other democracies, such as most US states, judges are themselves elected officials.

The other extreme is equally dangerous. It identifies democracy with majority rule, or subordinates it not to “openness, tolerance and equality” but to various religious or nationalistic values. Sometimes this is called “Jewish democracy.”

Perhaps this is an a priori approach: a reaction to the extreme opinion voiced by much of the Israeli Left. Perhaps we find it desirable, or perhaps (more likely) undesirable. But Diamond’s research suggests that it ultimately may be a fruitless one.

That does not imply that a “Jewish democracy” is inherently an unattainable ideal. While today’s de facto Israeli conception of democracy is a secular democracy with no real operative Jewish content, it is possible that a Jewish democracy could thrive even if an Islamic one seemingly cannot. The reason for entertaining this possibility is that Judaism has a more-positive attitude toward “openness, tolerance and equality.”

But there is evidence that there are narrow limits on how many restrictions can be placed on a democratic form of government and still have a functioning democracy of any kind.

Israel can be proud to be the only democracy in the Middle East – a country with a thriving representative government, an open market and an open society. The failures of our neighbors to sustain any of these elements may indicate that all three are interdependent, and that whatever concept of democracy we settle on will have to be based not only on democratic institutions but also on democratic values.

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Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).


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