I have been among those mocking commentators who applaud the signs of democracy in the mass protests of Egyptians that resulted in the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. I am skeptical in the extreme about the chances of democracy taking hold in societies where Islam is the prevailing religion, especially in a period when aggressive and authoritarian modes of Islam are prominent.
What is lacking in those societies is what the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville perceived in the United States when he traveled through the country in the 1830s. His Democracy in America is widely taught as reflecting the cultural roots of democracy.
Not everything de Tocqueville wrote helps us understand democracy. His comments on women and slavery were more appropriate to his age than ours. However, he touched on themes that have developed throughout Western democracies, but are lacking in Muslim countries.
- "If a [democratic] society displays less brilliance than an aristocracy, there will also be less wretchedness; pleasures will be less outrageous and wellbeing will be shared by all; . . . ignorance will be less common; opinions will be less vigorous and habits gentler . . . ."
- "The New Englander is attached to his township because it is strong and independent; he has an interest in it because he shares in its management . . . he invests his ambition and his future in it . . . he learns to rule society; . . . understands the harmony of powers, and in the end accumulates clear, practical ideas about the nature of his duties and the extent of his rights."
- "Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations... In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others."
De Tocqueville was not fond of Islam.
"I studied the Koran a great deal. I came away from that study with the conviction there have been few religions in the world as deadly to men as that of Muhammad. So far as I can see, it is the principal cause of the decadence so visible today in the Muslim world and, though less absurd than the polytheism of old, its social and political tendencies are in my opinion to be feared, and I therefore regard it as a form of decadence rather than a form of progress in relation to paganism itself."
I see little in de Tocqueville or anything else to encourage a view that Muslim-dominant countries are on a road that will lead to democracy.
With all my skepticism about the applause for Muslims on the road to democracy, I cannot ignore one of the unsolved problems of my profession. That is, its inability to explain how the Jewish country came to be a democracy.
"Democracy" is not an easy concept to study. While some claim that Turkey and Indonesia are both Muslim and democratic, one doubts if the Kurds or Timorese would agree. Varda''s father said that the Weimar Republic was as democratic as any place in the world, but he left his homeland 14 years after Weimar was created. His mother and brother were shipped east in boxcars several years later by those who took over from Weimar.
It is common for Israel''s enemies and antagonists to assert that it is not democratic. However, it provides the essential provisions of free elections, a critical press, wide ranging criticism of government officials and their decisions, and a judiciary that rules against the other branches of government. The Arab minority contests elections, and places representatives in the national legislature. That they chose to spend their time criticizing the government''s existence and its policies, rather than trading support for their constituents'' benefits, does not reduce the democratic nature of the country.
How did Israel come to be democratic and to preserve its democracy through periods of war, terrorism, economic distress and mass immigration from non-democratic countries?
- The overwhelming majority of the Jews who came to Palestine during the formative period from 1880 to 1940 came from non-democratic societies. Hence, the founders of the state had no experience with democracy.
- Some say that the British planted the seeds of democracy when they ruled the Mandate from 1922 to 1948. However, the vast majority of colonies that Britain ruled in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, mostly for longer than they ruled Palestine, have had the thinest veneer of democracy since becoming independent. Only India along with Israel and the heavily British places in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa have stood apart from other places that Britain governed for their maintenance of democracy.
- Israel''s experience of war, poverty, and mass immigration are more likely to be reasons for a country abandoning, rather than maintaining democracy.
Some say that Judaism supports democracy.
The Prophets'' criticism of economic and political elites implants a trait associated that is not authoritarian. However, the mass assemblies described in the Bible--which some see as precursors of democracy--were anything but democratic.
Assemblies convened to ratify covenants between the Almighty and his people provided no opportunities for serious debate or reasoned decision. They featured a leader reading text said to be from God, with the people limited to affirming their acceptance. The people were humiliated by being reminded of their sins, and told that God offered them the covenant because of his concern for them, and not because they earned it with integrity or good behavior. The people were told that they must accept the covenant, with death or other severe punishment as the only alternative (Exodus 19; Deuteronomy 8-9, 30; Joshua 24).
The respect for rabbinical arguments, with its long history apparent in the Talmud, may have something to do with Jewish tolerance for different opinions. However, this is a tradition associated with rabbis'' interpretations of God''s law, rather than popular deliberation and voting.
If there is any segment of the Israeli population that is likely to doubt the value of democracy it is religious Jews, and especially the ultra-Orthodox. For them, the decisions of rabbis take precedence over public debate and individual autonomy.
De Tocqueville wrote that Christianity was more akin to democracy than Islam, and I am not aware that he wrote anything about Judaism. He endorsed religion as one of society''s essential features, but also expressed doubt about its capacity to shape public affairs..
From where does Israeli democracy come if it does not appear in the background of the country''s founders, the implant of the British, or the character of Judaism?
And does our inability to answer this question with certainty caution against abject doubt about the possibilities of Muslim countries becoming democratic?
It is easier to ask these questions than to answer them.