US President Donald Trump is considering military intervention to uphold democracy in Venezuela. He, along with his western allies, has even recognised ‘self-proclaimed president’ Juan Guaido as the president. They say they are ready to authorise foreign military intervention if it’s necessary to restore democracy. Remember the 2011 Arab spring? The US, its allies and the people who believe in freedom and democratic values, like myself, were desperate and chanting for democracy. Even after the bloody civil war we have seen in Syria – which, according to Human Rights Watch, has cost more 400,000 lives and displaced around 11 million people from 2011 to 2017 – the campaign for democracy continues and rightfully so. The list of the countries who faced financial sanctions or sometimes saw forceful regime change through military attacks is much longer.
No infrastructural development or financial and social security can beat freedom of expression. Democracy is fundamental for a progressive and civilised society. Life in an undemocratic state has no meaning. There is no doubt democracy is probably the only legitimate way of governing.
Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Al-Attiyah was once asked in an interview by Mehdi Hasan of “Upfront”, why Qatar became involved in Syrian conflict. Hasan pointed out that Qatar “wants to see democracy in Syria but Qatar itself is not a democratic country”. To this Al-Attiyah responded: “We have our own democracy!” Thus even dictators love ‘democracy’ so much that a plain dictatorship attempts to label itself as such!
But is democracy delivering on what it stands for? The literal meaning of democracy is the process in which people hold the ultimate power of the state as its collective owners. A democratic state is not run by some individuals, but the rules that are set up by its people. The ultimate decision makers and policy makers are the people, through their representatives. And when we say people, we mean all the people. So, the question is – is everyone being represented in the process of democracy?
Democracy loses its purpose when it is based on only numbers. We have examples all around the world of democratically-elected parties becoming dangerously undemocratic, even fascistic and then eliminating democracy to stay in power. A parliament can pass or reject any laws and policy without taking the moral issues into account. So, instead of representing the people for their betterment, it can impose anything for vested interests in the name of a ‘majority’. Number-based democracies often forget that the majority can be wrong and the minorities right and can ignore the representative responsibilities they have to minorities. A majority without proper morality and humanitarian values can make democracy a weapon to oppress minorities. And so number-based democracy paves the way to oligarchy in the name democracy. If this sounds familiar it is because it echoes the writing of Greek philosopher Plato thousands of years ago!
In general every model of democracy in the world, voting in the general election is the only element of democracy that has the public’s direct contribution. But the democratic process should allow all of its people, regardless of majority or minority to engage and have voice. This number-based democracy actually serves to separate the general people from the state affairs as the people’s contributions only come every four or five years when they elect somebody as their representative in parliament. Within that period of time it doesn’t generally allow the people to engage in any state affairs and so the interests of the people often comes second than legislator’s own while making a decision or policy. US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in a meeting with the panel of government watchdogs last week, explained how easy it is for a representative to legally get away with a slew of terrible things while making as many policies as possible to enrich themselves and advance their interests or the interest of the corporate political class who funded their election campaigns.
The people who didn’t necessarily vote for the winning representative to the parliament have literally no representation in the state. Sometimes even the people who voted for the representative do not have a voice in the decision-making process. In 2015, British MP Hilary Benn voted in favour of airstrikes in Syria in a crucial vote in the UK parliament. He was confronted later by his fellow constituents in his constituency and asked “who did you consult with? Because we have seen thousands of people on the streets telling you not to drop bombs, you meant to represent us”. Of course he could barely say anything on who he really did consult on the matters.
Every opinion matters regardless of number of the votes behind it so we need a process in which the issues and concerns of every group can at least be presented for consideration. We must work and fight for a democracy but not at the expense of morality. Democracy is in vain if it cannot ensure freedom and security for everyone. Protecting everyone’s political, humanitarian and ideological rights are what differentiate democracy from sectarian rule or dictatorships. And so, to get the best outcome of democratic values, we need those basic rights reserved constitutionally. The democratic process should never allow anyone or any group to overlook humanitarian values and the core elements of universality. We must work for a governing process that is based on humanitarian values to ensure democratic values and freedom for everyone.
As Imam Hayat, who pioneered the concept of Human Entity Above Materials writes in his ‘State and World of Life and Humanity’:
“Dictatorship does not grant rights to anyone. A democracy grants rights to some, but there is little voice and freedom. A humanitarian state ensures the rights of all, with full voice and freedom.”