Modern Democracy




After classical Greece (or rather Athens) and the republican age of Rome democracy disappeared from urban civilizations and was replaced by autarchy, often dynastic. In fact this shift from tribal-based democracy to autarchy and its centralized form of government began in Greece itself when Alexander subdued all Greece and then extended his rule all the way to Persia and Egypt (4th C. BC).  Rome became autarchic with Julius Caesar and continued so to the last.  Eventually the only sort of democratic rule survived in Switzerland simply because that mountainous land never stopped to be a tribal society until recently. As already said,  close blood-ties within a tribe made autarchy impossible while the jealousies between tribes sharing the same country ensures that no single tribe is allowed to dictate to others or rivers of blood will be shed.  We see this still today in countries like Lebanon. This again mountainous country has still a lot of tribalism on ethnic lines left in it and its so-called democracy is a new way of accommodating its tribal rivalries and reluctant compromises.  Basically only tribal chiefs are elected to government and their sons inherit their political claims.  When compromises fail to be reached civil war breaks out. Switzerland was like that unil barely two centuries ago.


Modern democracy arrived gradually when transition was made from tribal to national society.  Apparently the first to achieve this feat was the English.  Like all medieval Western societies England was a federation big land-holding lords whose first among equals was the king.  Under them was another grade of land-holding citizenry called the freeholders whose holdings were very small compared with the lords. These small freeholders were called the commons and were entitled to vote at parliamentary elections.  They elected other commoners to represent them at the House of Commons while the lords were automatically entitled to a seat in the House of Lords, the two houses making up the parliament. The relationship of English monarchs with their parliaments were always problematic. Towards the lords they had to tread a careful path because of their basic equality to the monarch in nobility and often wealth. As for the commons they also had some influence and standing with both the monarch and the lords because they were not only the main taxpayers but a lot of country’s safety and prosperity depended on their good-will. 


As a result the English monarchs (as well as almost all other Western monarchs) could never achieve the despotic powers of their Eastern colleagues, in which also the Russian tsars were included. Many struggles came and went between English kings and their lords and commoners until things came to a head in mid 17th century.  The king’s and parliaments positions could simply not be reconciled and war broke out between Charles I and the leader of the parliamentary faction Oliver Cromwell, a country gentleman and MP for Huntingdon.  This is known as the English Civil War and ended by the victory of the parliament and execution of Charles. Cromwell became a dictator of sorts with the title of Lord Protector in which capacity his son later succeeded him. But unwilling to submit to another autocrat after disposing of one the parliament gave Cromwell an increasingly hard time after the long honeymoon was over.  It took more than a decade to restore the monarchy when Charles the son was brought to the English throne vacated by Charles the father (1660). Son Cromwell was then already driven out by the British army and exilel to France (1659) where he later died as an ordinary civilian. 


However Cromwell’s legacy stuck and since then the British monarch never recovered but steadily lost ground to the parliament which in its turn became more democratic in the sense that while initially only freeholding citizenry could stand for and vote at elections eventually all residents of Britain were enfranchised.   As such, as from the 18th Century onward when the Enlightenment had began England’s became the envied model government, especially among the French intelligensia who unfavourably compared the near absolutism of the French kings with the constitutionally limited powers of the English kings and the English multi-party democracy with all its various freedoms like the freedom of speech and religion. Because French had no similar tradition of its lords jealously challenging the king or a small freeholder citizenry but was totally feudal (only lords had land, the rest of the country folks were serfs while the towns were not as developed as in England) it took the French intelligentsia decades of savage agitation and conspiracies to bring down the monarchy in the bloodiest way possible (the Great French Revolution, 1789) and because it was so badly discredited that the revolutionaries could only replace it with a republic.


But even worse than the case of Cromwell, this was only a pretense. The new masters of France was certain more wolfish revolutionary leaders who soon became terrible tyrants and dictators and supresed any opposition to their regime with a barbarity even the worst of Eastern despots could not match. It is in these French ‘republican’ dictators that we find the role-models for all subsequent revolutionsary dictators from Lenin and Stalin to Mao to Kim Jong and Fidel Castro outside Islam and in recent Syrian and Iraqi dictatorswithin Islam. All use mass terror as a weapon for control over their masses and rubber-stamping parliaments elected from a single revolutionary party  and councils of ministers as their pretensions to democratic legitimacy.  Justice is heavily politicised and any suspected opponents are routinely rounded up, showed at ‘show trials’ and punished severely which often is death penalty.  All the near and dear of the accused more or less share in his humiliation  and in case he defects may be punished in lieu. 


But be as it may, democracy more or less on the British model gradually spread throughout Western Europe as transition from tribal and feudal structures to national progressed.




A claim is sometimes heard among the supporters of dynastic autocractic regime (absolutist kingdom) to the effect that democracy sends a nation into chaos and discord by raising all and sundry to power who coming from rival parties waste their and the people’s time in their squabblings while at the same time, arriving poor and hungry, must hurry to line their pockets by all sorts of corruption etc.  As a result, the national fortunes must decline as will public morals.


But actual experience in the West seems to show just the opposite, at least nearly.  The first to break away from the British monarchic regime was the USA in late 18th century which became an only too democratic republic. Its rise to world supremacy in almost all departments of power and civilization should be proof enough that the English democracy on which the American was based as modified by republicanism has been even more democratic than the English and as such contributed more to the rise of a nation than any other system in  history.  From its founding days USA never looked back and won against every single opposition the greatest and most recent being its spectacular yet peaceful demolition of the steely Communist  system ruling over half of the globe.  USA has been the greatest attraction of all who sought a better life for themselves and their offspring and has equally welcomed anybody from any race or faith.  For its part transition to a fuller democracy only helped England which, by the mid 20th century was the greatest power the earth had seen, that is after the Medieval Islam when corrected for age difference.  For a long time and like USA after it, England was the magnet drawing to itself all the oppressed and persecuted in Europe and often their base for their eventual improvement of their country.

It is true that public morals suffered in some departments of morality with the establishment of secular democracies and this deterioration is most noticeable in sexual mores as well as family values.  This is truly a high price to pay and should be corrected but should also be seen in the context of the whole. That a lot of gains have been made cannot be doubted and we are claiming that once the Western system is modified by an intelligent and enlightened re-application of Islam we may end up with the best version of Islam in modern terms. We shall look into this point at the end.




Cut off from the fast enriching and technically advancing West by centuries old complacencies and prejudices Muslims were shocked too late, too demoralizingly into an awakening. Totally ruled by medieval dynastic despotism thankfully moderated by Islam’s great humanity, especially as the case was with the Ottoman Empire, the shock was followed by a long period of confusion and indecision.  The first to do something about the need to catch up with the West was Ottoman Egypt which was ruled by Mehmed Ali Pasha.  He was one of the Ottoman volunteers who had arrived in Egypt to fight against the French occupying Egypt and as the French withdrew he was able to help himself to rulership which the troubled sultan in Istanbul could but endorse (1804). Having seen the French at first hand and fought against them this genius of a soldier of fortune set himself to the task of modernizing Egypt on Western lines.  Importing French civil and military advisers he both built up the economic substructure of Egypt and its armed forces. He revolutionized agriculture and also began its industrialization by founding many factories like for cotton fabrics and sugar.


As a result Egypt’s annual income shot up from 130,000 to 4,000, 000 gold ducats.  He endeared himself to the sultan by suppressing the Wahhabi revolution and sending to Istanbul its leaders in chains to be tried and hanged.  But soon these successes went to his head and he and his son Ibrahim pasha began to challenge Istanbul and attempted overrunning the land all the way there.  Britain and France were alarmed and helped Istanbul to put the two father and son pashas to their place. But the lesson was taken. Mahmud II, already convinced of the need for modernization not only emulated his Egyptian vassals in military and other reforms but vaguely crossed into poitical territory by redesigning the state and government on Western lines and encouraging a slight democratisation by commanding local potentates all over the empire to attend consultation meetings with him in Istanbul to discuss problems and reforms. 


From such timid beginnings it took less then half a century for a democratic and even secular agenda coming into being among the Ottoman intelligensia increasingly educated on Western lines. By 1876 (barely 37 years after the death of Mahmud II) these Young Turks were well-organized and conspiratorial enough to force on new sultan Abdulhamid their blue print for a democratic constitutional monarchy which even most of the Western nations did not have yet!  It didn’t work and accelerated both the decline and precipitated the collapse of a once great empire-  within a mere 40 years!  The new Republic of Turkey which inherited a much reduced territory from it declared its democratic aims coupled with incredibly bold Westernization measures. It first and quickly degenerated into a fascist-looking pseudo-democratic parliamentary and leader worshipping dictatorship, which was however an unavoidable result given the fact that Muslims were too used to patriarchal and dogmatic authorianism to adapt themselves to democratic roles.  Although today’s Turkey may be perceived as the most democratic, secular and technically advanced if not economically richest Muslom country (that privilege goes to oil-rich Arab countries) by Western standards  it is still lagging behind all EU members. 

In fact the same democratisation fiasco plagued all new nations East or West, Muslim or Christian and does not seem to have improved too much to this day. Not only Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Persia and Pakistan could not develop democracy which Western democracies like UK’s or Denmark’s for example find acceptable but the likes of Spain and Italy in Europe remained undemocratic until well after the WW II and almost all nations in Latin America remain both corrupt and undemocratic to this day. Which shows that modern democracy is not necessarily the product of a Western culture but natural temperament more prominent in Nordic races excepting the Russians who lived too long with too many Asiatics to be suitable for democratisation.


The reason for this failure of democratisation outside the Nordic bloc must be innocent enough, for so many nations cannot be so insincere in their aims of democratisation.  It seems simply to be the case that the mental mold is not there, patriarchal authoritaniarism is still ruling the minds and even when it is apparently debunked by deliberate discreditings of both national traditions in general and religion in particular the rigidly molded minds are subscribing to the same authoritarian ethos under a different name. If the Russian tsar was worshipped as a semi-Divine national father figure the leader of most secular and radical revolution, namely Communism in Rusisa, was treated like just another tsar except in name. As a result Stalin was able to rule the Russians just as madly and absolutely as Ivan the Terrible and as ardently if teriffiedly admired. Although Ataturk had abolished both the sultanate and the caliphate the dogmatism and blind obedience to him was even greater than that shown to the  Ottoman rulers. To this day he remains a spiritual force to reckon with whose contradiction may lead to very serious consequences for all those aspiring to a political and  bureaucratic career. 


In other Muslim countries less and less Westernization and democratisation has been possible which makes one think that Western democracy may not be the best way forward for Muslims, at least not yet and perhaps never fully in future. It dod not lead to economic development but arguably delayed it. Perhaps an enlightened oligarchic regime (like empowering a well-educated and less despotic monarch and a large group of ‘senators’ (elders) distinguished in learning and/ or a long and exemplary public service record appointed by some sort of informed public approval could speed up the rise and advancement of Muslims far better.


Lastly, the West’s success cannot be fully explained by its democratic formation. Not only it preceded modern democratisation by at least two centuries and sparked by massive resources made available thanks to really brutal and ruthless exploitation of distant colonies and enslaved races- like the black slaves from Africa. With no such ‘advantages’ and so long after missing the train and the band-wagon Muslims’ emulation of the West perhaps cost them even their old pair of shoes without improving their status vis-à-vis the West as corrected for the age.  As the recent Iraq war (2003) showed no matter what the secularised and industrializing Muslims nations do their power ratio to the West is no bigger than what it was a century or two ago.  This holds to for both the most Westernized Turkey as the least Westernized Saudi Arabia (despite its fabulous wealth!)


In conclusion the question of democracy as compared to a more tightly ordered society which all the same allows its members a lot of liberty and equality (like the early Muslim society in Medina but adapted to age) is a moot subject and needs a lot of thought and experimentation to be ready for a judgment.  Be as it may, there is also no justification to criticise too much let aloner dismiss the claims and record of the modern Western democracy because those living under it are still the most successful nations of the globe and no signs of a decline is yet visible.  Arrogant and haughty dogmatism on the part of Muslims may be a great defect and a great disservice to Islam.

Lastly, the undeniable fact remains that the modern Western democracy has been the first example of a social and political system which made possible the peaceful and unresented change of hands in politics which changes at all times before had always been painful if not always bloody. For the first time in history excepting the brief Medina Islamic era those in public office from ruler down are subject to public scrutinty and must behave themselves lest they are brought to justice. This is no mean achievement for those outside Islam and no doubt it owes a lot to real Islam which Muslims lost by too much Persianization among other influences.






Selfishness is basic to human nature simply because survival is the strongest instinct in all men except the spiritually very well developed.  The only instance for a human being sacrificing his/her survival to another’s is in a parent-child situation.  But animals are almost equally good at that.


The reason why a human parent can sometimes sacrifice himself or herself in the defence of a child is that he or she sees the child as an extension of himself or herself which extension, given its youth,  has more promise in itself for the reproduction of more offspring for the parent. In other words we have here a more comprehensive selfishness covering a person and his or her future offspring.


But that is not all the length human selfishness can go.  Man’s survival is also helped by his near and dear, i.e., those to whom he is related by blood or marriage.   In primitive societies families keep growing around a genetic pool until they become a clan and clans intermarry to grow into tribes. In modern Western society this trend stops far short of clan production but diversifies into nation production.  So, a modern Englishman has relatively few close relations he is aware of and cares to keep in touch with while he also has a far larger ‘family’ of sorts in the English nation numbering in about forty million something. He is accordingly often prepared to sacrifice significant things for the welfare of his narrow close family as well as his nation, sometimes even sacrificing his life. Lastly a man may be persuaded by long education and spiritual inculcation to see all humanity as one family of equals and be prepared to sacrifice many things including own life for their sake.  An even rarer man will be who identifies with the whole universe and can sacrifice many things for any sentient part of it.  We see people and groups of people fighting for the survival of endangered species or the protection of the environment against pollution for example.  It is in this sense that mystics talk about a ‘Universal or Higher Self’ or a ‘Universal Man’.

In all these the mechanism of the extension of charity is identification of the object of charity with the charitable individual;  in other words he sees himself integrated with other people or things around him in a way which makes their care to him as important as his care of himself.  This is the basis of all civilization and the more man extends his identification with his social and natural environment and cares about them the more civilized he is.


Which means nationalism is a more civilized stage than tribalism and humanism even greater. The fact is that the modern Western society is not more civilized than the Eastern on account of being at the nationalistic (and recently as in the case of the European Union, supra-nationalistic) level against the East’s tribalistic. It is also on a more civilized level at the non-denominational (no religious discrimination) than the East’s religion-limited level. So we find Western charitable donors giving charity to any who need it all over the world while Muslim donors take care to give charity to only Muslims and at the worst case perhaps secretly enjoy the perishing of non-Muslims in need from their need. One feels shamed by Christian charities distributing aid to Muslim victims of natural disasters for example while some Muslim charities jealously confining their generosity to Muslims only.  Yet, the Prophet’s and his immediate successors’ practice was more universal. Umar RA paid social benefits to non-Muslims as well.


A sufi story illustrates this point.  It is said that Harun al Rashid, the glorious Abbasid khalifa had on his hands a famine and he began distributing food-stuffs to his  subjects.  But he gave more to more Muslims and less to less Christians. Harun had a brother however, namely Bahlul, who was an idiot- savant-saint type so-to-speak. One prayer time Harun asked Bahlul to lead the prayers. An imam or prayer-leader must first recite the first chapter of the Qur’an which begins “In the Name of Allah the All-Caring, the Mercifully Forgiving.  All praises belong to Allah the Cheriser of al Alamin”.  Alamin both means all worlds or all humankind. Both Harun and the rest of the congregation was upset when Bahlul dropped the word al Alamin and instead recited ‘al Muslimin’ (the Muslims).  When asked with protest why the audacity he retorted “Because what the Khalifa is doing shows that he sees only Muslims as Allah’s needy servants and none else.  Harun was repentant and ordered charity to be distributed equally among his subjects. 


And what is more the Prophet sws WAS positively in the business of distributing gifts with a view to warm and win hearts to Islam and as a result he at times gave to non-Muslims as well as hypocrites and other enemies of Islam more, not less! He gladly extended his respects and charity to both Christians and Jews initially and in principle and withdrew it only from those who disparaged his charity and returned it with insults. We find therefore in the Qur’an equal amounts of good and bad references to other Biblical groups (ahl al Kitab) depending on the latter’s responses.  That the Prophet sws had total goodwill and compassion towards all humanity the Qur’an testifies


“We have not sent you (o Prophet sws) but as a body of loving and giving compassion to all mankind/ all creation” (21: 107)


Since the Prophet sws is the compulsory example for Muslims all Muslims should be full of loving and charitable compassion towards ALL human beings except to any of them who is out to do a mischief- which must be opposed.


As such true Islam is the highest possible level of identification with all creation and therefore the highest  level of civilization. Equally truly today’s actual Muslims nowhere near represent the highest existing civilization.




Every human society has had an idea about the relative worth of its members. In a family, smallest of societies the parents were seen to deserve more respect and entitled to obedience and often the father more than the mother.  This was most certainly dictated by its higher survival value for the group. The woman, being more vulnerable than her man because she was almost constantly tied up with child generation and care duties like pregnancy, lactation and continuing child care had to pay more respect and obey more her man in the interests of her children. In other words the nearly indispensable father had to be indulged and emotionally bribed to stay on and not stray away. Even today this is the case in most families in the West though not as desperate as in the past in every case.  But this did not mean that the mother got less overall respect and enjoyed less authority.  Children most often felt more attached to their mother and no decent, well-bred husband could entirely shake-off the deeply ingrained motherly authority and prestige he learned from his relations with his own mother. It is often the case that a husband simply transfers to his wife his feelings of implicit sense of appeasement of and helpless dependency on his mother. Therefore it is no wonder to read in history of mighty kings in front of whom others tremble themselves trembling in front of their wives and even favourite concubines. In this smallest of societies, i.e. family, the children may seem the bottom of the heap but in a decent enough family which belongs to the majority case children well may be seen as the top bosses simply because their mental and physical weakness drive their loving parents to dote on them as nobody else.


As we move to larger and larger social units, i.e., clan and tribe or the extended family and nation similar reciprocal patterns emerge with some modifications and qualifications. Each such group has its common leader or rather cadre of leaders whom the group members find in their best interests to respect and obey within certain limits set by tradition and laws. So even in a most egalitarian and developed society the employer is revered by the employees, the doctor by his patients and the chieftain by his tribe and the president by his fellow citizens. It is our need of others’ goodwill and services which inspire us, often unconsciously to defer to them.  So much so that almost all good kings took pains to inculcate in their sons to respect and obey their tutors no matter the tutors standing in the society otherwise. This teacher’s rights of the royal tutor often included beating the princes up.  Alexander of Macedon’s (the Great) respect for his tutor the great Aristotle is legendary and well-known and no exception at all among the royalty.


So we see that equality or otherwise between the members of a group is not a simple matter.  In the starkest of cases, that of an emperor and his subjects on the one hand and his female favourite or his tutor (both of whom may be unfreed slaves in fact) we find this paradox most tellingly.  That same emperor who can send his brother or even father to the executioner’s services may offer his life to his female favourite or lay his treasures in front of his revered tutor. He may beg forgiveness from the mere lass whom he adores like a goddess or offer his throne to his mentor;  in fact there are cases among sultans begging their sheikhs take over the throne, at least for a while.  Some sheikhs actually ruled thus.

Once we realize this complex nature of mutual human appreciation a lot of the simplistic and formalistic representation of social hierarchy described and decried by some naïve or jealous philosophers and traumatised feminists lose some of their victim-oppressor vehemence and ethos.  For example, no king except the occasional complete psychopath (like Caligula or Ivan the Terrible) are unaware of his own dependence on the good-will and irreplaceable services of his subjects. Entirely depending on their serfs most Medieval lords basically took good care of them as a farmer would take good care of their farm animals and farm hands. In other words there is a compelling case for the mutuality of care and respect in all human groups simply because such an attitude and arrangement help the survival of the whole group.  With this in mind, three hypothetical cases may be imagined.

One, the top individual (husband, king, bishop etc.) is vain and wanton and oppresses his subjects too badly. If so, he is simply destroying his own power base. He may well end up assassinated.


Two, all are made artificially equal and no one is encouraged to respect and obey another under any circumstances. They can only cooperate by negotiating from equal levels. Each is free to do what he wants. Simply anarchy is the result and blood will be shed.  Society members must begin begging for a degree of INEQUALITY to be imposed.. Which means even the most advanced democracy cannot afford more than a certain level of real equality between its citizens.  In actual fact the modern democracy is an oligarchy in disguise. In the past ‘noble blood’ decided the issues. Now personal intelligence, ambition and wealth enables one to climb the heights and lies and bribes help to form the centres of political power.


Three and the middle course is when a REALISTIC hierarchy of respectabilities  and obediences are consented to or imposed.  Some tradition or constitution sees to that the society’s more virtuous and talented individuals are empowered to decide and act on its behalf.


Only the middle way is reasonable which means not only because equality among the members of a group can never be anywhere complete but also because personal rights and liberties can only be limited, and limited to a significant degree.  Men live near enough for their wills and interests rub and irritate.


In our opinion it is Islam which strikes the optimal balance among all such considerations and that the present Western social values and structures are significantly on the dangerous side.  Masses indiscriminately decide the winners and winners win perhaps more on demagogy and brazen class bribery than the virtues of their arguments or the overall good of the country.



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