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DEMOCRACY AND THE WEST
from issue no. 07 - 2003

Israel, Europe, Islam


We thank President of the Italian Senate Marcello Pera for his permission to print the text of the speech he gave at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on 29 May 29. The relevance of the topic needs no underlining. Giulio Andreotti


by Marcello Pera


We thank President of the Italian Senate Marcello Pera for his permission
to print the text of the speech he gave at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on 29 May 29. The relevance of the topic needs no underlining.

Giulio Andreotti

Palestinian children watching a demonstration of orthodox Jews in the old city of Jerusalem

Palestinian children watching a demonstration of orthodox Jews in the old city of Jerusalem


1. Beliefs and problems
Let me begin by listing three things in which I firmly believe, all three connected with democracy.
The first thing in which I believe is a definition. In line with a widespread notion, I consider democracy to be that form of government in which the change of administration comes about in a peaceful way, by means of free elections and without violence.
The second thing in which I believe is a historic fact. Democracy was born in the West. It derives above all from the long struggle of European individuals against absolute power, secular or religious.
The third thing in which I believe is a value. Democracy is a universal good, therefore not only a fact that concerns a part of the globe but a duty for all peoples.
These three beliefs raise at least two problems. The first is: if democracy is a western fact, isn’t its transformation into universal value equivalent to a form of imperialism? The second is: if democracy is a fact of the West, can it be exported to other areas? I believe that these problems can be resolved and I shall try to explain why.

2. Democracy
and imperialism

I begin with the first problem: is democracy a form of western imperialism?
In order to develop my negative response, I will employ the definition I have adopted. If democracy is a form of government that bans violence in the changing of rulers, then democracy is based on dialogue. In a democratic form of government administrations replace one another by freely debating the merits and demerits of those in power.
To engage in “dialogue”, however, is more than “debating”, because dialogue has a practical goal. Dialogue is a debate that aims at inducing a change of opinion, an action. Typically, in democracies, the action of voting.
This means that dialogue entails – in any meaning of the term “entails” – an appeal to reason: if I debate with another in order to change his opinion, it means I acknowledge his capacity to follow my arguments, to develop his own, to compare his with mine. Dialogue establishes a kind of “citizenship of reason”, which requires tolerance for people and their opinions, whatever they are.
But that isn’t all. Dialogue is a symmetrical relationship: just as I want the other to accept my point of view, the other wants me to embrace his point of view. Dialogue, therefore, entails respect. And respect is more than tolerance. Tolerance is a passive virtue that merely acknowledges an interlocutor’s right to his own opinions. Respect is an active virtue that acknowledges the interlocutor’s capacity to change my opinions in me. Tolerance goes only in one direction, respect goes in both directions, forward and back.
I stress this difference because, above all in the Europeans Countries that have considerable religious minorities – around a million Moslems live in Italy, for example – there is a tendency to believe that tolerance is sufficient to assure integration. It’s not so. Tolerance on its own is in danger of creating closed communities, and therefore tensions and conflicts. Real integration requires that each community have the recognized right to hybridize any other. Remember that dialogue aims to change opinions, but not necessarily the opinions of others, our own as well. As Popper was wont to say, the success of dialogue between A and B doesn’t depend on the fact that A has converted B, but on the fact that, after their exchange of opinions, A and B have become wiser, that is intellectually richer, because each has better understood the reasons of the other.
All this enables me to respond to my question on democracy as a kind of western imperialism. If democracy is based on dialogue, then democracy is based on consent, not on imposition. The idea that democracy can be pushed ahead against the wishes of a people is as incoherent as the idea that one can engage in dialogue by indoctrinating the interlocutor or, worse, by eliminating him.
It might be objected that history demonstrates the opposite. It’s said, for example, that the Italians and Germans were forced to accept democracy after the Second World War. But that is mistaken. The Second World War brought down two despotic regimes – Fascism and Nazism - but it did not in itself impose democracy. After the war, Italy and Germany became democratic countries because their people wanted it, and they succeeded because they went back to their earlier and deep-rooted traditions.
This experience must be remembered also after the second Gulf War. Rid of the dictator, the challenge now is the creation of a tradition of dialogue and respect in Iraqi society. And the greatest effort must be made to create the conditions - through trade, exhortation, education, administration, legislation, etc. – so that this new secular tradition take root and accept the graft of previous local, cultural and religious traditions.
Traditions are fundamental. Democratic institutions evolve into different species because local traditions nourish them each in its own way. The idea that only a single model of democracy exists is as naive and mistaken as the idea that there is a single species of animal. In practice, the democracies evolve along with their traditions, and if democratic institutions were to require norms of behavior widely rejected by their society, they would easily degenerate.

3. Exporting
democracy
I believe I can now more easily resolve my second problem: can democracy be exported? Since democracy takes different forms according to the local traditions that interact with it, the question in relation to countries of Islamic tradition becomes: is the Islamic tradition incompatible with democracy?
Some western scholars are rather skeptical. Their opinion is that democracy presupposes the separation of religion and morality from the law and from the state, or the separation of the state from civil society. In other terms, they retain that democracy requires the recognition of the moral neutrality of the state. And since this concept is foreign to the Islamic tradition and is explicitly rejected by many Moslems, it would follow that democracy is incompatible with Islam and cannot be exported to the Islamic Countries.
Against this point of view, one could object that quite a few countries exist - Turkey is one of them – that, in their Constitution or de facto, have accepted these distinctions. Nevertheless, the problem cannot be resolved in that way. Because it is cultural in nature, one must take a conceptual rather than a historical point of view.
Like Christianity, Islam is a complex entity in which diverse shades and even profound divergences co-exist. To the best of my (poor) knowledge, I see in Islam no essential element that is in irreconcilable opposition to the fundamental cultural aspects of democratic institutions. Nevertheless, since the objection relates to an alleged aspect of democracy, I will take up the question from that side.
My point of view is that, strictly speaking, the ethical neutrality of the state is a myth. It has not been fully achieved in any part of the West, and there are good reasons to believe that it cannot be achieved. It is wrong to consider religious opinions as mere expressions belonging only to the private sphere of individual choice. Religious opinions have consequences for public policies. The burning issues of abortion, euthanasia, the employment of biotechnologies, are tied to deep religious and moral views. And if polygamy is forbidden by law, it is because we are all offspring of the common Judeo-Christian tradition.
Hence the moral neutrality of the State is not a question of the “all or nothing” type. It is rather a matter of degree. As for moral principles, the most important problem for the democracies is not how to fully achieve the neutrality of the state, but, rather, how to deal with the conflicts caused by profound moral and religious differences.
Here the concept of respect turns out to be useful. After the long and bitter wars of religion, Europeans acquired the habit of mutual respect. The debates may be bitter, but people tend to understand the reasons for the disagreements. There are no easy solutions to these disagreements, but what respect enables us to reach is a reasoned, and always temporary, compromise that safeguards a shared modus vivendi. And what respect leads us to accept are those legal and institutional compromises that maintain peaceful coexistence.
Personally, I see no reason for believing that the more fundamentalist countries are incapable of reaching similar compromises compatible with democracy. Autocratic societies can survive only in a static environment, but the world today is changing at a great pace. Television, the internet, and rapid scientific and technological progress naturally produce a pluralistic society because people typically reacts in different ways to the new. That partly explains why despotic regimes are usually short-lived. Naturally, the collapse of a despotic regime can be followed by another despotic regime. There is no historical necessity for democracy to replace despotism, but nor is there even any historical impossibility in despotism’s being followed by democracy.
English soldiers distributing humanitarian aid to Iraqis; down, a demonstration in favor of President Erdogan of Turkey

English soldiers distributing humanitarian aid to Iraqis; down, a demonstration in favor of President Erdogan of Turkey


4. The scourges
of Europe and
coexistence
between peoples
Let me conclude by discussing some more current political problems that I believe can be dealt with according to the conceptual scheme I have tried to sketch out.
The history of the European peoples and that of the Jewish and Arab peoples teaches us that no historical or theological determinism prescribes unassuageable mutual enmity. Europe is not only the ghetto where the persecution of the Jews took place. It is also the home of Zionism and the place where, on various occasions, real co-existence has come about between Jews and Moslems: in the Iberian peninsula in the high Middle Ages, but also in the Balkans, under Moslem rule. The mutual advantages were enormous for the two peoples, in materials terms but also, and more lastingly, cultural.
The recent failures of Europe cannot, however, be passed over in silence. Europe has paid insufficient attention to the influence exerted first by Nazism and then by Communism in some key Arabic countries. It has conceived of the Middle Eastern countries in a rather cynical way, as if they were mere geographical entities. After the birth of Israel, it has neglected that tradition of dialogue and mingling of peoples of different cultures that for centuries has constituted an essential part of its inheritance. Today Europe is running the same risk as Israel, underestimating worries and fears.
Unfortunately, Europe is forgetting it is a very special hybrid: it is an offspring of Jerusalem, of Athens, of Rome, and then of Paris, Amsterdam, Cambridge, Florence, Pisa, Königsberg, where its many celebrated fathers were born and worked. Skepticism, relativism, post-modernism, multi-culturalism, and many other similar intellectual scourges are afflicting Europe, are endangering its identity and threatening the leading role it has played for centuries. Like Heraclitus’ nature, Europe now loves to hide itself.
This phenomenon of Europe’s retreat from its roots has, among other things, provoked distrust from Israel toward the old continent, and is at the base of European lack of understanding of the phenomenon of terrorism. For their part, the Moslem fundamentalists have sought in Europe – above all in the radical fringes of no-global and pacifist movements - a privileged interlocutor for their war of civilization.
All this can and must be put right. My thesis is that if Europe rediscovers the impetus natural to it and its democratic identity, values and protects it, if Israel perceives that Europe, thanks to this rediscovery, strongly defends in first place the right of the Israeli people to a secure existence, then neither the recent history of the Arab countries, nor the tragic phenomena of Islamic fundamentalism, nor the Islamic religion as such, is an insuperable obstacle to peaceful co-existence. And also Israel’s mistrust of Europe will come to an end.
To conclude and return to my initial problems. I believe that democracy is a universal value, and I also believe that democratic forms of government can arise anywhere in a world that is changing quickly, even if in the midst of difficulties and in many different modes. Purist philosophers will not be happy with the legal and institutional compromises that each of these modes involves, and, as a philosopher, I too, am not particularly happy with many aspects. But I am also a politician, if only for a period. And I therefore believe that what most counts is not the intellectual happiness of philosophers but the moral wisdom of politicians. They can fight for cooperation between people of different cultures, traditions, dress, values. And, if they can, then they must.



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