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Democracy R.I.P

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Gwynne Dyer observes of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first prime minister and president ‎of Bangladesh, that he was "an autocrat without a single democratic bone in his body.(‎‎ )" ‎

He then adds: "...there were 20 years of tyranny and military rule before the first ‎genuinely democratic government was elected in 1991". This line is ambiguous: should ‎the 'and' be read inclusively, to mean "there were 20 years of tyrannical military rule ‎before..." or should it be read exclusively, to mean "there were years of tyrannical rule ‎and then there were years of military rule", in which case the tyrannical rule would fall ‎squarely during Sheikh Mujib's reign. Military rule was not tyrannical at all: each of the ‎repressive laws were passed under democratic rule, never by the military. The killing ‎squads of army and other units during Operation Clean Heart operated under the last ‎democratically elected government, to hysterical acclaim. Then the same government ‎instituted the death squad known as the Rapid Action Battalion (at first it was called the ‎Rapid Action Team, but the acronym probably offended the officers), again to hysterical ‎applause. Under military rule, the army had never been used in this manner.‎

Of the democratic transition of 1991, he observes: "This change had domestic roots." As ‎an international journalist of high repute and a Ph.D in history to boot, this was at best ‎naïve, at worst ignorant of Gwynne Dyer. Speaking of the East European countries, Neal ‎Ascherson states: "...these nations...could not claim the main credit for their own ‎liberation....spontaneous acts of self-liberation ...were made possible by events and ‎pronouncements in Moscow. Mikhail Gorbachev made it obvious, if not exactly clear, ‎that there would be no further use of Soviet armed force to protect the existing ‎Communist regimes in eastern and central Europe. By the end of 1988, at the latest, it ‎was evident that domestic politics in Warsaw or Budapest really were domestic. ("1989 ‎in Eastern Europe", ed. John Dunn, Democracy The Unfinished Journey, New York: ‎OUP 1992, pp. 221-2)". ‎

Similarly, the ultimate author of Bangladesh's transition to democracy in 1990 was none ‎other than the aforementioned Mikhail Gorbachev. With the cold war's end, the western ‎powers stopped propping up anti-communist dictators, like General Ershad. Adds ‎Ascherson: "The crowds and their leaders were none the less afforded the enormous pride ‎of sensing that their own decisions to come out into the street had won them freedom: a ‎pride that was to provide moral capital for subsequent governments." Ditto in ‎Bangladesh. ‎

After sixteen years of misrule, to use a modest expression, the "moral capital" of our ‎elected leaders has run out. It was in this context that General Moeen U. Ahmed, the ‎army chief, made the remark quoted with disapproval by Dyer: "We do not want to go ‎back to an elective democracy where corruption becomes all-pervasive." Indeed; not to ‎mention extortion, murder and rape. (To give credit where credit is due, Dyer does admit ‎that "People get things wrong. Politics is a messy business." Messy? That's rather an ‎extenuating adjective to use for gang-rape, for instance.)‎


Since democracy is a religion like any other (see my arguments in ‎, ‎this is tantamount to blasphemy among believers. Dyer's entire analysis of why ‎democracy went sour in Bangladesh proceeds in terms of personalities. Sheikh Mujib, ‎though elected, did not have even a single democratic metacarpal in his body: neither, of ‎course, did General Ziaur Rahman, who succeeded him after an interval. However, come ‎‎1991, both the ladies, Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Mujib, and Khaleda Zia, wife of Zia, ‎not only were found to have democratic metacarpals, but entirely democratic skeletal, ‎vascular, nervous, endocrine, excretory...reproductive systems. Only latterly has it been ‎found that they have – yes, that's right – not a single democratic bone in their bodies. ‎Dyer attributes the failure of democracy to the "pair of obsessives whose rivalry has ‎poisoned Bangladesh's politics ". Again, the problem is not with democracy itself, but ‎with the personalities involved. ‎

Dyer observes that democracy in Asia hasn't been faring too well. He mentions Thailand ‎and the Philippines: there seems to be a pattern here, then. Not every dysfunctional ‎democracy can be attributed to the psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies of the ‎personalities involved. ‎

‎"The new French Republic showed that modern democracies would not be, as many had ‎hoped, exclusively committed to commerce, quiet living, and peaceful relations with their ‎neighbours," notes Biancamaria Fontana (Democracy and the French Revolution, The ‎Unfinished Journey, p. 123). "On the contrary, they could prove more aggressive and ‎imperialistic than any of the monarchies of the Old Regime."‎

Again, the Federalist Papers cautioned against democracy: ""It is impossible to read the ‎history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and ‎disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid ‎succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration ‎between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. (The Federalist Papers, No. 9)"‎

Could it not be the case that democracy, by heightening competition among the ‎protagonists, leads to a state of affairs pregnant with fear, hate and envy? That the ‎personalities that prosper in these circumstances are precisely personalities whom one ‎would not wish to invite to one's home for a cup of tea? Such are the personalities of ‎Sheikh Mujib, Sheikh Hasina, and Khaleda Zia, the three terrifying and terrible leaders ‎the nation has produced. ‎

Charles S. Maier notes: " requires formidable historical effort to recall the fear of ‎democracy that pervaded polite society after the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire ‎‎(Democracy since the French Revolution, Unfinished Journey, p. 125)"; and more ‎trenchantly: "The history of democracy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries involves ‎the story not so much of making the world safe for democracy, as Woodrow Wilson ‎wanted it, but of making democracy safe for the world." He queries: "Why couldn't ‎democracy simply be resisted?" ‎

The answer, in brief, is that industrial society had created the age of the masses. The ‎crowd had become a permanent feature of the social and political landscape. "And the ‎advent of democracy in the Soviet Union, in Czechoslovakia, indeed in East Germany, ‎did suggest that at crucial moments the major recourse of democratic initiatives remained ‎as in 1789, the crowd." ‎

Gustave le Bon wrote a book with that title – The Crowd. He affirms: "However, to ‎believe in the predominance among crowds of revolutionary instincts would be to entirely ‎misconstrue their psychology. It is merely their tendency to violence that deceives us on ‎this point. Their rebellious and destructive outbursts are always very transitory. Crowds ‎are too much governed by unconscious considerations, and too much subject in ‎consequence to secular hereditary influences not to be extremely conservative. ‎Abandoned to themselves, they soon weary of disorder, and instinctively turn to ‎servitude. It was the proudest and most untractable of the Jacobins who acclaimed ‎Bonaparte with greatest energy when he suppressed all liberty and made his hand of iron ‎severely felt. (The Project Gutenberg Etext of The Crowd, by Gustave le Bon)"‎

In Bangladesh, the place of the crowd has been taken by students and youth fronts of the ‎major political parties. Yesterday, the Bangladesh Chatra League, egged on by teachers at ‎Dhaka University, called for an end to all classes throughout the country in protest at the ‎internment of their beloved psychopath, Sheikh Hasina. And despite their wonted and ‎celebrated rivalry, Khaleda Zia has been protesting the treatment meted out by the army ‎to her "arch-rival" – for her son has been arrested, and she is under house arrest, though ‎not yet in jail. Both women face the same fate of being "minus two" that the government ‎is relentlessly pursuing (and which Dyer endorses). ‎


Since our transition to democracy had not been a homegrown affair, is our transition to ‎military rule homegrown? Not at all. Western donors have backed the army, seeing which ‎way the country was headed. They have welcomed the state of emergency in the country, ‎and the United States government seems to be quietly supporting the present regime. As ‎the NewYork Times pointed out: "Promoting democracy, especially in Islamic countries, ‎is supposed to be a major goal of President Bush's foreign policy. But his administration ‎has raised little protest as Bangladesh - until January the world's fifth most populous ‎democracy - has been transformed into its second most populous military dictatorship. ‎‎(April 15, 2007)" As I have argued before, George Bush's silence – indeed, connivance – ‎stems from the fact that his three other experiments in democratizing Muslim countries ‎have ended in disaster. A fourth one would have been one too many. ‎

Dyer's article ends inevitably with the two quotes from Churchill: (1) "The best argument ‎against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." (2) " ‎Democracy is the worst form of government - except all the others that have been tried ‎from time to time."‎

That was not true of Bangladesh under military rule; indeed, the second quote holds false ‎for the entire 1,400-year history of the Muslim people. Dyer, the historian, is not only ‎inaccurate, but culturally insensitive and ethnocentric. ‎

In Table V of Arnold Toynbee's The Study of History (abridged by D.C.Somervell, ‎London: OUP, 1960), we find that Toynbee considered the Islamic Society to be ‎‎"affiliated" to the Syriac Civilization of the Near and Middle East; on the other hand, the ‎Hellenic Civilization is uniquely apparented to the "the Western and to the Orthodox ‎Christians". ‎

He says (p. 8): "Let us call this society, whose spatial limits we have been studying, ‎Western Christendom; and, as soon as we bring our mental image of it into focus by ‎finding a name for it, the images and names of its counterpart in the contemporary world ‎come into focus side by side with it, especially if we keep our attention fixed upon the ‎cultural plane. On this plane we can discern unmistakably the presence in the world today ‎of at least four other living societies of the same species as ours:‎

‎(i)‎ an Orthodox Christian Society in South-Eastern Europe and Russia;‎
‎(ii)‎ an Islamic Society with its focus in the arid zone which stretches diagonally ‎across North Africa and the Middle East from the Atlantic to the outer face of ‎the Great Wall of China;‎
‎(iii)‎ a Hindu society in the tropical sub-continent of India;‎
‎(iv)‎ a Far-Eastern Society in the sub-tropical and temperate regions between the ‎arid zone and the Pacific."‎

For each of these societies, Toynbee finds an ultimate parent. ‎

Now, take John Dunn's pronouncement that "The intractable plurality of the world's ‎religious history will continue to mean that what still remain some of the most dynamic ‎competitors as theories of legitimate rule or dissidence in particular territories (Islamic, ‎Christian, Buddhist, Hindu) have no scope whatever of winning a genuinely ‎cosmopolitan imaginative authority"(Unfinished Journey, p. 246) . He is right there; but ‎he also asks: "Why is democracy today the overwhelmingly dominant, and increasingly ‎the well-nigh exclusive claimant to set the standard for legitimate political ‎authority?...Nothing else in the history of the world which had, as far as we can tell, quite ‎such local, casual, and concrete origins enjoys the same untrammeled authority for ‎ordinary human beings today and does so virtually across the globe (p. 239)". The "local, ‎casual, and concrete origins" of democracy is, of course, the innovation, in 508 BC in ‎Athens, of Kleisthenes, the "father" of democracy. ‎

Remarkably, Dunn sees no contradiction between these two statements: if the world is ‎plural, then how can there be one legitimizing standard of political authority? We saw ‎that Arnold Toynbee clearly affiliated Western Society to Hellenic Civilization: to argue ‎that the Hellenic world has somehow taken over a major aspect of Muslim Society would ‎be historically absurd. Religious pluralism ensures political pluralism, and what ‎consensus we perceive is illusory: democracy in much of the Muslim world (what little ‎there is to be found) is ersatz democracy, as in Bangladesh; Indian democracy, it has been ‎argued by Ayesha Jalal (The Economist, May 22, 1999, 'Survey of India and Pakistan', ‎p. 5‎) and the Mahbubul Huq Centre (Human Development in South Asia, 1999 (Karachi: ‎Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 44‎) is nothing but an empty ritual; the major section of ‎the Sinic Society is totally undemocratic; anthropologists have argued that ‎democratization in Africa has taken place only because donors have tied aid to ‎democratization, and that, there, too, democracy is nothing but ritual (Chabal and Daloz, ‎Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument (Oxford: James Currey, 1999, p 118)‎). ‎And that covers two-thirds of the world's population. ‎

Clearly, the prospect of democracy as universal religion must remain forever chimerical. ‎
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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)
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