Hussam Itani

The Right to Have Democracy and to Question it

Vladimir Putin snatched from the Afghans their right to choose the system of governance that suits them as he was criticizing the West’s attempts to impose its model of democracy. However, keeping the peoples of the Third World hostage to their “traditions” is no less arbitrary than any attempt to import a ready-made governance framework. During his joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin said: “It is necessary to stop the irresponsible policy of imposing other people’s values from outside, the desire to build democracy in other countries, not taking into account either historical, national or religious characteristics, and completely ignoring the traditions by which people live.”

In Putin’s words, one can hear the echoes of Eurasianism, a political theory that finds official support in Moscow. It refutes the universalism of the Western liberal democratic model and claims that Russia has particularities it derives from its being both Asian and European. It is thus a civilization in its own right, and what is suitable for the Western countries and societies is not suitable for Russia, especially the democratic system of governance.

It seems that, as he was elaborating on his justification for why his regime abandoned democratic thinking, which had found a foothold in Russia during the nineties and the first decade of this century, Putin overlooked the right of Afghans - and all non-Western people- to choose the system of governance that they see fit. Indeed, the Russian president dictated that Afghans and others stick to regimes that correspond to his vision of these peoples’ heritage and their historical trajectories and their traditions as he sees them.

At its core, this argument is no different from that which Putin criticized. For there are no grounds on which observers can predict the form of governance that Afghans prefer, given that the old regime’s downfall and the Taliban’s takeover came within the context of a total collapse that left no room for citizens to express their opinions freely.

The media outlets and analysts who celebrated the entry of the Islamic movement’s forces into the Presidential Palace in Kabul did so from divergent vantage points that range from having been disappointed at religious and political movements being distanced from positions of power in many countries to seeing that the withdrawal heralds the American empire’s imminent collapse.

The fall of democracy is at the top of the list of the things to celebrate: the Americans brought it, so let the Taliban take it down. It is as though Afghanistan had been a beacon of democracy during the terms of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, both of whom had come to power based on their tribal backgrounds and followed every cliche about Third World leaders in the book.

Let us agree, first, that liberal democracy is the fruit of a European- North American historical trajectory that took decades to mature, only beginning to do so in the late nineteenth century. During the decades that preceded that period, the liberal aspect of this system outweighed democracy, with Hobsbawm clothing that time as “The Age of Capital".

It took decades for democracy to become on par with liberalism, decades during which syndical work and labor movements struggled unyieldingly, and two world wars were fought, leading us to the point we are in today when we still see these two components competing. It gained its universal character after the victory over Nazi Germany and Japan, and it became entrenched after its last serious challenger, the Soviet Union, disappeared.

On the other hand, every attempt to impose this model contradicts its essence as a system that allows free individuals to make their choices freely.

Let us say, secondly, that systems of government in which a minority (political, ethnic, social, religious) rules over the majority of citizens, using terror, repression, and forces, contradict what are assumed to be global values and the spirit of the age (in the positive sense). Moreover, it is the right of the individuals, the basic component of nations, to choose the type of governing system that corresponds to their aspirations for the future and- to the same extent- with their heritage, traditions, and choices.

Balancing these two considerations (individuals’ right to choose and sticking to heritage), in contrast to what President Putin wants us to believe, is not impossible. He has the post-colonialists, who stand against any Western influence in his camp on the one side, and those who brush aside everything that national and local particularities represent on the other.
Third, it is not the right of any country of ideological school to impose their vision on other people. If democracy is the political embodiment of freedom for the common good, nothing impedes nations and societies from rejecting this path because they fear losing their identity, culture, or tradition. Here, the concept of “progress,” which had been seen as the ultimate goal of the movement of history, ends. Human collectives would have chosen their fate themselves and would face the consequences of this choice.

What is important here is asking whether individuals, before communities, are voting for the system of government that suits them, not having this choice made for them by a foreign leader, whoever he may be.