Democracy Is More Than a Word

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The words democracy and democratic have been much abused.

During all the years that I lived with my family in Ghana, there were two German embassies in our neighborhood. There was the embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, which is still there. But, on the corner of a busy junction in the capital city of Accra, there was the heavily protected embassy of the German Democratic Republic.

This building represented the communist eastern part of Germany. The bars on the windows and the barbed wire at the top of high walls were as much to keep the employees in as they were to keep intruders out. It was often said that the GDR wasn't "German" or "democratic," nor was it a "republic," but countries can call themselves what they want. North Korea's official name is the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea."

What is a democracy?

Highlighting the problem of defining democracy was the recent Commonwealth meeting in Nigeria, where sharp differences emerged over how to handle the perennial problem of Zimbabwe. By any Western definition, Zimbabwe is a dictatorship. The president can do what he likes. The country does have a parliament, but so did Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Less than a year ago, Iraq's parliament backed him 100 percent.

Zimbabwe's neighbor is Zambia. The Zambian president's comment on the Commonwealth dispute was rather interesting. He said Western democracies should remember that their democratic systems took centuries to evolve, so they should be more patient with Africa. Well, maybe, but if a country is going to call itself a democracy, it should be one, if only to avoid confusion. And confusion there is on this issue.

Democracy is defined in my 1982 Collins Standard Reference Dictionary as "government in which the people hold the ruling power either directly or through elected representatives; a country, state, etc. with such government; majority rule; the principle of equality of rights, opportunity, etc., or the practice of this principle."

Based on these definitions, few of the world's countries are democracies. Even those that call themselves democracies often don't make the grade.

Will Iraq be different?

The big question now is: Will Iraq be different? Iraq is not in Africa, but the challenge of bringing democracy to the country is the same.

President Bush recently said, "In the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," going on to declare that America will help spread democracy throughout the Middle East. Right now, not one of the 22 Arab states in the region is an American- or British-style democracy. Other Islamic nations (as a democratic Iraq would be) have not had a good record in this area either.

When the former Ottoman Empire was carved up following World War I, the British were given responsibility for Iraq under the League of Nations. Britain established a constitutional monarchy in Iraq, British style. It lasted until it was violently overthrown in 1958 in a bloodthirsty revolution that led eventually to Saddam Hussein's reign of terror.

An interesting observation was made recently about Iraq's democratic period. The Financial Times article, dated Dec. 20, 2003, was titled, "Man With a Mission" and was about Ahmed Chalabi, Iraq's most prominent face at this time. He is the spokesman for the Iraqi National Council on which he sits. After 45 years in exile following the 1958 coup, he is now back in Iraq.

"Tamara Daghistani, a close friend, [was asked] what she thinks has kept Chalabi committed to Iraq for all those years of exile and she says her generation yearns to recapture a golden age for Iraq in the more liberal and tolerant 1940s and 1950s."

Chalabi himself spent those exile years in both Britain and the United States. His observations on America are interesting. In the same article he states: "It's easy to be an's a welcoming place and people are generally straightforward and open. I saw the good sides of being free, and I saw the idiotic sides. You can make stupid decisions but it's all part of the game and it's better than anything else. There are compromises to be made. There are winners and losers. But the losers don't get killed and the winners don't own everything" (emphasis added).

Here we begin to see why some countries cannot prosper. In many countries, political opponents are arrested, tortured and shot, often along with their wives and children, thereby removing all possible future opposition. Their property is then seized. Even when not all of these things happen, leaders will often take everything for themselves.

In Africa, elected officials have diverted national funds to their own (foreign) bank accounts. They have also rigged elections, thereby making it impossible for them to be removed from office through peaceful means. All too often, as was observed recently by a group of people in Africa, "the only way to remove an African president is to shoot him." This is generally done by the military, with resultant years of military dictatorship.

Not just Africa and the Mideast

It's not just Africa and the Middle East that have this problem. Recent developments in Russia show that the country's president, Vladimir Putin, is becoming more dictatorial. Recently, he ordered the arrest of the country's richest business tycoon, an arrest that caused an immediate fall of 10 percent on the country's stock exchange, amid fears the government would seize more people and property.

The challenge for coalition forces in Iraq is this: After imposing a democratic system on the nation, will it hold?

The failure of most new nations, often called "failed states" today, lies in the reality that they cannot successfully transition peacefully from one administration to another. The Financial Times article speaks to the problem: "Chalabi poses in the sharpest terms the dilemma of the American superpower. In giving a people freedom from tyranny, can it give them the order in which that freedom can be enjoyed?"

Chalabi may or may not be the first post-Saddam Iraqi president, but his Financial Times comments already indicate a questionable commitment to democracy: "I saw the good sides of being free, and I saw the idiotic sides," he is quoted as saying. This reflects a deeply ingrained cultural difference between East and West.

I don't read the trashy tabloids that are readily available in the United States and Britain, but I recognize that they are part of the price we have to pay to maintain a free press. When governments decide what is "idiotic," freedom is threatened. Democratic leaders cannot create a society in their own image, imposing their own likes and dislikes on a country.

Divided interests, divided nations

Some cultures seem to need a strong man to maintain order. This is problematic in many ways. Naturally, as in Russia, this leads to a more dictatorial form of government. But in most countries it will also lead to tribal or religious conflict.

A strong man in Africa, for example, must come from one tribe, which alienates all the other tribes. Tribal custom demands that he grant favors to his own tribe over others. This leads to resentment, which in turn leads to rebellion. One third of all the countries in Africa right now are fighting civil wars, disputes that have their origins in the tribal divisions within each nation. Add corruption to this, and it's a recipe for disaster.

Iraq will likely be no different. There are three dominant groups in the country: the majority Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds (an ethnically different people, although also mostly Sunni Muslims).

Saddam was a Sunni Arab who persecuted the majority Shiites. Under a system of "one man, one vote," the Shiites will inevitably become the next government and a Shiite will likely be president. This could lead to a theocratic republic as in neighboring Iran. Saddam was antireligious most of the time (finding religion, as so many do, towards the end, partly because he needed support). It will be a great irony if the new elected government of Iraq turns out to be an Iranian-style Islamic republic, America's worst nightmare come true.

The Kurds are another complicating factor. Each of these three main groups wants to control the country. None of them have the same cultural ideals that have helped preserve democracy in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Will democracy lead to chaos?

It is likely that the presence of coalition forces will guarantee a constitutional government for a while as Britain's presence in Iraq did. As also did Britain's presence in its colonies. For as long as a British governor was present, parliamentary government worked. But as soon as that governor was gone, along with British troops, democracy was threatened. The reason for this is inherent cultural differences. For democracy to succeed, there have to be effective checks and balances. There must also be a free press and an independent judiciary—if the government controls the courts, then political opponents can be imprisoned simply for disagreeing. In the British and American systems, as the Zambian president pointed out, these things evolved over centuries.

Often overlooked today is the influence of the Bible in the evolution of the Anglo-American democratic model. The publication of the King James Version of the Bible four centuries ago revolutionized political thinking.

Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the established church taught that people could only go to God through a priest, who was also the only one authorized to read the Scriptures. Once people could read their Bibles themselves, they learned that they should "work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12 Philippians 2:12Why, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
American King James Version×
). This was a revolutionary concept, which along with other factors had unexpected political consequences. Less than a century after the publication of the King James Version, England's politics went through major turmoil, including a civil war, the execution of a king, a period of dictatorship and a bloodless revolution. But a more democratic system was the end result.

The foundation for right governing

A right knowledge and understanding of the Word of God should be required for all leaders. "When you come to the land which the LORD your God is giving you...and say, 'I will set a king [or president] over me like all the nations that are around me'... [H]e shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book...And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes" (Deuteronomy 17:14 Deuteronomy 17:14When you are come to the land which the LORD your God gives you, and shall possess it, and shall dwell therein, and shall say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me;
American King James Version×
, 18-19).

Israel's King Solomon asked God for wisdom and discernment when he ascended the throne. "You have made your servant king instead of my father David, but I am a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in... Therefore give to Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Yours?" (1 Kings 3:7 1 Kings 3:7And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king instead of David my father: and I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in.
American King James Version×
, 9).

Jesus Christ, soon to return as the world's first perfect leader, taught a different approach to governance: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:25-28 Matthew 20:25-28 [25] But Jesus called them to him, and said, You know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority on them. [26] But it shall not be so among you: but whoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; [27] And whoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: [28] Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered to, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
American King James Version×

Self-seeking, tyrannical, despotic and authoritarian rule, abusing the people, is wrong. Leaders should rather emulate Christ's example of service, serving the people rather than abusing them. Giving, not taking. WNP

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