Democracy leads to Islamism

The New York Times has a piece up on the rise in Islamic extremism in the Maldives, Maldives, Tourist Haven,
Casts Wary Eye on Growing Islamic Radicalism
. I want to highlight one section:

It was governed as a moderate Islamic nation for three decades under the autocratic rule of the former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. But after the country made a transition to democracy in 2008, space opened up for greater religious expression, and conservative ideologies like Salafism cropped up.

Years ago in graduate school I told a friend that democracy and even economic prosperity did not monotonically lead to greater liberalism. In the long run perhaps, but in the short run it doesn’t necessarily do that at all.

Today we generally focus on the Islamic world, but there are plenty of examples in the past and in other places which suggest to us democratic populist passions can be quite illiberal. The Gordon Riots in England in the 18th century are a case where a pragmatic shift toward liberalism in regards to religious freedom for Roman Catholics triggered a Protestant populist riot. In the United States the emergence of universal white man’s suffrage during the Age of Jackson signaled the rise of a much more muscular and exclusive white supremacy in this country. In Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 you see the arc of democratization tethering itself to conservative rural vote-banks which reinforce aristocratic privilege. Finally, democratic developments in Burma have seen an associated increase in Buddhist radicalism.

Eric Kauffman argues in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? that modernization, economic development, and the expansion of political representation, integrates conservative rural populations and uplifts them all the while transforming the norms of urban areas. In other words, the rural bazar melds with the urban shopping mall, and both are changed. The 1979 revolution in Iran and its aftermath has been argued to be a victory of the bazar over the Western oriented gentry. In India the rise of Hindu nationalism is an assertion of the self-confidence of sub-elites from the “cow belt” who arose to challenge the Western oriented ruling class that had dominated since the early 20th century.

When the Arab Spring was in full swing in 2011 I wrote An Illiberal People:

In newly democratic nations which are pushed toward universal suffrage and the full panoply of democratic institutions the organic process of developing some safeguards for minorities and liberal norms has never evolved, because there was no evolution. Rather, these democracies are being created out of a box. Instead of a gradual shift toward more cultural conservatism with broader franchise, in these contexts it is a foundational aspect of the democratic system. I suspect this may have long term repercussions, as in other contexts liberal elites often institutionalized or established norms which served to check majoritarian populist impulses as they ceded much of their power over time.

The modern Left has a very anodyne view of Islam. It denies that there is something structurally within many Islamic societies which enables their illiberalism, the religion of Islam. In Islamic Exceptionalism Shadi Hamid argues that the religion itself may in some fundamental manner be inimical to the sort of secular liberal democratic society we perceive to be the terminal state of all cultures. I disagree with this view. Rather, I see in contemporary Islam the torture that Reformation era Christianity experienced attempting to navigate between an ideal of a universal church and the nascent emergence of nation-states. But in the short term both Shadi and I have the same prediction: greater democracy may lead to greater illiberalism and more repression of minorities. This an inconvenient truth for many Americans. But it may be true nonetheless.

16 thoughts on “Democracy leads to Islamism

  1. the organic process of developing some safeguards for minorities and liberal norms has never evolved

    And it seems that even in countries where there has been a long and informative tradition it may not hold in the long run.

  2. Indeed: liberal institutions seem to go against deep cognitive tendencies among humans (e.g. tribal coalition-making) and hence will always be fragile. OVer the long term, they are probably impermanent.

  3. What is the contradicion between “liberal institutions” and “tribal coalition-making”? I think that the coalition-making mentality (implying making temporary agreements between individuals, kins or tribe – to fight another individual, kin or tribe) has some elements of “school of liberalism”, like making compromises, or even some rudiments of checks-and-balances (like weaker kins using the rivalry between more powerful kins or tibes to maintains some independence).

  4. What is the contradicion between “liberal institutions” and “tribal coalition-making”?

    I see your point; the practices and behaviors that you cite are the same regardless.

    I think deep cognitive tendencies is incorrect. It should be deep emotional tendencies.

  5. Indeed: liberal institutions seem to go against deep cognitive tendencies among humans (e.g. tribal coalition-making) and hence will always be fragile. OVer the long term, they are probably impermanent.

    i think liberalism has its roots in cognitive tendencies toward egalitarianism. i think these are primal and derived from hunter-gatherers. i also think tribalism is from this period.

    basically i think evo psych actually can tell us a lot about why we have modern political coalitions and dispositions. but freq. dependence is part of it.

  6. What do you mean by “democracy”? Whatever the majority (plurality) of voters want? Or allowing them to vote on a constitutionally-limited set of policies? Allowing voters to elect their representatives while shielding rights behind a firewall?

    Good post, but the next step is how to define democracy for a nation.

  7. What do you mean by “democracy”? Whatever the majority (plurality) of voters want? Or allowing them to vote on a constitutionally-limited set of policies? Allowing voters to elect their representatives while shielding rights behind a firewall?

    as you know scott we’re a republic with certain rights. what i mean by democracy is some form of majority rule. liberalism is a separate aspect (the shielding of rights).

    i defined it pretty clearly implicitly in the post.

  8. Miguel: “What is the contradicion between “liberal institutions” and “tribal coalition-making”?”

    The contradiction is that successful tribal coalitions makes it difficult to maintain public support for state institutions and democracy at the state level. A good book on this is Philip Carl Salzman’s “Culture and Conflict in the Middle East.” His specific expertise is in his studies of the nomadic, tribal people of Iranian Baluchistan, but he argues that the dynamics are the same among the Arab Bedouin and the Yomut Turkmen. They all have collective decisionmaking that is democratic in the sense that every one gets input, and is nonhierarchical, egalitarian and decentralized. He describes something that’s quite attractive, but it is also premised on martial virtues, support for kin relations and really gains from the immediacy of personal contacts impossible on a large scale.

    Liberal democracy means adherence to abstract rules, it means not seeing oneself as a member of tribe favoring close kin over distant kin over everyone else, and viewing the state as legitimately source of personal security.

  9. They all have collective decisionmaking that is democratic in the sense that every one gets input, and is nonhierarchical, egalitarian and decentralized. He describes something that’s quite attractive, but it is also premised on martial virtues, support for kin relations and really gains from the immediacy of personal contacts impossible on a large scale.

    Bear in mind, though, that res publica also does not do well beyond a certain scale. It creates a sense of alienation among many individuals once it grows too large. Even when small, it is, by nature, deeply unsatisfying to some people. Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe,” though not a rigorous book, makes many salient points about this contrast with a tribal society “premised on martial virtues, support for kin relations and… immediacy of personal contacts” as you put so well. As Junger observes, some Europeans/Americans ran away to join Native American tribes (some were abducted for refused to be rescued or repatriated). The reverse almost never happened.

    Liberal democracy means adherence to abstract rules, it means not seeing oneself as a member of tribe favoring close kin over distant kin over everyone else, and viewing the state as legitimately source of personal security.

    This is unnatural for most human beings. A good and successful liberal democracy will coopt many (smaller) organic civic society institutions, e.g. churches, professional associations, bowling leagues, clubs, etc. A poor and ultimately unsuccessful one will vanquish these little platoons and make itself the SOLE source of authority in the community-at-large.

  10. i think liberalism has its roots in cognitive tendencies toward egalitarianism. i think these are primal and derived from hunter-gatherers. i also think tribalism is from this period.

    Perhaps liberalism itself does, but “liberal institutions” seem to me to be an evolution of the princes’ attempts to curb the power of the local nobles and magnates by coopting the middle and lower classes. They made themselves the state and directed all loyalty to themselves, and once the princes were deposed, the state remained in primacy. It’s fortuitous that the curbing of the regional magnates’ power led to “universal rights” for the public at large and whatnot, but I agree somewhat with the previous commenter’s contention that the ideal balance of authority distribution that makes liberal institutions actually liberal is tenuous.

  11. I noticed this in Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers, about why Imperial Germany moved away from Bismarck’s complicated alliance system. A lot of the pressure on the regime was coming from the ultra-nationalist newspapers and a conservative middle-class/professional crowd who ate up all kinds of talk about German prestige and the glories/riches of colonial conquest.

  12. This is unnatural for most human beings.

    If we designate certain behaviors as “natural” for some and “un-natural” for others, we really don’t have a “human nature.”

  13. If we designate certain behaviors as “natural” for some and “un-natural” for others, we really don’t have a “human nature.”

    Come on now. Is this really your argument?

    To be utterly frank, I really enjoyed hunting (and killing) people* overseas. Does that mean there is no natural human instinct that finds killing another human being abhorrent?** Exceptions do not invalidate general trends and tendencies.

    *In my defense (and rationalization), these people deserved to die and the killings were sanctioned.

    **I’ve found that most human beings I know and met have grave reservations about killing others. But a few percent does not seem to share that restraint, and I happen to be one of them. Others who worked with me were similar. An analyst once called me and others like me “crazies, but our crazies, who were great for unleashing upon other people’s crazies.”

    Back to the point at hand… it IS human nature – that is to say, it is true for MOST people – to care far more about one’s family, friends, and immediate neighbors than a more abstract “the public at large.” But a liberal democracy requires a large group, perhaps most, of the people in the polity to, at least implicitly, accept the idea that one must sometimes or even usually choose to benefit the abstract over the organically immediate. That is not impossible as has been demonstrated, but it, being against human nature, is not something that can magically happen by fiat either. There has to be a series of historical circumstances that foment the condition and yet other forces that sustain it. Otherwise, people fall back to the more natural, instinctive tribalism.

    Of course, I believe this is possible and even desirable. I am a civic nationalist, after all, rather than, say, a race nationalist. But I am realistic about the natural human condition, having seen many times overseas what people do when central authority collapses or is otherwise absent.

  14. I am a civic nationalist, after all, rather than, say, a race nationalist.

    Me too, so stop trying to pick a fight over race nationalism.

    Otherwise, people fall back to the more natural, instinctive tribalism.

    Yes, I said the same thing and that is where you went sideways about me being a race nationalist.

    There has to be a series of historical circumstances that foment the condition and yet other forces that sustain it.

    I agree and took this to be the thrust of Razib’s post.

    Exceptions do not invalidate general trends and tendencies.

    That’s all I am saying as well. The intensity and variation among people and among groups does not mean that the tendencies are not there, just that the particular circumstances are not bringing it to the fore.

  15. Me too, so stop trying to pick a fight over race nationalism.

    Civic nationalists generally don’t obsess about race wars. That’s usually the domain of white supremacist/separatist wing of the “alt-right.”

    Yes, I said the same thing and that is where you went sideways about me being a race nationalist.

    Because you equate tribalism with race solidarity. The two are not the same.

  16. Civic nationalists generally don’t obsess about race wars. That’s usually the domain of white supremacist/separatist wing of the “alt-right.”

    I know that you are not talking about me, because if you think you are, you are building out of thin air.

    Because you equate tribalism with race solidarity. The two are not the same.

    Race nationalists want it to be the same and will make it the same if they get their way.

    Civic nationalism is failing and I think that it will continue to fail.

    Anecdotally we perhaps can have some small insight into the reasons by examining our dialogue.

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