My Students-- and the Arab Spring

07/11/2011 03:39 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2011
  • Amitai Etzioni Professor of international relations, George Washington University

These days, I am interviewing college graduates for research assistant jobs. I do not bother those who seem to believe that proofreading their application is a waste of time and whose term papers are written as if English was their fourth language. After a brief chitchat ("What do you see yourself doing ten years from now?"), I suggest we talk about some contemporary issue. Say, "What you think our position should be if the Muslim Brotherhood wins the elections in Egypt and bans the sale of alcohol, insists everyone stop for prayer on Fridays, and declares homosexuality illegal?"

Students at this point often ask: "Was the election fair and open?" I suggest that they assume the election was so declared by a delegation headed by President Carter. Students typically double check: "Did they have a majority?" and then add, "Well, we should tell them that the Sharia is open to much more liberal interpretations, that Muslim feminists have shown that the Prophet was very respectful of women."

Okay, assume we do all this, and the new Egyptian (or some other Middle Eastern) government persists. Well, the students sigh and conclude: "This is democracy. We cannot expect their majority to favor what ours does."

The students seem not to be the only ones who are unclear about the difference between democracy and our form of government, the regime we wish for others to adopt. The media is full of references to various groups of rebels, protestors, and demonstrators in the Middle East, in which these groups are labeled as either democratic or not, as if this was the litmus test for good government. It may be elementary, but it seems we need to remind one another that plain democratic regimes have long been rejected as a legitimate form of government precisely because they can impose the tyranny of a majority on the minorities and violate individual rights. Hence, ours is what political scientists call a liberal (I prefer constitutional) democracy; that is, the constitution (especially the Bill of Rights) limits the majority's rule. However large the majority, it cannot limit the right of anyone to free speech, to vote, to assemble, to practice religion, and so on. Hence governments, such as those in Russia, may be democratically elected but ought not to be on list of the neocons' victory parade (or anyone else's) because they do not honor individual rights.

There is a follow-up question I do not ask the students because I fear the answer is far from clear: Can there be a truly liberal (constitutional) religious democracy? On the one hand, the United States used to ban the sale of alcohol, homosexual relations, divorce, and abortions, insisted on Sunday closings, and treated women as second-class citizens -- and we still considered ourselves a constitutional democracy. On the other hand, can we today support a government that, say, considers it a crime for a Muslim to convert to another religion, disallows speech that disparages the Prophet or the Koran, and limits the education of girls? (Survey data show that while a majority of Egyptians favor human rights abstractly, they also support stoning adulterers, sentencing to death those who denounce their Islamic faith, and whipping or cutting off the hands of those who commit theft or robbery.)

We had better become more clear about how much illiberalism we can tolerate, because those who keep pointing out that this or that group of demonstrators are democratic and secular, and presumably liberal (e.g. the April 6 movement in Egypt), will soon find out that at least some of the new regimes that will arise in the Middle East over the next decade (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran included) may be democratic -- but not secular, and very far from liberal.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international relations at The George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale 2007).