Vol. 5 Num 597 Wed. February 01, 2006  

Does the US favour maximalist democracy?

In its crusade to democratize the Muslim world, the Bush administration faces the challenges of maximalist democracy -- an all-inclusive conception of democracy that generates free and full electoral competition among parties with diverse political platforms.

Maximalist democracy loathes diminishing universal suffrage, banning political parties, or restricting political platforms. In the Muslim world, maximalist democracy requires that both Islamic and secular parties be allowed to organize and compete in general elections, and form government upon winning.

At present, a few Muslim nations practice maximalist democracy. Despite military coups, Pakistan and Bangladesh have hung on to maximalist democracy. They allow parties of diverse ideological stripes -- Islamic, secular, and communist -- to freely compete with each other in the general elections.

Iraq's constitution drafted under American occupation has adopted maximalist democracy as well. The constitution permits religious and secular parties to freely participate in the political process. Iraq's maximalist democracy, however, is the inevitable outcome of complex forces that occupation and insurgency have unleashed.

After deliberately sensitizing the Sunni and Shia separateness, the US had no option but to allow religious parties to compete for power. The Iraqi example, therefore, furnishes little proof that the US is committed to maximalist democracy.

It appears, though, that the Bush administration, despite its fierce rhetoric against Muslim extremists, is willing to accommodate political Islam. In Afghanistan, the US made no effort to ban religious candidates from running in parliamentary elections.

The Taliban were disqualified for their alleged support of terrorism and not for their religious orientation.

The Bush administration has not opposed even Hamas, a militant Islamic party designated as a terrorist organization under US laws, in contesting parliamentary elections in Gaza and West Bank. Bush policymakers may have concluded that allowing Islamic parties to participate in electoral competition might in fact moderate political Islam -- a goal that the US is determined to purse. How the US will deal with a Hamas government, now that it ahs won the elections, remains to be seen.

Notwithstanding these concessions to political Islam, the US does not promote maximalist democracy as a matter of principle. Consider the US attitude toward Turkey and Iran, two Muslim nations that repudiate maximalist democracy from opposite viewpoints.

The Turkish constitution embodies irrevocable secularism. And the Turkish army is opposed to political Islam. Political parties that propose to change the Republic's secular characteristics are banned under the constitution. Turkish democracy is open only to secular parties. In recent years, Islamic parties have made some headway, as evidenced by pro-Islamic Erdogan's rise to power, but they must still publicly declare their commitment to constitutional secularism.

The US is unlikely to pressure Turkey to change its secular constitution to make room for maximalist democracy where Islamic parties may contest elections on the basis of their religious, rather than secular, political platforms. Lack of pressure aside, no US administration has criticized Turkey for instituting a secular monopoly.

Ironically, though, the US is quick to vilify Iran for repudiating maximalist democracy. This is because Iran is a democratic theocracy. Its constitution establishes a fusion state under which all civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, and other laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria. This principle applies absolutely to every aspect of law.

As such, no political party that challenges the fusion of state and Islam is allowed to participate in the electoral process. The Council of Guardians screens candidates for their commitment to the fusion principle. Maximalist democracy requires that Iran change its constitution and allow secular parties to contest elections. Even though the fusion provisions of Iran's constitution are theoretically amendable, the ruling clerics would not allow maximalist democracy to challenge the Republic's theocratic monopoly.

When the Bush administration praises Turkey but condemns Iran, its commitment to maximalist democracy seems arbitrary, even anti-Islamic. In praising Turkey, the Bush administration contends that Turkey has successfully combined Islam and democracy. This admiration of Turkey suggests the US favours secular democracy, which allows the people to freely practice their faith, but refuses to accommodate political Islam.

In condemning Iran, US officials leave no doubt that Iran fails to meet the standards of maximalist democracy, even though Iran has successfully held periodic presidential and parliamentary elections. "The regime in Teheran must heed the democratic demands of the Iranian people," says Bush, "or lose its last claim to legitimacy."

From these conflicting reactions to political monopolies in Turkey and Iran, one might conclude that the US favours secular democracy but opposes political Islam. This conclusion, however, does not explain the US policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, where the US has allowed political Islam to participate in the democratic process.

It appears the US prefers that Muslim nations adopt secular liberal democracy. Pragmatism dictates otherwise. The Bush administration seems to have accepted political Islam as a reality. Accordingly, it is prepared to allow Islamic parties to compete with secular forces, particularly in nations where political Islam has slim chances of major victory.

This pragmatism, however, does not champion political Islam. When a Muslim nation excludes Islamic parties from the political process, the US is unlikely to vouch for political Islam, although the US may pay lip service to the human rights of the excluded Muslim groups. For example, the US may criticize Egypt and Algeria for mistreating the members of Islamic parties, but it is unlikely to press for maximalist democracy.

In my book, A Theory of Universal Democracy (2003), I have argued that Fukuyama's secular liberal democracy cannot be the end of human history, simply because we are not at the end of human intelligence. Diverse nations have every right to construct new conceptions of democracy, which respond to their religious, economic, and social needs. While secular liberal democracy has served many nations well, it cannot be universalized.

No view of democracy must force Muslim nations to oust their religious traditions from the parameters of law and state. Muslims have every right to institute a fusion state that combines rather than separates law and Islam. Exercising this right, however, Muslim nations must protect the fundamental liberties of religious minorities. An Islamic system is most acceptable when it embraces maximalist democracy, allowing secular parties to challenge the official ideology, something that Iran does not permit.

Even One God, Islam's ultimate source of instruction, is generously maximalist. God allows Satan to compete fully and freely in God's universe and challenge His conception of virtue and good life. Muslim nations should institute maximalist democracy for launching a free competition between secular and religious forces. Whether the US will consistently support an all-inclusive democracy is an unsure bet.

Ali Khan is a professor of law at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas.