“WE HAVE NO RIGHT TO PRIORITIZE HUMANITY.” These were the words of General Romeo Dallaire during a recent address delivered at Harvard University. Dallaire is a retired lieutenant general in the Canadian army who led a 1994 U.N. peace keeping mission to Rwanda. His arrival in Rwanda was followed by a series of events that led to the genocide of more than 800,000 Rwandans over a 100 day period. With little or no support from the U.N. or the rest of the world, Dallaire was deserted in his efforts to protect survivors and stem the tide of death and destruction.

But prioritizing humanity is exactly what the world did. Rwanda is a country with no natural resources and of no geo-strategic importance. The only reason for anyone to prevent the massacre that took place over a decade ago was because human beings were being brutalized and murdered. Sadly, this was precisely the reason Dallaire’s impassioned pleas fell on deaf ears, ears that would listen only if there was something more than humans to save.

The genocide that took place in Rwanda, and the more recent human tragedy unfolding in Darfur and other parts of Africa, demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have collectively failed in our moral convictions and that there are serious and deep seated flaws that govern our priorities. The blame is collective. That eleven years ago all nations determined that preventing genocide was outside their national interest demonstrates a misdirected global moral compass in concert with a flawed system of international relations. That a nation cannot act to prevent genocide except when those actions result in tangible financial or political gain leaves us in a sorry state.

Maybe a, more disturbing reality that issues forth from these tragedies is the possibility that democracy is no more capable of encouraging action in these circumstances than authoritarian or dictatorial political arrangements. That the free world stood by and watched as atrocities were committed is a cold reminder of our darker sides. Dallaire pleaded with the United Nations, the United States and Europe to intervene, and they all turned him away. But was this the mistake of democratic nations, or is there something gravely and systemically wrong with what we know to be democracy? If Francis Fukuyama is correct and we are charging towards the end of history, a history where humanity is reaching the apex of sociopolitical order, how is it possible that the savage murder of almost a million people can go virtually unnoticed for close to a decade?1

The answer to this question requires a significant inquiry into democracy, its core values and its fundamental principles. For Muslims this is an even more important exercise, as there are few topics more in vogue these days than discussing the compatibility of Islam and Democracy. If the Muslim world is inexorably headed towards a democratic future, then considering the capacity of democracy to address one of the greatest moral failures of our time is worth serious contemplation.

Before proceeding it is necessary to clarify what constitutes democracy in contemporary political discourse. When policy makers, government officials and world leaders speak of spreading democracy, they are more often than not referring to liberal democracy (I say liberal in the political sense, not in reference to U.S. party politics). Liberal democracy, in contrast to the procedural requirements of democracy, is infused with the values of political liberalism. Liberalism serves as the philosophical undercurrent of what is widely understood to be democratic ideals. In its most basic form, liberalism is the formulation of government as a means of protecting individual liberty. In a liberal democracy protecting the rights of the individual is the most important concern. Discussions of democracy often conflate liberal democracy with the mechanical aspects of democratic political organization. For example, it is possible to hold elections and facilitate the existence of free and open press, two procedural requirements of democracy, without instituting liberal values or principles.

Adherence to liberal principles of governance has significant implications for a society’s worldview. By establishing the rights of the individual as the basic unit of society, citizen’s interests tend to shrink and center around their private economic concerns to the detriment of bonds of community.2 Within this paradigm, nations do not seek to increase the range of those to whom they are obligated as they are toward their own citizens; and this reflects the convictions of their citizens, not just of their governments.3 Rather, national interests often neglect or even violate the rights of non-citizens in the interest of securing economic or political benefit for its citizens. Liberal democracies are much more proficient at securing the rights of their own citizens, and sometimes do so at the expense of the rights of non-citizens or foreigners. While overt racial or religious discrimination is less likely to take place in a liberal democracy, discrimination based on nationality is a wholly acceptable and legally sanctioned. The accident of one’s birthplace can grant or deny any individual a whole host of rights.

This may help explain why liberal democratic nations fail to act when faced with the atrocities of genocide in another part of the world. The oppressed people are not citizens, and more often than not society feels little social compulsion to act against such tyranny. While there may be individuals or groups like General Dallaire that express concern, the connection people have with those who are oppressed is not strong enough to collectively motivate individuals to action. Liberal democracy dutifully preserves the right of each individual to conceive of their own moral and ethical norms. While this may provide greater freedom in some sense, it also weakens any action compelled by moral reasoning for fear of privileging any particular ethical or moral worldview. In a society premised on protecting the right of everyone to believe what they want to believe, motivating action based on a belief in the sanctity of humanity becomes very difficult. In the most crude and inhumane sense, our lack of assistance for the Rwandans was a moral failure, one born out of an incapacity to include moral reasoning as a factor in the policy making process. It is also important to note that this moral reasoning be one devoid of political machinations, something that is admittedly hard to achieve.

While it is clear that nations exist to protect their own citizens’ interests, it is no coincidence that economic concerns are more capable of expanding these interests than humanitarian ones. In fact, trade quite regularly defies national boundaries and in some cases national interests. Nations are willing to sacrifice their citizens, prestige and dignity to go to war to secure economic well-being, even if that is for a small segment of the population. Unfortunately, we have not seen nations sacrifice so much to secure the honor and dignity of other human beings, especially when this call is made by smaller segments of the population.

The contemporary world tends to view liberal democracy as an almost value neutral paradigm of political organization. While this is clearly not the case, it does not disqualify democracy from providing extremely important and useful tools in establishing a context for human flourishing. There is no doubt that the most prosperous and hospitable nations in the world today are liberal democracies. However, disasters along the lines of Rwanda and Darfur demonstrate that democracy is not capable of resolving all of our problems. Unlike what we may gather from popular discourse, democracy is no panacea.

Humanity must look to those social forces within human history that transcend national self-interest, that instill compassion within individuals and that generate public concern for the weak and dispossessed, regardless of skin color, language, or nationality. For Muslims these social forces define the Islamic ethos, where the powerful are instructed that their generosity towards the poor may be their most important investment in the next life.4 A convincing argument, one that liberal democracy does not have at its disposal, but not one necessarily unique to Muslims. A newly drafted constitution of Bhutan is infused with the principles of Buddhism and actually requires its citizens to help those in need when called upon. It requires its people to be good Samaritans. Why is it that such a clause is so inconceivable in many liberal democracies? What is it about democratic culture that makes us embrace the choice of protecting our fellow mankind, but refuse the obligation} It is possible that within different illiberal traditions, we may find resources to resolve this issue.

Ultimately any inquiry into the limitations of democracy must consider the question of justice. How far is liberal democracy willing to go to establish justice as a universal principle? In the present day, liberal democracies are unsuccessful in fulfilling this mandate, particularly for individuals outside their borders. Whereas liberalism espouses equality of individuals, it does not possess the necessary mechanisms to ensure that this is established. Eleven years ago a Rwandan did not enjoy the same right to life as an American or a European. Democracy failed to provide the proper incentives for democratic nations to act to ensure their rights. We need to look beyond our entrenched realities and imagine creative solutions to this dilemma. It is important for everyone, including Muslims, to engage in a public discussion on these issues. Democracy as a historical phenomenon practiced by nations need not be appropriated by any ideology, it should be constituted in a way that respects and preserves the basic rights of all men, regardless of race, religion or nationality.

As General Dallaire so insightfully observed, we live in a world that has commoditized human life. Its value is analogous to the benefit others can derive from it. By mitigating social bonds and privileging the individual, liberal democracies tend to create the context for action based on selfinterest. But such a position, no matter how ingrained in our psyche, is untenable when considering the enormous human cost. When incorporating the real benefits of democracy into its sociopolitical heritage, the Muslim world best look inward when negotiating this reality. Like all religions and philosophies worth considering, Islam recognizes the sanctity of human life. Unlike liberalism, Islam can establish the value of humanity as an objective moral truth and in doing so take an important step towards resolving a significant moral failure that continues to persist in our world today. Let us hope that democratization in the Muslim world helps establish this truth in reforming the actions and behavior of Muslim governments around the world. The argument set forth does not claim that Islamic governance is the answer to all our problems, but rather seeks to critically address a possible shortcoming of liberal democracy.

When considering the compatibility of Islam and liberal democracy it is important to recognize that each ideal assumes different underlying values. Rather than accept or reject democracy as it is, Muslims may be in a unique position to contribute towards a broader paradigm shift in how we view the value of humanity, and in doing so make action based on humanitarian impulse a more plausible and acceptable scenario.

. . . and whoso saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind . . .

(The Qur’an 5:32)

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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