by Zack Beauchamp

A reader writes:

While I am sympathetic with Beauchamp's larger argument, his discussion of the relationship between rights and democracy is unhelpful. First, it is unhelpful to think that there is 'real democracy', which I suppose is to be contrasted with 'fake? artificial? democracy'. Every system of democracy imposes limits on rights to some degree, for example limits on freedom and equality, and contains undemocratic practices in its real world forms. In order to better understand actual democratic practices, it would be more helpful to think of democracies on a variety of continuums, one of which might be 'fewer rights – more rights'. There is no such thing as 'real democracy', only less or more democratic.

I think the mistake here is moving from "it would be more helpful to think of democracies on a variety of contiuums" to "there is no such thing as 'real democracy.'"  The former is undoubtedly true, but it doesn't imply the latter.  We can comfortably say that Saddam Hussein holding elections did not make Iraq a democracy because the citizens of Iraq lacked the rights sufficient to allow them to assert their real views in genuinely competitive elections.  There's a point, then, where having some democratic practices does not put a state on the continuum of democracies.  My claim was that prominent Islamist organizations have a religious agenda that, if implemented, would restrict individual rights to the extent that the resulting state wouldn't be democratic.  Iran's a pretty good example.

The reader continues:

Second, while it is true that individual rights are necessary for democratic practices, it is a mistake to think that societies begin with individual rights and then move on to the business of being democratic. Rather, history shows us that the development of individual rights occurs alongside the development of democratic practices. Think here of the history of the various forms of suffrage. People do not start with recognized rights, but rather need a democratic system to recognize those rights.  Yes, individual rights are required for democracy, but in the sense that each is necessary for the development of the other.

There's a live debate among political scientists on this subject, but I sympathize with the reader.  That's why I said "It's not clear that banning Islamists from elections is the best response to said threat (I would favor legal rights protections of the sort that may end up invalidating the boycott ban)."  Banning Islamists from elections is not only undemocratic, but could backfire by making the government seem like its authoriatrian predecessor, casting the Islamists as the heirs of the protest movement.  Instead, new Muslim democracies should develop constitutions with robust rights protections, independent judiciaries, and (crossing my fingers here) professional militaries committed to the constitution.  Easier said than done, I know, but it seems like there's no option but to try.

One last time:

Finally, as is often the case, people talking about 'Islamist' (whatever that means) groups tend to focus only on the Middle East.  Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, is both a democracy and the source of moderate Islamist organizations like Nahdlatul Ulama, perhaps the largest Islamic organization in the world. Indonesia is still working on being more democratic, and continues to struggle with extremism, but it also serves as an example of a Muslim country working hard to develop individual rights for as many people as possible.

I'm not sure what this example is supposed to prove, given that my argument wasn't "ban Islamist parties" or "Islam is incompatible with democracy."  Indeed, Indonesia is a good example of how rights protections can safeguard democracy.  It's also worth noting the "moderate" (sort of) NU today is both weaker and much less political than it used to be.