Below is an excerpt of my forthcoming book Faith in the Public Square (Energion Publications, 2012). I originally wrote this piece for the Lompoc Record after the Hamas victory in Parliamentary elections in 2006. I have rewritten it to bring it up to date, but as Americans stop to remember their independence from Britain, I thought it worth sharing this reminder that democracy is a messy system!
Democracy Can Be Messy!
Americans tend to take democracy for granted, which may be why the percentage of registered voters actually voting is often quite small. But for many people in the world the opportunity to vote freely in relatively fair elections is more dream than reality. Because I value the freedoms that I have as a citizen, I do seek to cast my vote, even if I know that the “other side” may ultimately prevail. Perhaps because we take democracy for granted, we forget that democracy is a rather unpredictable form of governance. Until the votes are cast you don’t know who will prevail, and in the end you might not like what you see. Still, we who have this freedom prefer its unpredictability to the alternative.
What I find interesting is the way in which many Americans, who treasure their freedom to choose their own leaders, are less than eager to allow others the same opportunity. When Hamas emerged victorious in Palestinian parliamentary elections some years ago, the American government was dismayed at the results and declared the results unacceptable. When Egypt threw off its American-supported dictator during the recent Arab Spring many in America expressed fears that this would lead to Islamist control of the Egyptian state – as was true in Iran in the 1970s. Whether the Muslim Brotherhood or some other Islamist party will gain control of the Egyptian government remains to be seen, but the point is clear – one may value democracy for one’s self and deem it unacceptable for another person. Going back to that Hamas victory, it shouldn’t have surprised us that Hamas emerged victorious over a Fatah movement that had not delivered order, peace, or prosperity for the Palestinians. As a result, many Palestinians decided to give the opposition a chance to bring these desired results.
The Middle East is a volatile place, with democracy still in its infancy. Few of America’s allies in the region are true democracies. In fact, many stayed in power and gained American support by suggesting that they were the last bastion against a radical Islamist takeover. But, if we truly value democracy, shouldn’t we be willing to accept the possibility that we won’t like the results? After all, we don’t always like the results at home either. This is part of what makes democracy what it is – the freedom to make either wise or unwise choices.
Going back to those Palestinian elections – because Palestinian society (as is true in places like Syria as well) is secular, it’s not likely that Hamas won in such overwhelming fashion because of its theocratic agenda or because of its stance toward Israel. In spite of a deep seated anger toward Israel among many Palestinians, it would seem that Hamas won because the reigning party was corrupt, inefficient, and ineffective. Hamas had demonstrated that on at least a limited scale it could provide social services to the Palestinian people and presented themselves as free of corruption. In the long run Hamas has failed to deliver, but that’s really not the point.
For political forces such as Hamas, they face two challenges – dealing with the outside world and governing in such a way that it can provide for the basic needs of the people – order, jobs, homes, water, and food. If they truly embrace the principles of democracy, and succeed in the efforts, they will stay in office. If not, then it would seem the people would make other choices.
Now, I do have worries about the prospects for true democracy when extremists of any sort gain power – whether it’s Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, or secularist. Extremism can be a vice, and often is. The problem with extremists is that they find it difficult to live in peace with those whose views differ from their own. They fail to understand that one can be a “religious exclusivist” and still be a “political pluralist.” In the case of groups that have extremist tendencies will deal with religious and ethnic minorities. For instance, in the Palestinian territories, the small Christian presence has gotten smaller. The same is true of Iraq. There are fears for the Coptic minority in Egypt and the Christian minority in Syria. There is the question of Israel – can a truly just peace be established where all parties can live together. Fatah recognized Israel, perhaps Hamas will as well. But we have not yet reached that day, so my prayer continues to be that all parties will consider carefully the choices they make.
These are truly unsettled times. There are a whole host of reasons why things could get worse before they get better. Many of those reasons have religious undertones. Democracy is risky in any context, but this is especially true in this corner of the world. Therefore, the future remains uncertain and even dangerous. Yet, there is also room for optimism. If democracy could take hold in Europe and America, it can take firm root elsewhere.
As for me, I will continue to pray and I will continue to dream the impossible dream that one day peace will come to this land called holy. But dreaming is not enough. We must take concrete steps down the pathway of peace. This path can be rocky and dangerous, but there is no other road. As I dream, I will remember Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies. I will also remember Paul’s admonition to temper my freedoms with love of neighbor. May the love that bridges every chasm prevail!