Freedom not to be free?
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)
We’ve all watched history revealing itself in real time with the remarkable events in the Middle East. From Egypt and Libya to Yemen and Bahrain, individuals and small groups of protesters are challenging the iron grasps of decades-long dictatorships. It’s enough to give even the most cynical observer a moment of awe-filled pause.
For the most part, the protesters focus on wanting to bring democracy to their respective countries, a situation that would seem to be a natural for American support. The trouble is, we’ve had economically and strategically beneficial relationships with many of these dictators for a long time. By placing our allegiance with the people in the streets, we run the risk that the revolutions may fail, and that we may be left with a tarnished, if not irreparable, relationship with a former partner.
Does the United States support democracy? Sort of. When it’s in our best interests, to be sure. Yes, we’ve stuck our necks out in some cases where we seemed to have little vested interest, but suffice it to say we drag our feet when there an oil pipeline or American military base involved.
But there are other issues at play here, and I’m not sure any of them are discussed at the level where real decisions are made. One came to light for me when co-editing a recent book for Chalice Press called “Split Ticket: Independent Faith in a Time of Partisan Politics.” In it, a pair of self-proclaimed Christian anarchists made the compelling claim that voting, in itself, is an act of violence.
What? The system we’ve come to hold near and practically worship is inherently violent? It took me a while to come around, and though I don’t entirely see eye to eye with them, they make a good point.
The essence of the argument is that, in a democracy, 50 percent of the people plus one more can subjugate the will and rights of the rest. By not making room for the minority’s interests to be heard and acted on in these instances, the minority is marginalized. This, the authors claim, falls within the definition of inflicting violence from the majority onto the minority.
Kinda like Churchill said, it’s a tragically flawed system, but it’s the best we have. But what about in a context where religious ideology is poised to use majority rule to impose potentially severe limits on many of its people? And what if these leaders, though democratically elected, might set out to impose a legal system that is inherently un-democratic?
Some protest groups seek to impose Sharia, an Islamic system of law based upon truths revealed in the Quran by Allah, and through practices embodied by the prophet Muhammad. Sharia, like many ideological systems, has been interpreted in a number of ways by different people, but in some cases it can seriously limit the rights of women. For example, under some understandings of Sharia, men can have up to four wives, women are told what they can and can’t wear in public, and in some cases, they may not be allowed to vote.
So, do we put our material and human resources at risk to support those seeking democracy in their country, all the while knowing that they fully intend to implement a legal system that many believe violates human and civil rights? Or do we keep propping up the dictators who, by fear and threat of violence, may keep a relative peace in the land where the oil runs freely?
Talk about a moral dilemma. Some might even say it’s a lose-lose scenario. Theologian Walter Wink suggests that any violent or oppressive system that is replaced by violent means run a great risk of becoming that which it despised, changing the rulers but not the rules.
Provided the dictators are overthrown, we can always offer to serve in an advisory role on how to effect safeguards that prevent laws that violate individual or collective rights. But if democracy is really just a means to another ideological end, the new powers that be may have no interest in what we have to say.
If we try to implement certain strictures by force, we run the risk of further solidifying our reputation as an imperial power, intent on taking over the region one country at a time. So do we support the uprisings, knowing that what may emerge is another system of governance with which we have fundamental differences? Or do we stand on the sidelines, convincing ourselves that tyrants like Gaddafi aren’t really so bad?
Call me a starry-eyed idealist, but I still believe that the greatest change for the better comes from leading by example. For us, this begins with advocating for truly equal rights across the board in our own back yard, including those who love differently or look differently than we. Until that time, our calls for freedom and equality ring hollow in a world that sees the truth beneath the thin veneer.