“Mahatma Gandhi, on being asked, “What do you think of Western civilization?,” was reported to have answered, “I think it would be a good idea”.” (Seattle Times, 1967)
Radio 4 has run trailers for the BBC’s “Democracy Season” and “Democracy Day” over the past month or so, posing questions like “can democracy work?”, “can we save democracy?”, and “how do we answer those that want to get rid of democracy?” Clearly, each of these assigns to the term “democracy” a quite specific meaning: electoral democracy, or, more precisely, the political system as it exists now. It should come as no surprise, then, that “Democracy Day is produced in collaboration with the House of Commons and” – that bastion of popular sovereignty – “the House of Lords”.
By definition, any challenge to the existing system – and the BBC makes clear that it is thinking above all of Russell Brand – challenges “democracy” itself. The dominant institutions become fused with and inseparable from the universal principle, in a form Marx would surely have recognised. Tellingly, the Democracy Day feed includes a report on Europe’s developing “crisis of democracy” – that is, people’s growing engagement in politics. This is a cloyingly familiar rehearsal of the “crisis of democracy” the Trilateral Commission diagnosed in 1975: mistrust of elites and the growth of independent popular movements are always a crisis of democracy, never the thing itself. Democracy is a threat to “democracy”.
Some items are less offensive than you might therefore imagine. Conor Gearty authors a decent piece on the trajectory of Western political systems, albeit culminating in a curious paean to the European project, without addressing the glaring democratic deficit in its central institutions. There is a prominent piece on the idea of direct democracy, though limited to a Eurocentric discussion of the ancient Greeks (rather than, say, Porto Allegre’s participatory budgeting), expressing the required skepticism, and framed with a big picture of Wolfie Smith – captioned “power to the people” – lest we were in any doubt how seriously to take such outlandish proposals.
Yet any sane discussion of democracy should surely take seriously the finding that the self-proclaimed leader among Western liberal democracies is not a democracy but an oligarchy – more precisely, a plutocracy – that serves the rich and ignores the public. This stark, academically rigorous and repeated finding is notable by its absence. Indeed the economic and material prerequisites of democracy are virtually eliminated from the discussion.
Nick Robinson’s second episode in his series “Can Democracy Work?” offers some insights into popular disillusionment with politics, though as usual casts as counter-establishment outsiders both the Greens and – absurdly – UKIP, a party which takes defectors from the Tories, funding from the super-rich, policies from corporate lobbyists and leadership from a privately-educated former banker.
Robinson’s handling of the issues is immensely telling. He goes out of his way to “balance” discussion of TTIP – the corporate-devised EU-US trade deal that would stamp out democratic accountability and hand power to big business – inviting Nigel Farage to comment on it; and is apparently unable to raise the issue with José Manuel Barroso without also bringing up immigration.
Compare this with the way Robinson discusses Farage’s comments on the NHS – that it should be replaced with a private insurance-based system:
“My underlying thought was that … your real belief – and a perfectly rational one – is that right round the world health systems don’t work like ours, they get private money in, like they do in Holland or France or Germany, that you’d do all of that without becoming the United States … Your central point [about the NHS] – that the numbers don’t add up – is going to come back, isn’t it?”
Since this could hardly reflect public opinion less, it’s striking what Nick Robinson has done here. He does not ask Farage for a statement, let alone challenge him on it. Instead, he offers a hugely flattering confabulation of his own, then dubs it “perfectly rational”. The only challenge he does raise is that Farage is right, that the NHS does not work, that it makes sense to dismantle it – but that the UKIP leader has been insufficiently forceful in saying so.
Robinson’s political background will come as no surprise: he is a former Tory activist, once President of the Oxford University Conservative Association and Chair of the National Young Conservatives. He was recently scheduled as the star speaker at a
“£235-a-head Mayfair dinner … attended by the bosses of global arms manufacturing companies, government ministers, Downing Street defence advisers and high-ranking officers from the UK military.”
He has also attacked Russell Brand for criticising mainstream politicians, stating:
“I am not … required to be impartial between democracy and the alternatives. What’s more, if Auntie ever asked me to be, I’d refuse or quit the job.”
Again, note the implicit assumption: “democracy” means “the prevailing political system”, so Russell Brand is not fighting for democracy but for an “alternative”. Brand, of course, could more plausibly claim the opposite, especially since he is perfectly willing to vote – as in Scotland and Greece – when it genuinely threatens political elites. How often is that point of view taken for granted by the BBC? You already know the answer.
If the meaning of “democracy” is circumscribed when the BBC discusses institutions within the West, on international affairs its usage becomes farcical. On Newsnight, Emily Maitliss gushes about “democracy – the staple on which we build our nation, raise our young, eulogise and proselytise our values around the world” – before asking whether it really suits everybody. To help her answer this question, she drafts in cruise-missile liberal Michael Ignatieff (who has denounced critics of Israeli apartheid) to defend “democracy”, Martin Jacques to defend Chinese autocracy, and a Libyan activist to defend (presumably) transitions toward formal democracy.
It is telling that the programme features a protester from a country where the US actually intervened to depose an autocrat (albeit one it previously supported), rather than, say, a Bahraini, Egyptian, Saudi, Palestinian, Jordanian, or any citizen of those countries suffering the decades-long impress of US-supplied boots on human faces. Thus it is that Maitliss can, in all seriousness, ask a question like the following:
“… the West has if you like tried to export its democracy, and it’s come up against limitations – do you think, from the perspective of the Arab Spring – that democracy is something the West should export? Is it welcomed?”
Is it welcomed from the perspective of the Arab Spring – overwhelmingly a revolt against US client regimes. It is quite clear what the question – indeed this whole segment of the discussion – is getting at. It rehearses a recurrent fantasy that, despite our attempts to promote it, the Arab world is culturally unsuited to democracy – in more extreme formulations, ungrateful, backward, spoilt brats on whom we’ve expended untold blood and treasure, only to find such noble, enlightened, selfless efforts thrown back in our faces. The notion that the US might – in the face of popular opposition – have collaborated to sustain the regime in Tunisia, or provided crucial backing to the Egyptian military, sustaining its autocracy to this day, or funded the horrendous brutality and atrocities of Israel’s military occupation, or conspired in a coup to overthrow Palestine’s elected government, or helped the region’s monarchies repress their peoples, slip quietly down the memory hole. “We” are the good guys – our actions always benevolent, even naïvely so. “They” are effectively problem children: culturally degenerate, backward, pathologically irrational, ignorant and unenlightened, too busy indulging ancient hatreds to aspire to civilised standards.
One “Democracy Day” debate was entitled “Democracy and Islam”. You can probably imagine how that kicked off, but if not, here is the introduction:
“Violence in the name of Islam has been dominating headlines around the world, and here’s just a few examples: the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, where 12 people were killed, including the magazine’s cartoonists and journalists, and the killers said “we’ve avenged the prophet”; in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, where in December Taliban militants stormed a school, shot and killed 150 people, at least 130 of them children; the Islamist militants Boko Haram attack the Northern, North-Eastern Nigerian town of Baga and local officials put the death toll to 2,000 people; in April last year, Boko Haram abducted nearly 300 schoolgirls – some of them escaped and many are still missing. Here in Britain, the government has written to Islamic leaders, urging them to do more to lay out how being a British Muslim means being proud of your faith and proud of your country. But the clearest call on Islam, and Islam that is at peace with modernity and with democratic values, was made by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He was addressing some of Egypt’s top Islamic scholars … calling for reform, calling for a religious revolution … [to the audience] by a show of hands, I’d like to see how many people agree with what the Egyptian President said.”
This framing – tying Islam to acts of horrific violence, portraying loyalty to its “host” country as required but suspect – permeates the entire discussion. Not once is the Egyptian dictator’s egregious hypocrisy in supporting “democratic values” ever acknowledged; even as he represses civil society, puts Islamists to death and imprisons journalists on trumped-up charges, the BBC takes his words simply as an interesting “point of view”, a reasonable starting point for discussion. The only challenge to this absurdity comes from Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan; but extraordinarily, this only prompts the presenter to return to her theme:
RAMADAN: It’s quite laughable to hear this from one who is one of the reasons why we have a problem with Islam, because you can do whatever you want with the text, but if you don’t have freedom in the society, if you have a dictator asking the scholars to say what they want him to say, which is exactly the situation of Al Azhar [University] now with el Sisi – I would say to him: let us start with yourself, give more freedom to people, go with democracy and Islam will be better in Egypt.
PRESENTER: OK, this is an interesting point that I would like to come to in a minute, about how Muslim institutions across the world have been used to benefit dictatorships – we’ll get to that in a minute.
Unable to think outside a frame that associates Muslims with violence, repression and despotism, she soon returns to it again: “Do you actually say, then,” she asks Ramadan, “that there is an inherent problem within the religion itself and violence?”
At one point she borrows neoconservative Islamophobe Andrew Murray’s (inaccurate, Western supremacist) language mid-sentence, then presents Muslim objections to certain speech as curbs on free speech. The effect is to associate “the West” with freedom and enlightenment, Islam with repression:
“Well interesting then this idea of free speech, the idea of, well basically freedom of expression is a very fundamental, basic in living in a democratic society – [DOUGLAS MURRAY: Non-negotiable.] – and and non-negotiable, yet, for example, and this is one of the nuances that I found quite interesting – when the Charlie Hebdo, the latest edition of the Charlie Hebdo came out, for example, many people have come out against it: they were saying, we absolutely condemn the killing of the journalists, but we also condemn the insulting of our religion, the insult of our prophet, and there was a really interesting tweet that said: killing is horrible, as it is, but there are some issues that are just better left alone – don’t go there, don’t touch it. And is that, then, a problem within Islam, that there are some issues that are just quite untouchable – you cannot depict, for example, the face of the prophet, let alone satirise him or criticise him, so isn’t that an inherent problem within the religion itself?”
She returns to the theme again:
“But Tariq, you speak about laws, what about blasphemy laws?”
She reads out three text messages. Here are two:
“Islam seems to have little to offer the twenty-first century, always longing for a distant past.”
“It is not the West who failed Muslims; Islam failed itself.”
While academics theorise about religious reform, in practice – “what happens on the ground” – Islam is violent:
AUDIENCE MEMBER: “My question is, we’ve been talking about reforming Islam or new interpretations of Islam – often these kind of discussions happen in very kind of academic atmospheres like that – but how do those, what’s the link between discussing reforming Islam and Boko Haram, er, doing a lot of –
HOST: “What happens on the ground.”
AUDIENCE MEMBER: “Yeah, what happens on the ground.”
She twice returns to this idea:
“Let’s pick up on these three points, but why don’t we start with Renee’s question – the link between what we discuss in a panel as she described an academic atmosphere with what happens in real life, so we talk about reform, we talk about discourse, and then we have attacks from Boko Haram, and then we have ISIS releasing videos, very violent videos of beheading their hostages. Where is the lost link? What happens – what needs to happen – so that whatever you say here is translated on the ground?”
“… I guess what Renee is getting at is: what is the answer to these questions? Because we put all of these issues on the table, but as we speak, ISIS are committing atrocities, somewhere in Syria, somewhere in Iraq, and what happens, what needs to happen for this to stop?”
Later, Ramadan contests the inaccurate portrayal of Sharia law as a set of repressive penal codes; but rather than acknowledge his point, the presenter drags us back to that blinkered definition:
“But this is interesting what you say, Tariq, about different understanding of concepts, because it’s the same concepts of Islam, of Sharia law, that has made Sharuq live a very difficult life, because she’s trying to express herself, this idea of Haram, of religiously forbidden, when she’s trying to express herself through art.”
What is occurring here is the normalisation of a particularly toxic form of racism. It becomes literally impossible for the media to refer to Islam without relating it to backwardness, violence, repression. An entire ethno-religious group and an entire faith are being libelled, stigmatised, depicted as problematic for democracies to which they are alien and with which they are dubiously compatible. There is no similar debate on “democracy and Christianity” or “democracy and Judaism”. The notion that, say, violent Jewish supremacists might lynch Palestinian kids, or Christian militants commit massacres in the Central African Republic, Uganda, the US, France or the UK, have become all but invisible; that Britain prosecutes peaceful protestors, or that France outlaws public prayers, veils, “glorification of terrorism” and insults to the President, simply vanish in this idealised West’s tradition of “non-negotiable” free expression. A heroic, unblemished, self-righteous democratic “West” emerges, troubled only by its inverse image, Islam: intolerant, repressive, uncivilised.
But what kind of “democracy” is it that the West upholds? One where the rich rule; that represses free expression; that props up dictators; where senior “public service” broadcasters do gigs for arms-dealers and defend calls to dissolve a treasured public healthcare system; and where reshuffled elites are presented as political outsiders. This system is “in crisis”? Perhaps we shouldn’t lose too much sleep over it.