Cultural Determinism and Democracy

Via Normblog, Amartya Sen on democracy and cultural determinism, in the’s Opinion Journal.

The belief in the allegedly “Western” nature of democracy is often linked to the early practice of voting and elections in Greece, especially in Athens. Democracy involves more than balloting, but even in the history of voting there would be a classificatory arbitrariness in defining civilizations in largely racial terms. …[T]there is reluctance in taking note of the Greek intellectual links with other civilizations to the east or south of Greece, despite the greater interest that the Greeks themselves showed in talking to Iranians, or Indians, or Egyptians (rather than in chatting up the Ostrogoths).

Since traditions of public reasoning can be found in nearly all countries, modern democracy can build on the dialogic part of the common human inheritance… [T]he history of Muslims includes a variety of traditions, not all of which are just religious or “Islamic” in any obvious sense. The work of Arab and Iranian mathematicians, from the eighth century onward reflects a largely nonreligious tradition. Depending on politics, which varied between one Muslim ruler and another, there is also quite a history of tolerance and of public discussion, on which the pursuit of a modern democracy can draw. For example, the emperor Saladin, who fought valiantly for Islam in the Crusades in the 12th century, could offer, without any contradiction, an honored place in his Egyptian royal court to Maimonides, as that distinguished Jewish philosopher fled an intolerant Europe. When, at the turn of the 16th century, the heretic Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Campo dei Fiori in Rome, the Great Mughal emperor Akbar (who was born a Muslim and died a Muslim) had just finished, in Agra, his large project of legally codifying minority rights, including religious freedom for all, along with championing regular discussions between followers of Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and other beliefs (including atheism).

Cultural dynamics does not have to build something from absolutely nothing, nor need the future be rigidly tied to majoritarian beliefs today or the power of the contemporary orthodoxy. To see Iranian dissidents who want a fully democratic Iran not as Iranian advocates but as “ambassadors of Western values” would be to add insult to injury, aside from neglecting parts of Iranian history (including the practice of democracy in Susa or Shushan in southwest Iran 2,000 years ago). The diversity of the human past and the freedoms of the contemporary world give us much more choice than cultural determinists acknowledge.