Dawn of Democracy

Democracy first emerged in ancient Greece and was implemented in the form of direct democracy without the need for representatives. In practice, however, Greek democracy was no more than a “partial democracy” or “democracy of minority”. Because only a certain group of the people had a voice in ruling and benefited from democratic rights and freedoms. Thus, it is a fact that this democracy is quite different from the democracy that emerged in the modern West despite Ancient Greece had some basic principles of democracy in terms of the rejection of a monarchic government, the discussion of all ruling matters by the citizens, the decisions taken by majority votes, and the implementation of the decisions.

The roots of the idea of contemporary democracy date back to the 16th century. Historical events such as the oppression and domination of the church despotism that continued throughout the Middle ages towards the people, labor exploitation of feudal regimes, the birth of the bourgeoisie and its advocacy of democratic values against the aristocrats, and centuries-long bloody religious and sectarian wars were very important for the emergence and evolving of democracy. The Western people, whose rights were taken away and who were oppressed and abused primarily by the church and then the kings and aristocrats, suffered from cruelty and pressures, gained irrevocable rights as a result of long struggles, revolutions and reformations, and bloody wars, and discovered democracy as the most humane way of living together.

Democracy, of course, is not just a regime that arose from the struggles of the working class, large masses of people, or the bourgeoisie against the kings and the noble ones. On the contrary, there are some very important ideas such as human rights, equalities, social contract, separation of powers lie behind which are put forward by philosophers such as John Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill. As a matter of fact, the political consequences of the ideas put forward by the philosophers in question came into existence during the American and French revolutions in the late 18th century. Especially the French revolution had a significant impact on Europe in terms of the emergence of a new regime based on democracy. Democracy achieved absolute superiority after the collapse of totalitarian and fascist regimes after the Second World War.

Definition and Nature of Democracy

“Democratia” is a Greek word and consists of “demos”, which means the people, and “kratos”, which means sovereignty, and the whole word means people’s power or people’s sovereignty. In its simplest definition, it is a form of a regime where people rule themselves. In democracies, the people have the right to vote for the rulers who will rule them for a certain period of time by voting. Therefore, when democracy is mentioned, the first things come to mind are elections, votes, parties, political participation, and free opposition. Because these are the basic parts of the mechanism of democracy.

However, seeing democracy only through votes and degrading it to the ballot box is a very narrow and skin-deep understanding. The existence of a constitution guaranteeing fundamental rights and freedoms, the existence of a parliament representing the people and sharing the power, adherence to the rule of law, and adopting the separation of powers are extremely important in order to realize the objectives expected from democracy and to operate the democratic system.

In fact, one of the important issues that modern democracies insistently focus on is making the political participation dynamic, active and continuous. In this system, which is called participatory democracy, it is thought that the duty of the citizen is not limited to voting. On the contrary, it is emphasized that the nongovernmental organizations, mass social movements, demonstrations and assemblies, pressure groups continue to check and instruct the rulers they elected throughout their terms of office, and forward their opinions and demands to the rulers both individually and organizationally.

On the other hand, although the meaning of power belonging to the people in democracies means that the power is taken from the people and the state is administered for the people and on behalf of the people, the following point should not be overlooked: Since the people are the bearers of political power, no person, no family or no coterie in the country have the authority to rule as a monopoly. Anyone who can obtain the consent and approval of the public can be a ruler. Therefore, all citizens in the country potentially have the force of power. In this respect, one of the important points that separate democracy from other regimes is that it takes the sovereignty from certain individuals or classes and entrusts it to the people.

What makes democracy important and privileged is that it can provide very fair and humanitarian solutions on how to gain, use and limit power. Regardless of whether it is monarchic, oligarchic, or theocratic, it is very difficult to prevent corruption in a state where there are no mechanisms to limit power. Especially if the rulers claim ownership of power or see themselves as the deputy or the shadow of God the earth; that means all conditions are ready for the emergence of an authoritarian and totalitarian regime.

Looking at the history of human beings, it will be regretfully revealed how humanity was exploited and oppressed by tyrannical and obscene rulers. Perhaps one of the most important reasons for democracy to be admired and vigorously defended today is that it is the most important alternative to autocracy; that is, it frees people from the pressures of the regimes such as dehumanization and enslaving.

Beyond being a form of government or a political method that demonstrates how a hierarchy of ruling should be established, it is also emphasized that democracy is a style of perspective and understanding that determines the form and manner of politics and regime. As a matter of fact, Ali Fuad Basgil made the following evaluations about democracy: “Democracy is a specific government and administration system. Secondly, it is a specific mentality, manner, an opinion of a community, an environment, and an atmosphere. Democracy, ultimately, is a spiritual value-judgment over human existence and an ideal that leads to a big desire for life and happiness.” (Ali Fuad Basgil, Demokrasi Yolunda (On the Way to Democracy), p25)

According to this approach, the driving force that implements democracy in a society is the mentality, attitudes, and thoughts of the members of society about each other and “others”, “alternatives” and “foreigners”. According to this, it is not possible for the understanding of democracy to advance where the members of society do not care about each other, regard themselves as superior to others, and cannot internalize values such as reconciliation and sharing.

As a matter of fact, the words “democrat” or “democratic” being used as titles for ideas, people, institutions, and groups, and finding different meanings such as “open-minded, conciliatory, respectful to different ideas, modest” are extensions of this perspective. In other words, in addition to the use of democracy in politics, it can be said that it has become a principle or life experience with different people, ideas, beliefs, and cultures that should be followed throughout all relations between people.

It should also be noted that democracy cannot bring justice alone. It cannot build a good world worth living for. It cannot prevent class conflicts. It cannot generate peaceful individuals and clean society. It cannot provide economic development and social welfare. It cannot modernize, contemporize, or civilize societies. It cannot guarantee public order and security. However, it significantly eliminates the obstacles towards achieving all of these and provides a solid foundation for this.

In the same way, democracy cannot suggest people how to live, think, or believe; it cannot guide them on this matter and especially never imposes a certain way of life. Democracy cannot offer a holistic view of the world about existence, man, and God. It cannot provide convincing answers to humanity’s search for meaning. It cannot impose standards of judgment and moral principles that would provide a sense for life. Because it is neither a religion nor a philosophy nor an ideology.

On the contrary, democracy provides a free environment in which people can live according to their own preferences as free and independent individuals and chase their own beliefs and ideals. It tries to guarantee the fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals in the face of all kinds of individual and social pressure, especially the compelling power of the state.

Democracy means that individuals with different standards of judgment and world views can live together in the same society under the same roof of a state without conflicts and fights, and ensure that the people subjected to injustice and persecution can fearlessly seek and obtain their rights; can freely live their free choice of religion or lifestyle without being bound to any person’s consent or tolerance and without any limitation or restriction.

Ideals and Objectives of Democracy

One of the important points that should be emphasized in order to properly understand democracy is to be able to see the basic needs that bring it out and to be aware of the main objectives to be achieved with it. Because democracy is not a purpose itself but a tool which enables certain values to be attained. The objective of the establishment and operation of a democratic mechanism is to bring an open and transparent ruling approach that can be audited and accountable. Because this is one of the most effective ways of preventing rulers from abusing their authority and power, and from arbitrary practice and abuse.

In addition, if a transparent and auditable structure is established in the government, the use of state facilities for the sake of the interests of an oligarchic minority in the government can be prevented, and economic and political institutions will become more inclusive in order to realize the interests of the society.

As Violations of rights, oppression towards the weak, and restrictions on freedoms are important facts that make democracy a necessity; ensuring equality and freedom among members of society, securing human rights in general and minority rights in particular, ensuring an atmosphere of reconciliation and tolerance among different groups, social peace, and ensuring internal harmony are the most important values and ideals that are to be achieved through democracies.

In other words, the objective expected and desired to be achieved from democracy (pluralistic); it is the ability to peacefully rule the ethnic, cultural, or religious differences that have become the greatest social reality with globalization. It is the ability to experience living together with the “other” permanently in modern societies where pluralism has become inevitable. It is the equality of all before the law and the elimination of all concessions and privileges that may cause someone to dominate others. This is the way to a prosperous and peaceful society.

One of the important achievements or ideals of democracy is that it tames and humanizes the state apparatus by giving it to the service of the individuals. There is no and should not be a room for a holy state that cannot be questioned about what they do in democracies and can sacrifice its citizens for the sake of “supreme ideals”. Because the state has no instruments other than itself. The state is not an objective in itself. On the contrary, it is the human that matters. The state is valuable to the extent that it serves the people and satisfy their needs. Therefore, respecting the people’s will, caring for their preferences, and thus ensuring that all citizens can survive with their honor and dignity are among the important objectives of democracies.

Democracy and Secularism

All of these show that in fact, what makes democracy important is not its secular nature, its attitude towards religion, or its abstraction from religious, social and political life. On the contrary, the main objective is to be able to guarantee all kinds of rights and freedoms by preventing all the pressures and coercions on people and thus open the way to live in peace and prosperity.

Today, there are two main reasons in the Western world and in some Muslim countries, which accept secularism as a prerequisite for democracy and interpret democracy according to their own sweet will, towards restraining religion into the consciences and isolating it from the social life. The first one is the abuses, sufferings, tears, devastations, and deaths caused by the arbitrary and despotic practices of the Church throughout the Middle Ages, which seized all religious, economic, and political power, and used it as a means of oppression and domination over individuals, society and even kings. Secondly, it is the oppressive and restrictive religion approach caused by the Muslim world, especially political Islamists, radical organizations, Salafi-Jihadist organizations, etc.

The costs of some of the totalitarian practices such as the discourse and actions of the Church contrary to reason and science, finding the right to force people to embrace or abjure (anathematize) Christianity, selling Paradise deeds to its followers (indulgence), crowning the kings to some extent to claim the right to worldly power were picked up by “religion” in the struggle for democratization  More precisely, the Western people have assumed that all religions are essentially oppressive, coercive, and enforcing because of this painful experience.

However, some Muslim scholars who have a grasp of the spirit of Islam tried to explain that freedom, justice, equality, reconciliation, and tolerance forms the essence of Islam and that Islam is against all kinds of oppression and coercion. Nevertheless, such voices became very weak and did not suffice to change prejudices and negative perceptions about Islam against the distortions of the orientalists, the contractionary interpretations of the political Islamists, Muslims poor representation of their religion, and the authoritarian and totalitarian practices of some Islamic states.

Under such circumstances, secularism has been regarded by some as an integral principle of democracy in order to eliminate some “potential dangers” caused in social and political lives by religions including Islam. However, it is necessary to reiterate that the problem here is not that Muslims live their religion with all their provisions. Because in a place where true democracy is mentioned, it should be the fundamental rights of the people to practice their religion as they wish. The real fear here is that Muslims will not only live their own religion but will put pressure on people who do not believe in any religion or are not religious or belong to different religions and restrict their freedom.

Despite all this, due to some of the worries and fears they have today, some people, who want to keep religion and especially Islam completely out of public and political lives, feel the need to add the words “secular and laical” when talking about democracy. According to their claim, it is not possible to guarantee rights and freedoms with a democracy that is not secular and laical. However, a person, who looks through the books on democracy in the West today, will be amazed that most of them do not mention secularism. In the same way, it is important to note that a significant part of the countries that are now under full democracy are not secular.

Of course, what is understood from secularism and laicism is another matter that needs attention. Because it is a fact that different explanations and definitions are being done about these concepts. Therefore, as can be seen from the studies on this subject, it is not true that secularism and laicism are in absolute conflict with Islam. The important thing is the way of approaching the subject and the way of interpretation. But since this is not our main topic, we do not see the necessity to focus on it.

To be continued…

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Professor Yuksel Cayiroglu is a scholar focusing on Islamic Law and Religous Studies.


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