Payam Omid & A. R. Taheri: Democracy

Payam Omid: Dear Dr. Taheri, DEMOCRACY IS NOT BEWILDERING! Did you mean WHY DEMOCRACY IS BEWILDERING Dr. Ahmad Reza Taheri?

I run into Dr. Taheri’s article WHY DEMOCRACY IS BIWILDERING ( by accident and decided to bring up some points about democracy. It may help us to have a clearer picture about democracy.

Perhaps Dr. Taheri meant to say why democracy is BEWILDERING, meaning confusing and difficult to understand and I believe the word “BIWILDERING” was a typographical error?

Dr. Taheri selected a great subject for discussion due to the fact that it will give us perhaps an excuse and a chance to explore the democracy and learn more about it. As Dr. Taheri said “It is unfair to claim that democracy does not exist; it exists but in relative fashion. Democracy is measured in comparison with societies’ respective norms, values, and cultures. I do not deny the fact that the exercise of democracy has been improved from generation to generation. The same democracy, for example, which we enjoy today, did not exist in the ancient Roman society.” I happened to agree with Dr. Taheri that democracy exists but in societies that do not have despotic culture, because democracy as we know it is the majority people rule, unlike the definition that the ancient Athenian intended it to be “the rule of people” which today’s democracies are the people rule but the majority people rule.

As Dr. Taheri stepped back into ancient time and used the ancient Roman society as an example, I would like to go further back to ancient Athenian societies where democracy originated before Roman adopted it.

Let’s split the word democracy for it’s a curious Greek compound word of Demo and Kratos. The term comes from the Greek language: dēmokratía (rule of the people), [1] which was coined from dêmos (people) and Kratos (power), around the 5th-4th century BC to indicate the political systems then existed in Greek cities or state [2]. There is no universally accepted definition of ‘democracy’ , even scholars are in disagreement of democracy definition, yet equality and freedom have both been identified as important characteristics of democracy but in my opinion the equality is not one of the characteristics of democracy for the reason I will explain later in this article.

As Dr. Taheri said in his text, his intention was to “merely discuss that how far is democratic theory from democratic practice without adding any prefix or affix to the term democracy. This helps us to understand better the common definition or the true meaning of the term, without having the support of philosophical interpretations.”

He further asserts that “where there will be free and equal representation in taking part of the system of the country, equal and effective chance of participation in the affairs of the country, equal right of every person to hold any kind of pro individual or pro society belief and activity, and where collective will does not stand against the individual will or vice versa.” And he conclude “In reality, however, such imaginary system unfortunately does not exist; this is the core of our discussion. We have a long way to go to reach such an ideal state.“

Let’s start with statement that Dr. Taheri has made. He starts with saying “let’s ignore the concepts of “democratic culture”, “rich democracy”, or “types of democracy” , which means he wants to talk about barebones democracy with no specifics attached to it, He continues by saying that the democracy is a mistaken idea resulting from vagueness. Then he attached the specifics such as “free and equal representation “, “equal and effective chance of participation in the affairs of the country, “, “equal right of every person to hold any kind of pro individual or pro society belief and activity”, once he attaches the specifics to the democracy, it certainly means that he is reverting back to “rich democracy”, “types of democracy” and “democratic culture “. The people to rule (democracy) is not defined as Dr. Taheri suggested with the specifics he has added to the democracy, even in ancient times, the people rule has not been defined the way Dr. Taheri suggested with the specifics, in fact, the democracy definition has always been vague with or without specific elements, therefore the specifics have been added to democracy according to the societies perceived needs, the bell and whistles have been added to meet majorities need.

In today’s society’s democracy’s definition means majority rule, the collective majority will, does stand and will stand against the individual or minority will and majority will trumps the minority rights. This is the democracy‘s major weakness which has no remedy unless conditions are added to meet the equality and freedom for all, but we have to remember that the equality and freedom are relative and are not absolute.

Some of the best known democracies in the world such as France established a law against minority Muslim women right not to wear the traditional Arabic veil and they will be reprimanded for wearing the traditional Arabic Veil. This is the democracy’s nature that the majority rule can limit the minority rights and it’s an accepted practice in democratic societies such as France, Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden just to name a few. Or in Switzerland the Muslim minorities are not allowed to add minarets in the mosques even though the Minarets are not used in broadcasting the prayer in Switzerland. Again the majority rule accepted this to limit the minority rights. Netherlands and Denmark and Sweden have similar law to curtail the Muslim and other minority’s rights. These are clear evidence of injustice, inequality and majority collective will against the minority and individual rights. Because these countries are democratic therefore violating the minority’s right is a normal affair as long as the majority is in favor of violating the minority’s right.

When Dr. Taheri Says “In order to get to the point, therefore, I believe that we are holding a persistent false belief about the concept of democracy. What many of us consider to be democratic is undemocratic, but then again it is generally taken for granted as democratic; a mistaken idea resulting from vagueness.”

I do agree with him that we are holding a false belief about the concept of democracy but unlike Dr. Taheri’s belief what many of us consider to be democratic, is democratic, because that is what the democracy is about, and that is denying the minorities their rights is normal if need be.

I happen to disagree with Dr. Taheri’s assertion that “Democracy is nothing but an unrealistic idea backed by impracticable beliefs. The fair distribution of liberty and equality for all and the practice of common will or government by the people never been truly regarded for; it’s all sham.”

Democracy is not a sham, it’s a practical reality according to its accepted definition and principals and fair distribution of liberty and equality for all is not part of democracy’s definition and principals, therefore inequality and injustice is the true nature of democracy.

United States of America is not a democracy and has never been a democracy. Dr. Taheri uses United States of America as an example of pretended democracy and inequality, aristocracy, oligarchy or elitist. Let’s examine why United State of America is not a democracy and has never been a democracy, it’s developing countries general misconception that United States of America is a democracy but in reality united states of America is not a democracy, USA is a constitutional republic which is different than a democracy, the difference between a democracy and a constitutional republic will be explained later in this article. This may come as shock to some but it’s the reality that United States of America is not a democracy, instead it’s a constitutional republic, and its founding fathers such as James Madison, never wanted a democracy and they wrote tons of articles arguing against the democracy, which in their time democracy specifically meant direct democracy; James Madison in federalist articles especially in the Federalist No. 10, argues, that what distinguished a democracy from a republic was that a democracy such as Indian democracy (the writer paraphrased and added the Indian democracy as an example and it’s not in original federalist text) become weaker as it gets larger and suffers more violently from the effects of faction, whereas a republic could get stronger as it get larger and combats faction by its very structure.

However, the word democracy is loosely used in speeches to mean people rule (majority rule) with implied freedom but it doesn’t carry the equality connotation.

While Dr. Taheri’s assertion about United States of America may be true that “ In 1995, astonishingly, 39 percent of all the wealth in the US was owned by the richest 1 percent of the population… In 2004, over 90 percent of all the value held in stocks in the US was owned by less than 3 percent of its people.” “Not to be missed that referring to such analysis does not mean to suggest that the American system is a bad system.”

But this assertion has nothing to do with the equal political right because political rights are quite different than the equal economic share for each individual, equal right is a legal and civil matter as such is a right and equal economic share is not a right but a privilege, unlike the right, a privilege can be taken away or changed, because a constitutional republic such as United States of America affords its citizens equal economic opportunity and not equal economic share and the expectations from the word or sentence of equal economic opportunities, doesn’t mean distributing the American wealth equally among its citizens, there is a well known misunderstanding of phrases of equal opportunity and equal distribution of wealth and equal opportunity is vastly different from equal distribution of wealth. It’s up to the citizens to use the equal opportunity and become one of the 1% richest American to own 39% of wealth. A constitutional republic with capitalism will not award each individual equal share of economy and is not in business of wealth distribution equally or unequally, but it’s in business of creating equal political rights and equal economic opportunities for all.

Calling the Indian democracy the greatest democracy of the world is misleading and leads to misinformation about democracy and Indian democracy because the scholars don’t agree and in fact no one agrees that Indian democracy is the greatest democracy in the world but all scholars agree that, Indian democracy is the largest democracy in the world instead of greatest democracy, again there is a big difference between the words greatest and largest, and certainly greatest and largest democracy. The term greatest is a qualitative measure and implies to a great deal of good quality while the largest doesn’t imply to a great deal of quality, largest is simply a Quantitative measure not a qualitative measure.

Democracy versus republic OR constitutional republic: “These two forms of government: Democracy and Republic, are not only dissimilar but antithetical, reflecting the sharp contrast between (a) The Majority Unlimited, in a Democracy, lacking any legal safeguard of the rights of The Individual and The Minority, and (b) The Majority Limited, in a Republic under a written Constitution safeguarding the rights of The Individual and The Minority” (3).

The major characteristic and distinguishing feature of a Democracy is the Rule by a 51% Omnipotent Majority of population. In a Democracy, The 49% of population, Individual, and any group of Individuals composing any Minority group, has no protection against the unlimited power of the 51% Majority. This is true whether it be a Direct Democracy, or a Representative Democracy.

In the direct type, applicable only to a small number of people as in a small city-states and Under a Representative Democracy like Britain’s parliamentary form of government, the people elect representatives to the national legislature–the elective body there being the House of Commons–and it functions by a similar vote of at least half-plus-one in making all legislative decisions. In both direct type and the Representative type of Democracy, the Majority’s power is absolute and unlimited.

A pure Democracy is nothing more than mob rule with no provisions for the rights of the individual and minorities and the 49% minority who loses the election to the majority. The United states of America’s Founding Fathers saw this as one of the worst forms of government and in their wisdom provided a framework to secure the rights of the individual, minorities and the 49% minority who loses the elections, i.e., a Constitution and a Bill of Rights with separation of powers subject to Judicial Review which is the Rule of Law we live under today.

It is true that we do elect our head of state and representatives by a Democratic system, i.e., majority popular vote. But that aside, once our head of state and representatives are elected democratically “they are bound by their oath of office to uphold, obey and defend the Constitution, so help them God” and therefore a Constitutional Republic is born.

A constitutional republic is a state where the head of state and other officials are elected as representatives of the people and must govern according to existing constitutional law that limits the government’s power over citizens. In a constitutional republic, executive, legislative, and judicial powers are separated into distinct branches and the will of the majority of the population is checked by protections for individual rights so that no individual or group has absolute power. The fact that a constitution exists that limits the government and majority power, makes the state constitutional. That the head (s) of state and other officials are chosen by election, rather than inheriting their positions, and that their decisions are subject to judicial review makes a state republican. This discussion merits quoting James Madison who made an observation in The Federalist (no. 55) as follows (4): “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government (that of a Republic) presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.

Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us, faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

Unlike a pure democracy, in a constitutional republic, citizens are not governed by the majority of the people but by the rule of law. Constitutional Republics are a deliberate attempt to hold in check the threat of mobocracy (borrowed word, as before democracy was attributed to mob rule) thereby protecting dissenting individuals and minorities from the tyranny of the majority by placing checks on the power of the majority of the population. The power of the majority of the people is checked by limiting that power to electing representatives who govern within limits of overarching constitutional law rather than the popular vote having legislative power itself (5). John Adams defined a constitutional republic as “a government of laws, and not of men.” Also, the power of government officials is checked by allowing no single individual to hold executive, legislative and judicial powers. Instead these powers are separated into distinct branches that serve as a check and balance on each other. A constitutional republic is designed so that “no person or group [can] rise to absolute power.”

Calling United States of America a pretended democracy, aristocracy, oligarchy or elitist, is misleading and spreading misinformation about the United States of America, due to USA leadership and developing countries resentment to United States of America’s super power. In some instance USA might appear aristocracy, oligarchy or elitist, but the United States of America’s constitution protects the minority, aristocrats, oligarchs or elitists rights equally.

But a democracy doesn’t protect every one’s right equally, for instance, preventing the Muslim women from wearing the traditional Arabic veil in public or in private will not be achieved easily or may be impossible in the United States of America with the same ease it happened in France, and other limitation that have been imposed on Muslim minorities in Switzerland, Netherland, Denmark…, because the first amendment in USA bill of right protects the freedom of expression, freedom of speech in the first amendment and the word speech in the First Amendment has been extended to a generous sense of “expression” — verbal, non-verbal, visual, symbolic and it includes a variety of types of expression enjoying this broad protection. But at the same time, various exceptions to free speech have been recognized in American law, including obscenity, defamation, and breach of the peace, incitement to crime, “fighting words,” and sedition. Using the Muslim women rights in France and Muslim minority’s rights in other countries as an example doesn’t mean that I support the Muslim cause, but these are obvious current violation of some basic human rights in European democracy.

The guardian newspaper reported Per Indian government human rights commission three-year inquiry report , that missing 2,156 (two thousands one hundred fifty six) Kashmiri’s corpses have been found buried in dozens of unmarked graves in the divided region and is believed to be the work of the Indian Army, secret police, police and secret services, is another gross violation of human rights by the largest democracy in the world (6). A US diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks and published by the Guardian last December revealed a briefing to the US embassy in Delhi by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross which described continuing torture and arbitrary detention by security forces (7).

The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, which estimates around 10,000 people have gone missing in the past 20 years, says many may have ended up in these unmarked graves. “We appeal to international human rights groups and Indian authorities to identify the people buried,” said Parveena Ahanger, founder and chair of the group. International human rights groups have also repeatedly asked the Indian authorities to investigate the unmarked graves (6).

But the largest ( in Dr. Taheri’s belief the greatest democracy) democracy in the world, the Indian authorities and Indian government for the past 20 years have consistently denied systematic human rights violations in Kashmir and say they probe all such reports and punish the guilty with no result yet.

This is the result of a democratic system of government and not a constitutional republic and a constitutional republic and the rule of law in countries such as United States of America has the following results about the similar violations: We are all aware that USA military/Army has effectively tried and imprisoned its own soldiers who have violated the human rights in Iraq’s war and in Afghanistan, while fighting the enemy in these two countries. A well-known case is abu-Goraib incident in Iraq and killing of innocent civilian Afghans in Afghanistan that the perpetrators were some rogue American soldiers and were brought to justice, the book were thrown at them and the justice was served on the behalf of the Iraqi and Afghani victims in the United States of America but in the other countries such crimes will go unpunished and the justice will not be served on behalf of the victims from a foreign land. The question of these incidents should not have happened and America should not be in these countries requires another discussion.

Sure, USA record is not squeaky clean due to mistreatment of native American or mistreatment of black in the past, or sending the Japanese American to concentration camps in 1940’s or McCarthyism in 1940s to the late 1950, invasion of Iraq in 2003, however the listens have been learnt and the hope is that, these events will not be repeated, but for most part, USA has a lot better track record than other counterpart countries with democracy.

The developing countries could use the USA constitutional republic form of government as a model to improve their standing against United States of America instead of resentment and going one step forward and going two steps backward.

The resentment raises form USA exercise of power around the world to protect its interest and its citizens and not to hurt other nations deliberately, in fact United States of America and its citizen gives more aid in money and goods form to developing countries and poverty stricken regions, disaster areas than any other countries and citizens, and doesn’t deserve blame but constructive criticism will be a better choice. However Iraq, Afghanistan and involvement in the other major conflicts is different subject and part of foreign policy and should be discussed in different context and not in the context of democracy or constitutional republic.

Payam Omid (October 19, 2011)

References: 1 – Demokratia, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, “A Greek-English Lexicon”, at Perseus. 2- Democracy is people who rule the government directly. BBC History of democracy( 3 – The American Ideal of 1776 ,The Twelve Basic American Principles – Hamilton Abert Long. 4 – The Founders’ Constitution, Volume 1, Chapter 13, Hamilton, Alexander; Madison, James; and Jay, John. The Federalist. Edited by Jacob E. Cooke. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. 5 various reading and taking notes, I don’t remember exact references. 6 – the guardian, Sunday 21 August 2011. 7 – the Guardian, Sunday 21, August 2011. I suggest reading The Federalist, numbers 10 and 48 by Madison (in the latter noting Jefferson’s quoted comments).

The views, conclusions, and suggestions expressed in this article are those of the author. The quality and accuracy of language, its grammar, rules, structure, method of using the foot notes/end notes, and the transliterations, are the responsibility of the author. (Picture taken from


Ahmad Reza Taheri: Dear Payam Omid, thanks for the interesting article. I would like to add few points about our present democracies in the following manner. A FEW FACTS ABOUT THE SO-CALLED DEMOCRACIES:

• When we think of “democracy” we imagine “rule of the people”, a system in which the people of a country rule through any form of government they freely choose to establish, where there is free and equal representation in sociopolitical and economic participation, equal right of every person to hold any kind of belief, and where collective will does not stand against the individual will. In reality, however, such imaginary system rarely exists.

• Many of us are unaware of the fact that democracy is measured in comparison with the communities’ respective norms, values, cultures, and politics. In this case, a value might not be considered a value in another community. For example, in India “public dance” is a normal practice valued in a Hindu community. But, will it be valued in a Muslim community? In many Muslim communities it is forbidden. Based on the social structures, therefore, every community can have its own definition of democracy.

• What many of us consider democratic can be undemocratic, but then again it is taken for granted as democratic. Let’s take example of the Unites States of America, a country which regards itself as a leading democracy in the world. Leon P Baradat, in his Political Ideologies: Their Origins and Impact, writes that “While affording great opportunity to its citizens, American capitalism reserves many of its greatest advantages for those with enough wealth to buy into the system… The nation’s wealth has been placed into the hands of the few than any other time in a century, including the 1920s — the decade leading to the Great Depression. In 1995, astonishingly, 39 percent of all the wealth in the US was owned by the richest one percent of the population… In 2004, over 90 percent of all the value held in stocks in the US was owned by less than 3 percent of its people…” In the United States of America only the members of the Republican or Democratic parties can effectively contest the elections; the participation of others is formal. In this system, Baradat argues, “Citizens do not have a great deal of formal control over their political system. The US constitution discourages the people from having direct control over the government.” Yet, all of us refer to the USA as a democracy. India, for that matter, is known to be the largest democracy of the world. But, common citizens do not have effective freedom to take part in politics. Shifting the attention to the India’s social problems may further open our eyes — to see local violence such as the inter-caste conflicts. In India, the general impression upon the female gender is biased and in cases horrible. As a result, the maternity sections officially are not allowed to disclose the gender identity of an infant before the birth, it is a crime. In this country, certain sections of the masses suffer from undemocratic practices. These groups can be found mainly in Kashmir and the North East regions. Yet, India is known to be a great democracy.

• The fact is that almost every country, whether developed or underdeveloped is being ruled by a number of powerful people in the name of democracy, and not by the common people. These powerful people are in control of the main resources, such as huge industrial and commercial companies, military and intelligence agencies, leading sociopolitical organizations, and powerful academic or scientific institutions. The commoners are taught to think of such systems as democracy. Allowing people to enjoy a number of social and political liberties does not make democracy. The common people, generally, stand far from the legislative or policy making process. The gap between the common people and the policy makers is much wider in the developing world. The masses do not have effective freedom to vote freely. The political culture of the people is influenced by the public policies, political parties, religious institutions, media, and the interest groups.

• But, what makes a developed country look democratic and a developing country look less democratic or undemocratic? In the developed countries, the systems run in benevolent fashion, whereas in the underdeveloped or developing countries the systems run in malevolent manner.

• Democracy or what otherwise I should refer to as “absolute democracy” does not exist. Because, in an absolute democracy, the strong get stronger and the weak get weaker; chaos will replace the law. Neither Plato (the father of political philosophy) nor Aristotle (the father of political science) did support the democracy. They knew that democracy meant nothing but the “rule of the masses”. The masses, these two philosophers believe, do not have that much capacity to enjoy democracy.

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