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Are ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ Western colonial exports? No. Here’s why.

- April 2, 2016
In this image from October 2014, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong display a banner reading “I want genuine universal suffrage” at a rally outside the government’s headquarters. Pro-democracy protest leaders pushed for a greater say in choosing the territory’s chief executive. (Kin Cheung/AP)

In September 2014, students in Hong Kong gathered in a public square to protest some of the Beijing government’s legislative initiatives. One of their slogans was, “When dictatorship becomes a reality, revolution is a duty,” a declaration attributed to Victor Hugo. During the Arab Spring, protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria raised such slogans as: “The people want the overthrow of the regime,” “Bread, freedom, social justice” and “The revolution of dignity and freedom.”

Some academics and public intellectuals who study non-Western societies, worried about imposing Western values, have expressed concern about the use of categories such as human rights and liberal democracy. They have instead favored drawing on non-Western societies’ own intellectual traditions and lived experiences. Thus, the academic debate about the form of government that China should adopt has focused on drawing from the ideals of Confucianism.

Yet the slogans raised by the protesters are eminently familiar; they might well have been deployed in any other country, whether Greece, France, Ukraine or indeed the United States. Protesters in Hong Kong did not mention Confucianism at all, prompting one commentator on a prominent Chinese and comparative-philosophy blog to ask, “Where are all the Confucians … tonight?”

If Western categories ought to be rejected in favor of non-Western ones, as these academics tell us, what should we make of the fact that protesters on the ground continue to cling to the former in a very familiar way, explicitly demanding rights, including women’s rights, equality, elections and the rule of law? The familiarity of the protesters’ slogans is important and telling.

The slogans are familiar not because of superficial resemblances between modes of activism across the world that somehow mask deep intellectual disagreements. Rather, they are familiar because the situation to which they are a response is familiar: a state using extensive and arbitrary power.

It would have been odd for protesters in Hong Kong to advocate for the Chinese government’s return to Confucian rituals, or for crowds in Cairo’s the streets to demand a return to the Islamic dhimmi system, which left minorities free to pursue private religious practices while being otherwise excluded from political life. These scenarios are implausible, if not impossible, not because Confucian rituals and the dhimmi system are ineffective in themselves but because they don’t match modern realities. To fight a modern state, to constrain rulers and protect minorities, one needs more appropriate tools.

In a new article, I argue that these tools are precisely the so-called Western ideals of which some academics are skeptical: democracy, rights and the rule of law. These should be understood not as Western, but as modern: normative tools particularly suited to the realities of political life under the sovereign state, the central institution of modern politics.

Sovereign states centralize politics and impose a monopoly on the use of force in a way that pre-modern empires could not, and did not. The only protection against the risk that states will abuse their power is to make the government accountable to its people and protect the inviolability of human life. In other words, demand democracy and rights. Non-Western states now have the same essential features of sovereignty as Western ones. And so their citizens can protect themselves only by fighting for these ideals, and their intellectuals can support these citizens’ efforts only by advocating for these ideals.

This is not to deny that many critics around the world denounce human rights and democracy as Western impositions. Their proposals, whether building on Latin American, African, Middle Eastern, Asian or various Western traditions, typically contend that the state should intervene more, rather than less, in society. They argue that the state should provide for social welfare, defend a particular view of the good life or act on religious maxims.

However, to justify themselves to the public, these arguments also inevitably build in guarantees against abuse, legally limiting the use of state power and requiring states to consult with the people, usually through elections. These guarantees dominate the debate between advocates and opponents of these proposals. Even when there is a desire to get away from democracy and human rights, the conversation ends up centering on them and whether to accept them, to what extent and in what form.

Efforts to provide Islamic variants on democracy or Confucian variants on rights thus should be understood not as alternatives to modern ideals, but as variants on them. This is just as it should be. Just as there are differences between the democratic systems of Germany and the United States, so too would a democratic China and a democratic Yemen be different, both from each other and from the U.S. and German models. Crucially, these differences are not between East and West but among different countries with different material realities.

For a non-Western conception of government to completely avoid generating appeals to democracy and rights, it would need to reject these without simply calling for the extension of the power of the sovereign state. The Islamic State, by rejecting state borders and harking back to a pre-modern caliphate system, is trying to do precisely this. But as the group conquers territory and rules people, it will have to start acting like a state. In fact, it already is.

And once the Islamic State does act like a state, we can expect its subjects to start demanding rights, laws and other limits on state action. Their demands might be couched in religious language, but the debate will become more and more recognizable as a debate about the limits of state power, rather than as a debate internal to Islam.

In short, when citizens in non-Western countries clamor for democracy, there is no reason to suspect elitism or Western manipulation or false consciousness. Not everything familiar is a sign of cultural imperialism. This is not to deny that power differentials continue to structure the relationship between the West and the East, but rather to suggest that overcoming the discourse of “us” and “them” will open up more promising avenues for responding to domination.

Loubna El Amine is assistant professor of political theory in the department of government at Georgetown University, and author of Classical Confucian Political Thought: A New Interpretation (Princeton University Press, 2015).