Armatya Sen: 'There is more to democracy than our Western form'

From a talk by the Nobel prize-winning economist at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London

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Democracy has evolved gradually over a very long period, but it is in the 20th century that we saw the establishment of the basic idea that democracy is the "normal" form of government to which any nation is entitled - whether in Europe, or America, or Asia, or Africa.

Democracy has evolved gradually over a very long period, but it is in the 20th century that we saw the establishment of the basic idea that democracy is the "normal" form of government to which any nation is entitled - whether in Europe, or America, or Asia, or Africa.

There remains, however, a strong undercurrent of scepticism about the possibility of having democracy in the non-Western world. That scepticism has received much encouragement from the recent events in Iraq. Indeed, among the many tragic fallouts of the military operation in Iraq is a real loss of clarity about the universal need for democracy. The so-called Arab "values" and "way of life", we are told, militate against the possibility of an Arab democracy at this time. I believe this line of thinking is erroneous.

The roots of democracy are intimately linked with the history of public reasoning, and that history is spread across the world. Seeing democracy not in terms of public reasoning, but in the narrow and mechanical terms only of voting and elections, is already extracting a heavy price in Iraq and elsewhere, where a military-based sponsoring of democracy is being attempted with serious disregard of what is involved in having a democracy.

While the elections held recently in Iraq were certainly welcome, nevertheless in the absence of the cultivation of open and participatory dialogue, the voting process was predictably sectarian and divisive, broken into Shia, Sunni and Kurd groups. The process preceding the elections involved the cultivation of sect-specific identities, to which the leaders of the occupation themselves made a substantial contribution, along with religion-centred opponents of the occupation.

What is needed is the promotion of civil rights, including freedom from arbitrary arrest (and of course, from torture, whether in Abu Ghraib or elsewhere), facilities of general public gathering, and fuller operation of the media. It is important to assist, rather than hinder, the development of non-sectarian identities of women and men, and the restoring of the self-respect of Iraqis as Iraqis.

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