Democracy is now a cloak for oppression

Al-Qa'ida uses religion to justify its crimes; the US, Britain and Russia today use democracy to cover their actions
Click to follow
The Independent Online

As hostage taking in Iraq becomes the next deadly tactic in this war without end, and increasing panic rises in the coalition countries, we are sure to get evermore self righteous pronouncements from the leaders who planned this illegal occupation. We are daily instructed to express our outrage against the evil hostage takers and other insurgents who, we are told, are motivated only by a hatred of liberty and democracy.

As hostage taking in Iraq becomes the next deadly tactic in this war without end, and increasing panic rises in the coalition countries, we are sure to get evermore self righteous pronouncements from the leaders who planned this illegal occupation. We are daily instructed to express our outrage against the evil hostage takers and other insurgents who, we are told, are motivated only by a hatred of liberty and democracy.

Oh democracy, how they debauch your reputation. Were you ever this callously used as a cloak for those who want to own the earth at any cost?

Democracy can never be perfect, but it is the best chance we humans have for decent governance and progressive politics. Until I was 23 I was only aware in abstract that in some parts of the world people could choose who they would be governed by. It seemed so far away from my own life.

I had absorbed keenly the history of the French and Russian revolutions, the American war of independence, other anti-colonial struggles and slogans such as "No Taxation without Representation". I was an avid reader of books on the suffragette movement, the plight of untouchables in India, later Apartheid and the civil rights movement in the United States. But I had never seen a ballot paper until I came to Britain in 1972.

British rule over us was absolute and undemocratic and the first election when Uganda became independent was the last such event in that blighted country. I was too young to vote. It is still a tremulous moment when I go into the portakabin to declare my choice. And it drives me to distraction to hear that so many people in this country are uninterested in voting, except for Pop Idol. The next few months will bring on feverish voting excitement in many countries. George Bush is already on his campaign for re-election, to add glory to his last dodgy victory. This month, the world's largest democracy, India, goes to the polls. I have just come back from that great country which today is buzzing with optimism and energetic political debates. The South African elections too are a reminder of the transformative powers of the democratic model.

And yet in all the above, and recently in Russia, we can see politicians brutalising the very thing they claim to represent. The ruling party in India attacks Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party, not for being an unproven politician, or for the many failures of her party, but for being "foreign born". They want to amend the constitution to prevent such "outsiders" getting into positions of power. (By this logic, our Parliament should never have allowed MPs Keith Vaz, or Mohammad Sarwar, or Lord Parekh to take up their seats because they are all foreign born.)

The ruling BJP is also embarked on a mission to elevate Hinduism and relegate the practitioners of other faiths. An Indian friend of mine, who does street theatre with the poor of all backgrounds, has had his hand broken, his skull slashed by Hindu warriors who support these fundamentalist politicians. Corruption, intimidation, lies, deceit, the misuse of power and money distort the will of the people around the globe and will, in the end, destroy the democratic process itself, unless we wake up.

Many years ago, the American writer Norman Mailer wrote: "A modern democracy is a tyranny whose borders are undefined; one discovers how far one can go only by travelling in a straight line until one is stopped." How prescient those words, how even more frighteningly relevant today.

In volatile international politics, blatant injustices are now committed invoking the good name of democracy. Al-Qa'ida, Hamas, Hizbollah, Catholic and Protestant paramilitary fighters in Northern Ireland use religion to justify their terrible crimes against humanity. The US, Britain, Australia, Russia and others today use democracy to cover their tyrannical actions and policies. Israel terrorises and murders Palestinians in response to suicide bombers who terrorise and murder Jews. Vladimir Putin's troops crush Chechen communities but there is no condemnation from our leaders. Mugabe's crimes are nothing in comparison to what the Russian leader is getting away with. In all these cases, both sides ignore human rights, fair rules of engagement, various conventions and international law.

You may think it offensive that I suggest there is an equivalence between those we describe as "terrorists" and the actions of civilised democrats. But to be scrupulously fair in this world, one does have an obligation to ask these uncomfortable questions. And we must expect better from those who say they are legitimate rulers who live in an ordered universe.

Passions understandably flare when blameless Italians, Japanese, Chinese, American and other hostages are snatched and held, sometimes cruelly slaughtered by the hidden enemies of the coalition in Iraq. We hear from ex-hostages from previous times how desperate they felt, how they went mad within days of being held. And we denounce these brutes resoundingly.

But these infringements of human rights and laws are simply a replication of what we have been doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the US in Guantanamo Bay. Men have been snatched and held without due process, sometimes tortured and killed, by our side. As Baroness Helena Kennedy QC points out in her new book, Just Law: "For over two years hundreds of men have been detained in a legal limbo with no access to the writ of habeas corpus to determine whether their detention is legally justified. Links with al-Qa'ida have been made in very few cases. It is believed the majority were men in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Some of these prisoners will undoubtedly have gone mad. Others are "rendered" to countries where they can be tortured more rigorously and may have died. Useful outsourcing you may call this. Hundreds of people, including women and children have been blown up in Fallujah in the past few days. We still don't know how many innocent Iraqis have died or are dying as a result of sanctions and this war.

Do we really believe that such carnage and ruthlessness are OK, understandable, even admirable if perpetrated by democratic nations? Tony Blair and George Bush and Ariel Sharon and Vladimir Putin and others clearly do. They propagandise democracy to suit their own purposes.

Meanwhile dictators, autocrats and various kinds of Stalinists carry on their campaign against the system which could empower their cowed and controlled people.

Thank God for real democrats who refuse to be fooled by the first lot or scared by the second. They will keep the flame alive even in these blasted times, people who remain truly and uncompromisingly committed to genuine political choice, to essential freedoms, to human rights and international laws and conventions, to common standards for all. Tony Blair was once among these spirits. In a book published by the Foreign Policy Centre in 2002, he wrote compellingly about internationalising democracy: "We need to be clear what we mean by justice and community, the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and a pluralist society are universal and worthy of respect in every culture." How hollow his words sound today.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

Comments