Monthly Archives: July 2013

I Told You So! You Don’t Want Islam Running the Department of Waste Management

In February of 2011, over two years ago, I posted a blog with the title “Do You Really Want Islam Running the Department of Waste Management?” With the rise and now fall of Morsi in Egypt we had a chance to watch what happens when the Muslim Brotherhood or Islam is governing. It wasn’t pretty. Morsi was dumped by the Egyptian military for his autocratic and incompetent governance. Local Egyptians have been “put off” by the shortfall in fuel, electricity, and a crumbling economy. Human Rights Watch said that Morsi continued the abusive practices of Mubarak, and any number of journalists and political activists have been prosecuted unfairly.

The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies reported on July 9, 2013 that apparently a document proving six-figure payments to top Muslim Brotherhood officials has surfaced. This document is important because as Islamists the Brotherhood claimed that they were more religious and had higher morals and were less subject to corruption. Morsi had apparently replaced hundreds of judges and officials with Muslim Brotherhood figures and was assumed to have adopted the political corruption of his predecessors.

It’s just possible that Morsi failures signal the end of religious politics in Egypt. Much of the population is unhappy with the Muslim Brotherhood’s politicization of religion and unfair treatment of the opposition. The Egyptian Constitution is wise with respect to its principles of separation of religion and politics. Religious parties are illegal because they could not maintain the respect for the differences between religion and politics. The Muslim Brotherhood has failed to respect this principle which is crucial for democracy.

Democracy through its persistent debate and contest maintains a check and balances system that is constantly responding to needs and threats posed by different groups in society. Different religious, ethical, and political groups need to have their rights met but also achieve a degree of unity. Such unity will not be found in a comprehensive political or religious system; that is, a system of fixed ideas about the universe and preference for only those who hold such ideas. In that case the political entity would be governed by a single group with the regular maximization of differences and inequality. The most successful form of unity tying pluralistic groups together is broad but not necessarily very deep. It represents a political conception of justice that is capable of including multiple groups.

Hence, the logic of the European liberal experience has demonstrated that tolerance cannot be separated from liberalism. And, continuing the logic, tolerance cannot be separated from a loss of certainty. Tolerance results in a loss of faith and in the experience of at least unfreezing one’s attitudes. This is why religious groups – whether they are Muslim, Christian, or Jewish – who are highly Orthodox in their beliefs and unwavering often isolate themselves from others. They fear contamination in the form of exposure to unwanted influences. Tolerance is firmly rooted in a communication process, governed by conditions of civility and debate, which sets into motion political activity that questions one’s own certainty. One of the difficulties for the liberal state is for its members to subscribe to a shared point of view about justice and recede from religious justifications, but subscribe to this shared morality on the basis of their own religion and point of view. The key point here is that the result of discovering this common point of view or common morality is justified on moral grounds acceptable to both competing parties. As Rawls (1993) maintains, this sort of overlapping morality can only emerge from the public sphere on the basis of public reasoning.

Such conditions are very alien to the religious Muslim. Not that this is required because there are ways to think about and interpret Islam in a somewhat more accommodating manner. But such is not the case for the Brotherhood.

Two Ways to Think about Egypt and the Birth Pangs of Democracy

We are in a very real sense witnessing Egypt’s struggle to shed the skin of authoritarianism and emerge as a democracy. One of the more important debates that accompany this struggle is just how democracies do emerge. Must they go through phases? Are certain cultures susceptible to authoritarianism and will never democratize? How long does it take? There is lively debate over these matters and I encourage anyone to read the Journal of Democracy (JOD).

Few people would question the value of democracy as a form of governance. In fact, it is on its way to becoming a universal value. It simply has tremendous advantages such as an outlet for conflict resolution, rarely waging war against one another, promoting privatization and economic development, and generally less likely to abuse its citizens. The thorny issues are still how we turn antiquated cultures into democratic ones. Some people stress preconditions such as economic development, equality, and certain cultural traits having to do with associational skills. Sheri Berman (Journal of Democracy, 18, 2007) offers an insightful summary of how democracies emerge. She explains how the “preconditionists” stress the importance of national prerequisites and others are “universalists” who claim that democracy can develop in many ways and be successful in diverse political environments. The “third wave” of democracy beginning in 1974 seemed to favor the “universalists” since dozens of countries with diverse cultural backgrounds made the transition.

Egypt seems to be one more domino falling into line after Tunisia, Libya, and Syria. The universalists are convinced that democracy can emerge anywhere and such an attitude prompted the United States incursion into Iraq and Afghanistan. We were convinced that we can plant the seeds of democracy and watch them grow in these alien soils. It remains to be seen just how naïve we have been. But more interesting, and related more directly to Egypt, is a new perspective by preconditionists who insist that a developmental path must be followed and places like Egypt have much to do to cultivate that path. Fareed Zakaria suggests there must be a tradition of liberalism for democracy to succeed. In the end, the march toward a stable democracy is long and slow but the best way to understand these transitions is to study the countries that have experienced them.

First of all, there is the matter of overthrowing authoritarian regimes and then the matter of replacing them with democracy. These are two different processes requiring two different sensitivities. The old order will desperately hold onto its privileges, and we are seeing some of that now with Egypt’s military. On the other hand, some theorists believe that a strong military and authoritarian government will lead to democracy faster than a weak and feeble semi-democracy. We’ll have to wait and see what direction the Egyptian military takes. Berman in her article mentioned above concludes that it is easier to bring down an authoritarian order then it is to replace it with a stable new one. That is probably a pretty safe conclusion.

In the end, the path to democracy is complex and neither the “preconditionists” or the “universalists” are completely correct. Democracy does not come into being peacefully and it does not emerge in a straight line. It is certainly true that political qualities such as freedom, prosperity, and tolerance both stimulate democratic sensibilities and are in turn developed as a result of democratic behavior. I’m afraid there are no easy answers for the Egyptians. They must undo an old order but put into effect a new one of which they have no experience. It is of little consequence to those living in Egypt now, but only future generations will bring new democratic opportunities to the Egyptians.

Dangerously Rigid Political Opinions Can be Changed: Here is One Approach

Extreme opinions are one of the thorniest issues when it comes to trying to solve problems and the necessary “difficult conversations” required. But related to extreme opinions are rigid opinions; that is, those people who hold firm opinions from which they will not waiver. They are convinced that they are correct and will not listen or engage in communication designed to solve problems or result in integrative solutions to.

A recent study in the journal Psychological Science (2013) found that those who hold extremely rigid opinions often support those opinions by the illusion of understanding. These people believe that they understand things better than they actually do. The study examined how much people really understood a particular policy or issue, and the extent to which the rigidity of their opinions contributed to polarization. The authors then predicted that asking subjects in the experiment to explain political issues would make them aware of how poorly they actually understood issues and hence they would subsequently moderate their opinions. We will get to the results of the study in a moment. But first it’s important to say something about extreme opinions and their deleterious effects on the political process. Polarization, or the increased perceived distances between people’s political opinions and the resulting paralysis with respect to problem-solving, is a serious problem.

After Obama was elected president Mitch McConnell in the United States Senate declared that the only agenda for him was to make sure the president did not succeed. If we take this statement seriously it means that this elected official will subject himself to no communication that upsets his belief system. He has made decisions about where he stands and will not subject them to any decision-making processes to the contrary. This is not much different than the religious Muslim or Orthodox Jew who has a comprehensive worldview and will not depart from it.

Rigid opinions are capable of inciting violence. Such opinions are usually accompanied by intense belief that includes emotions and justifies strong reactions. We can see this operating when politicians or religious people use the “politics as a war” metaphor. It codes into the discourse all of the language of war including the fact that your adversary is your “enemy” and he or she must be “vanquished”. So political leaders have enemies lists and incorporate all of the aggressive and clandestine language associated with such lists. Our culture is filled with individuals, journalists, and talk show hosts characterized by combative personalities who are more rigid than extreme.

Throughout the 1980s conservatives made considerable progress by maligning liberals and turning the word “liberal” into a shibboleth used to attack democrats. Again, I’m less concerned about the content of a political opinion that I am its fixed nature. An opinion becomes extreme and dangerous when it cannot be moderated or there is no sense of perspective and proportion. Politics is not warfare; in fact, it is the antidote to warfare. Politics and communication with those who are unlike you is the alternative to warfare. It is the only consequential and morally legitimate means of solving problems and avoiding violence.

So what did the authors of the study referred to above discover? Interestingly, they found that those people with particularly strong opinions were unjustified in their confidence with respect to how thoroughly they actually understood policies. Very simply, they understood policies and political positions considerably less than they thought. When subjects in the experiment were asked to produce what are termed “mechanistic explanations” they were exposed to their ignorance and thereby moderated their opinions. Mechanistic explanations are explanations about how things actually work such as legal positions and social policies. When subjects in the study were simply asked to list the reasons that they supported something they were less likely to be influenced by their own lack of knowledge and did not moderate their positions. The assumption is that asking someone to list the reasons for supporting or not supporting a political position allows them to tap into values and general principles that do not require much knowledge and are more fundamental emotional attachments.

It turns out that educating people about how policies and positions actually work tends to increase their exposure to other perspectives and improves the quality of debate. This is one more weapon in the “difficult conversation” arsenal (to continue the war metaphor) that can serve as a corrective and ameliorate the polarization process. Rigid opinions will not disappear but improving knowledge promises to be an effective unfreezing of attitudes procedure.

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