True faith speaks in the voice of reason

February 5, 2005
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 5th February 2005

The people of Iraq have voted. Now they need our support, our prayers, our trust. For what they have begun to build is not an American democracy but a genuinely Iraqi one. From here on, they must be given the freedom to shape their own future.

It took real courage to vote in last Sunday’s elections. There had been many threats of terror. One group gave warning that it had 400 suicide bombers. The reality was less severe but it was still serious. There were attacks on several polling centres. Thirty-five people lost their lives. The 60 per cent turnout was, under the circumstances, a monumental testimony to the fearlessness of the Iraqi people.

Their courage was not just phys- ical but metaphysical. Some religious leaders had insisted that voting was a betrayal of Islam. Democracy, the will of the people, is, they argued, incompatible with theocracy, the will of God. Such voices have been heard in the course of history in Judaism and Christianity as well. They speak a truth, but only a half-truth.

What makes democratic politics morally compelling is its self-limitation. It does not claim to know the truth — just what is workable, doable. It does not legislate for eternity but only for the here and now. We do not turn to politicians to know whether God exists, whether human beings have souls, or whether there is life after death. But neither do we rely on sacred scriptures alone to know whether we should invest in information technology, introduce value-added tax or encourage the use of solar energy.

Yet for all its limitations, democratic politics does achieve things of value to a society of individuals who believe in God. It gives everyone a voice, a vote, a share in power. It allows different groups — Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Marsh Arabs — to work together to shape a society that belongs to all, not just some. It allows for transitions of power without civil war or assassination. It insists that my freedom may not be purchased at the cost of yours.

There is nothing sacred about democracy. As Winston Churchill famously said: democracy is the worst system of government — apart from all the others. It is the least bad way of handling the distribution of power in a society of conflicting interests. It is one of the few honourable alternatives to tyranny on the one hand, anarchy on the other.

It privileges reason and persuasion over threats and intimidation. It allows dissenting voices to be heard. It grants an equal say to people regardless of their wealth or power, colour or creed. Democracy is not a religious institution but it honours religious values — not least the dignity of human beings as the image of God.

It was the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting the United States in the early 1830s, who saw most clearly the religious wisdom of democracy. “In France,” he wrote, “I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country.”

The reason was that although religion took no part in government, it was “the first of their political institutions”. It provided the moral base of civic society. It created communities, strengthened families and motivated philanthropic endeavours. What de Tocqueville realised was that religion acquires influence when it relinquishes power. It is then that it takes its place not among the rulers but the ruled. It becomes the voice of the voiceless, the conscience of the community, the perennial reminder that there are moral limits of power and that the task of the State is to serve the people, not the people the state.

Truth does not need to be imposed by force. Religion does not prove its case by violence. God is not served by acts of terror. True faith speaks in the voice of reason and respect for others. That is pre-eminently so in the case of Islam, a faith that in its early centuries led the world in philosophy and poetry, mathematics and trade. In al-Andalus it created one of the most gracious societies of the Middle Ages, beautifully evoked by María Rosa Menocal in her book The Ornament of the World.The people of Iraq, with indomitable courage, have begun to write a new chapter in the history of a land that, 5,000 years ago, was the birthplace of civilisation. I, for one, pray for its success.