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In Defense of Representative Democracy   (7)

Democracy and Religion:

The place of religion in a democratic society is one of the most complex questions one could venture to ask. The answer, however, is not that easy nor that definitive as we can see from some of the writings posted most recently on this very page. The debate of this issue must be grounded correctly; otherwise it becomes useless and does not reach any meaningful conclusion. I strongly believe that the right way to approach this dilemma is through a diligent constitutional search. In other words, this issue goes to the heart of a societyís constitutional arrangement.

To put it simply, if we believe that we need to organize our society in a democratic fashion, then we must agree that we need a constitution. More specifically, we need to seriously consider what type of constitution do we need? Who has the right to decide itís form and function? What kind of institutional framework we need to create? How long will it take? What examples do we need to study, analyze and perhaps even imitate?! In short, what are the nature, form and function of the democracy we seek to build? Without tackling these serious and very difficult questions, we will not even come close to understanding (not to mention realizing) our dream of a just, democratic and free Libya. We will be only venting our anger and shouting in the wilderness. Alas! What a waste of time and energy?

It is important to bear in mind that there are several broad generalizations that can be made about the role and place of religion in a democratic diverse society. First, in a true democracy, citizenship is not dependent on adherence to an official religion or even a state approved religion. Thus, religion is not a constitutive element of citizenship. Second, equally will accepted rule is that in a democracy the government may not penalize citizens, or more accurately "persons within itís jurisdiction" because they profess a faith that is not shared by the majority of their fellow citizens. And third, under a decent democratic system citizens enjoy the freedom to express their religious views, and to form institutions consistent with those views, without imposing their faith on others or without fear of punishment or discrimination.

In the West, for example, many constitutional and religious theorists have concluded that in a "liberal" democracy religion is a purely private affair. People are, and should be, free to believe and practice what they please, the argument goes, but as a price of that liberty, they may not make religion a public affair, whether public includes the government or other large social institutions. No doubt, public in this context (say in the current American system) means that the government may not involve itself in religion, or alter its practices and policies to advance any religious interests. The emphasis on individual, not social or communal religion fits well with the general individualistic themes of contemporary capitalist western societies. On the one hand, western democracy assumes freedom of religion; on the other, it assumes restrictions on that freedom, not because a particular religious practice is too dangerous to tolerate, but because the very success of free religion is seen as antithetical to "liberal" democracy. It is from this perception that liberal, libertarian conservatives, and even some religious thinkers share in accepting the view that religion is a purely private affair.

Advocates of a private role for religion insist that for a real democracy to function there must be the possibility of shared political and social conversations. That is, discussions of public policies and issues related to the welfare of all citizens must be accessible to all people. An argument in a democracy about which of two flatly contradictory things God said cannot be resolved. What God said cannot be debated and resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved in a legislative body or by a pluralistic community acting collectively. That is a community encompassing several faiths or several interpretations of the same religion. Therefore, unless we are to allow ourselves to dissolve into separate faith communities, held together by only God knows what, we must forge a common ground where a common language can be employed and common constitutional values that can be justly and equally implemented.

History teaches us that blind faith can lead to dangerous excess, but there are also dangers in a social discourse that is devoid of binding moral values. In a democratic society there is no religion that predominates to the point where it is acceptable to impose one single religious faith or worldview on everyone. Although this is a matter of principle, it is also a question of prudence. I cannot conceive of a true Libyan democracy that did not tolerate minority faiths and views, even at the expense of other important religious values. What we need is a fair evaluation and hopefully a deeper understanding of the place and function of religion in any constitutional democratic system we struggle to implement in our country. It is time to put our small differences aside and work together (both inside and outside) to return constitutional governance to Libya. Using peaceful means is the way to go.

PS: If Clinton could win using the slogan: "It is the economy stupid"! -- I say we would win too under the banner: "It is the CONSTITUTION stupid"!!

To be continued

Abdelrahim Saleh


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