John Stuart Mill and the Arab Spring

What would the "On Liberty" author think of the uprisings in the Middle East?

Are freedom and democracy good things for the Middle East? What would John Stuart Mill, one of the most prominent proponents of liberty in the history of the world, have said about the "Arab Spring"? The answers to these questions may surprise you. In his landmark work "On Liberty," Mill meticulously delineates his ideas about liberty. He writes that freedom is good because of its "utility" and its ability to enable a better life for the most people. He argues that people must have freedom of thought, opinion and expression, in order for society to prosper.

In his book, Mill discusses particular instances wherein the authorities can exert their will and control over an individual or society. For Mill, the individual is totally sovereign concerning his own body, and therefore, cannot be reprimanded for harming oneself. However, one's liberty can be restricted in order to "prevent harm to others." This is known as the harm principle.

Also, according to Mill, children should not have sovereign control over their own faculties, and thus can be coerced and controlled, for their own betterment. And finally, Mill explains the last circumstance under which an individual does not deserve freedom:

[For backward states, the] early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great, that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them...Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.

Is the Middle East comprised of backward states? Can Egypt be improved by free and equal discussion? Are Egypt and countries in the Middle East in the middle of revolutions really capable of practicing democracy, or are they better off under despotism of the variety Mill describes?

According to Rick Moran of The American Thinker:

[A 2010] Pew survey found wide streams of opinion in Egypt that seem at the very least inhospitable to democracy. When asked which side they would take in a struggle between “groups who want to modernize the country [and] Islamic fundamentalists,” 59 percent of Egyptians picked the fundamentalists, while 27 percent picked the modernizers. In a country in which the army will likely play a deciding role in selecting the next political leadership, just 32 percent believe in civilian control of the military. And a majority, 54 percent, support making segregation of men and women in the workplace the law throughout Egypt. There’s more. When asked whether suicide bombing can ever be justified, 54 percent said yes (although most believe such occasions are “rare”) Eighty-two percent supported stoning for those who commit adultery.

Does this seem like a country ready to elect its own representatives?

We have already witnessed the disaster of the Palestinians in their quest for Democracy; wherein Hamas was elected to power, and has been at war with Israel ever since.

The Hamas charter reads:

Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it…Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious.

Palestinian Television constantly airs anti-Semitic vitriol, wherein Jews have been compared to the AIDS virus.

In Lebanon, the terrorist organization Hezbollah has received significant support from the electorate in recent elections.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah has stated, "If they [Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide" (Daily Star, Oct. 23, 2002).

Is it really a good thing for members of Hamas and Hezbollah to have freedom of expression? Is it a good thing that Hamas is able to teach children that the killing of Jews is a noble act? Would Mill think it was a good idea for these people to publicize their opinions, in order to expedite a second Holocaust? Are Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and assorted other Islamists across the Muslim world, the "barbarians" Mill was referring to who would be better served -- they and others in their society -- under "despotism"?

Plato warned against democracy because he feared the ascendancy of demagogues, who would whip up the passions of the people for nefarious causes. Of course, all societies, including America, face the problem of demagogues. However, in America we are not concerned that a majority of the people are going to take seriously the call by some for the Jews to be annihilated. The Middle East is a different story. In the Middle East, people do take this type of rhetoric very seriously, as anti-Semitic propaganda has brainwashed large swaths of Arab societies. In the Middle East, "free and equal discussion" can quickly degenerate into rabid chants of "death to America" and "death to Israel."

In the West we reflexively look at democracy as a good thing for everybody. However, in order for democracy to prosper, a society must have as its foundation certain values, such as tolerance, liberty (especially freedom of speech and religion), personal responsibility and the renouncement of violence. If any of these values are missing, the society will crumble. Unfortunately, many countries in the Middle East do not tolerate Jews or Christians, preach violence against Israel and the Jews, and do not believe in freedom of religion. Should people in countries like this be given the opportunity to elect their own representatives?

The Bush Doctrine held that bringing democracy to Muslim countries would be better for them and us. Is he right? Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt kept the peace with Israel for thirty years. Now, within a few months of his disposal, there has already been a serious incident on the Israel/Egypt border, where several Israelis were murdered in a terrorist attack.

Is it in the interest of free, liberal societies and world peace to promote democracy in societies that are controlled by radical Islamic elements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? The verdict is still out.

Democracy, after all, may not be a bad thing for the Middle East. In the end, it is possible George Bush might be vindicated, and in 50 years, he might be considered among the best presidents in the history of America for catalyzing the democratization of the Middle East. For that to happen, countries in the Middle East must marginalize, and eventually eliminate, the barbarians—such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood---in their midst. At the moment, that is not happening, as radical elements in the Palestinians territories, Egypt and Libya, seem to be emboldened.

It is important to remember that democracy is not a good end in itself. It is merely just a means to a hopeful, and usually, good end.