Not just democracy, but republicanism

Copyright Ó 2004, by Alec Rawls

In Iraq, America again confronts 1858, when the great contest was whether new states entering the union would be slave or free. The rallying cry of Stephen Douglas and the Democrats was democracy, or “popular sovereignty.” New states should choose for themselves, by majority rule, whether to allow slavery. The rallying cry of Abraham Lincoln and the new Republican party was republicanism: the system of liberty under law. The United States is not merely a democracy, but a republic, and new states must be republics, established to secure liberty. The majority must not be allowed deny liberty to a minority.

The theocrats of the Islamic world are in the position of the slaveholders of the old south. They hope in Iraq to use democracy to impose unrepublican laws—the Islamic Shari’a law—which subjugates women and relegates “infidels” to inferior legal status. If Islamic democracy is allowed to be unrepublican, it will fix the world as a house divided.

Democracies have an admirable record of not engaging in wars of conquest, but don’t expect the same thing from unrepublican democracy. A nation that believes in oppression internally will seek the same opportunities externally. Republican democracies are peaceful as an expression of their inward values. Unrepublican Islamic democracies will continue the Islamic world’s ugly record of bloody borders.

In the wake of World War II, the allies did not just impose democracy on the Axis powers, we imposed republican constitutions, placing limited government powers and extensive protection for individual rights in the German and Japanese constitutions. Because the Iraqis are themselves a victimized people, rather than aggressors, we are allowing them to write their own constitution, but it is imperative that we set limits.

When a majority oppresses an individual it is a crime just as much as when an individual oppresses an individual. As the overseers of Iraq’s transition, our moral responsibility is first of all not to abet oppression. People who we have freed cannot be allowed to turn around and, under our protection, place the yoke on their own minorities or, in the case of women, on their own majority.

It may be sufficient to impose minimal individual liberties, so long as equal protection of the laws is firmly ensconsed and the unequal protection of Shari’a law is not allowed into the constitution itself. A theocratic majority will then have to live under whatever privations it imposes on others and, as the Iranian experience suggests, the majority will soon enough sicken of theocracy and want to throw it off. If it were not for the supra-democratic power of Iran’s Guardian Council of ruling Mullahs, Iran’s theocracy would have long since been overthrown.

Democracy is the most important component of republicanism. If tyrants try to oppress the majority, they will always lose so long as democracy survives. But liberty for some is not enough. The difficulty is how to impose any requirements on a people we have not subjugated, and do not want to subjugate.

There is some chance that Iranian perfidy will do the trick for us. Most Iraqis must realize that Islamic radicals from around the Islamic world are waging war on them. A particularly bloody attack was waged on an Iraqi police station last week to free some captured Iranians. A little more of this and the efforts of Iraqi mullahs to follow the Iranian path will be seen as traitorous.

For our part, we should be urging republican principles, marking out republican minimums, and explaining every day the basis for our insistence: that our obligation is to all Iraqis, not just the majority.

Alec Rawls is a contributing editor for The Stanford Review. He is currently writing a book on republicanism. Contact

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