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Islamic societies of North Africa

Islamic societies of North Africa

Islamic societies of North Africa

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The Islamic societies of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, for example, have religion-based cultures and legal systems incompatible with the individualism, secularism, religious tolerance, and permissiveness inherent in the idea of liberal democracy. If it’s true that people cannot be forced to be free, it’s equally true that starving people cannot eat freedom. For people who are starving, democracy is as a vague and meaningless abstraction. Any government that can alleviate the misery of daily existence is a good government.

But it would also be a mistake to sell democracy short. Many commentators attributed the failure of Germany’s Weimar Republic to an allegedly ingrained antidemocratic passion for order and authority among the Germans. By the same token, Japan had virtually no experience with democracy before World War II, and its consensus-based patron–client culture appeared to be at odds with the basic principles of democracy. And who would have thought that democracy had any chance of succeeding in India?

Are these nations exceptions that prove the rule? The experiences of such diverse countries as France, Germany, Japan, India, and Israel suggest that constitutional democracy is a surprisingly adaptable form of government that can work in a variety of social, cultural, and economic contexts. But the fact that it has yet to take root in the Islamic world or Africa is a cautionary note—one we ignore at our own peril.

Parliament or President? A Brief Comparison

The purpose of legislatures in both systems is to enact laws, levy taxes, control expenditures, and oversee the executive. But, despite these similarities, the British parliament is surprisingly different from the U.S. Congress.In the British tradition, Parliament is sovereign. According to Sir William Blackstone (1723–1780), the famed British jurist, Parliament can do “everything that is not naturally impossible.” In the words of another authoritative writer, “This concept of parliamentary sovereignty is of great importance and distinguishes Britain from most other democratic countries. Parliament may enact any law it likes, and no other body can set the law aside on the grounds that it is unconstitutional or undesirable.”* In contrast, the U.S. system places the Constitution above even Congress. Ever since the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, in which Chief Justice John Marshall used an obscure provision in the Judiciary Act of 1789 to establish the principle of judicial review, the U.S. Supreme Court has successfully asserted its right and duty to overturn any law passed by Congress it deems unconstitutional