I remember in 2006 when during the midterm elections, Democrats and Republicans were fighting for the control of Senate. Although the popularity of George W Bush was waning due to a host of factors such as Iraq war and the Katrina Hurricane mismanagement, but it was still a very close fight. In the USA, some seats are considered solid Republicans and some are solid Democrats. Who controls the Senate is eventually decided in what are known as “toss up” constituencies.
One of the presumably “solid” republican seats was of Senator George Allen of Virginia. As the campaign drew to a close, a controversy stirred up which ultimately led to George Allen’s defeat by a few thousand votes. The controversy erupted because in one of the speeches, Senator which at that time was leading the polls by a double digit percentage, called one of the associates of his Democratic rival as “Macacca” which is a racial slur. It was perhaps nothing but a verbal gaffe which however was seized upon by the rival party with full ferocity. Suddenly George Allen was fighting for his survival as his lead started to erode in the polls. Despite several clarifications, he could not stem the reversal and went on to lose the seat. With the loss of that seat, GOP lost the control of the senate as well.
This incidence showed the all important aspect of what is known as “Political Correctness” especially with respect to ethnic minorities in the US society. What George Allen did was not something illegal but was politically incorrect and once it was aired in the public sphere, it resulted in his political demise. This is what defines a modern Western democracy today: You cannot get away by indulging in any racial insult.
When strong incumbents lose their seats over one gaffe, it shows that the population also, not just the state, takes treatment of minorities extremely seriously. A country’s tolerant character is often epitomized by what it considers politically correct.
In fact if we take a deeper look at most of the western countries, we will see the same pattern. This is not to say that racial or ethnical discrimination simply does not exist. It does exist but population and the state by and large do not endorse it and are ready to react when a certain line is crossed.
Contrast this with a country like Pakistan. Here our politicians and media personalities can easily whip up hatred against minorities or utter derogatory remarks about a religious minority and get away with it, at times with a thundering applause.
But politically correct behavior is just one aspect of the Western society. The state and its laws are often geared towards protection of minority. Although democracy is a game of numbers but many of the Western societies have taken extra care that minority on ethnic/religious lines should be adequately safeguarded against majority’s possible hegemony. Particularly after the horrors inflicted by the Nazi Germany and given the fact that Hitler was democratically elected, the West has started to emphasize more on restrictions on majority.
Thus democracy in the West in principle while agreeing to majority rule has to enshrine protection of minorities from possible tyranny of majority. Yes, majority is needed for ensuring expression of popular will but it does not mean that majority should coalesce to infringe the basic rights of the minority particularly when the later is defined along religious or ethnic lines.
For example in United States, Bills of Right go extra step to protect basic individual freedom. These catalogue the rights that have to be upheld by the government, thus protecting, the rights of ANY minority against majority tyranny. Today, these rights are considered the essential element of any liberal democracy. Essentially the Bills of Right RESTRICT the scope of majority and try protecting the minority.
This idea of prevention of tyranny of the majority was explored in detail by the famous British political philosopher John Stuart Mill. In his most famous essay “On Liberty” , he wrote:
”The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others.”
The above principle endeavours to ensure that government elected by majority does not end up being an instrument to exercise tyranny by that majority.
The tyranny of the majority (at times brought through voting mechanism) has been one of the most defining features of the last century. The chequered history in this respect has elevated the need for protection of minorities from possible abuse of the majorities as one of the foremost priorities. The UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, defines not just individual rights but also minimum protections for minorities. Article 27 asserts:
“In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”
The above clearly shows that democracy is not merely a game of numbers but for any law to be democratic, it has to fulfill the criteria of non violation of basic rights of the minorities. Yes while it is true that majority rule is important as a mean of popular expression but at the same time, it is not the ONLY criteria. Democracy is a complex phenomenon and would require other caveats such as adequate protection of minorities. In a true democracy the dominance of majority is counterchecked by proper protection of minorities.
There is a lot to be learnt from the West as it has learnt, perhaps the hard way, the problems which can arise due to discrimination against minorities. Today in Pakistan, we are going through the same period where discrimination, particularly on ethnic and religious lines is increasing and in the process fracturing the social infrastructure. What is needed, particularly on the cultural and political spheres is cultivation of respect for the minorities and also devising legal mechanism (fully enforceable by the state) for their protection.
|Raza Habib Raja is an economist and currently in USA for studies. He has been writing regularly for various publications including Huffington Post, Dawn, Express Tribune, PakTea House and Chowk.com. His interests include Pakistan affairs, reformation of religon and development disciplines. His believes in a tolerant and democratic Pakistan. He is also a co-editor at Pak Tea House.|