Monthly Archives: August 2013

Beware philosophers bearing simple answers – Sharia and democracy

by Rhodri C. Williams

The BBC Magazine is currently running a series by philosopher Roger Scruton on democracy. In the latest installment, he gives his views on the compatibility of Islamic Shari’a law and democracy. As with a fair bit of what I read on these topics, I took issue. A little more unusually this time, I took issue strongly enough to be moved to reply.

Scruton’s starting point is a comparison of the states of Eastern Europe that resulted from the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 with the states that resulted further south from the simultaneous dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. While such a comparison undoubtedly provides a useful analytical window into the current tumult in the Middle East, that is where my agreement with Mr. Scruton ends.

Quite simply put, Scruton’s analysis treats the two categories of post-imperial states as antithetical, positing a nearly unbridgeable divide in historical experience and political culture and going on to issue a fatwa on the incompatibility of Shari’a with democracy. To me, this argument not only essentialises and oversimplifies the diverse experiences of entire regions but also misses the wonderful opportunity that the recognition of obvious commonalities would provide to draw historical lessons relevant both to the Middle East and the (less dramatically so but undoubtedly troubled) frontiers of Europe.

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The World Bank adopts sound principles on land, but HRW points out gaps in practice

by Rhodri C. Williams

Two very interesting reports linked land, development and the World Bank’s role last week. Released on precisely the same day, the reports reflected a good deal of consensus on what should be done and rather less agreement regarding what is actually being done.

First, on 22 June, Human Rights Watch released a report criticizing the World Bank for failing to take human rights issues sufficiently into account in its development calculus – with one of the primary examples being the confiscation of land and villageization of its occupants in the Gambella region of Ethiopia. Then, almost as if in response, the Bank released a new study the same day asserting that pro-poor land reform in Africa could provide tremendous benefits at minimal costs by securing the rights of local communities and protecting them against encroachment by large investment projects.

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