A democratic election does not make a democracy

After the electoral victory of Hamas, some people and some countries have been saying, “You wanted a democracy, and now you have one. Hamas won the election. Live with it.”

But a democratic election does not quite make a democracy.

It is ironic that an Israeli historian, J.L. Talmon, popularized the term, “totalitarian democracy,” and, at its best, that is what is now at his country’s doorstep.

“Democracy,” from the ancient Greek, did mean at first that people voted for their leaders. But in ancient Greece, more than half the people could not vote — no women, slaves or foreigners allowed. It took many centuries for the idea to develop that all the people should be able to vote, and that the majority of all the people should reign.

But that was not enough. The next light that went on in the minds of civilized people demanded that majority rule should be limited in order to protect the rights of all people under the law, including minorities and individuals. That is what we mean by “democracy” today.

We have had plenty of experience with societies called “democratic” because they allowed voting, although they violated the people’s political rights. A plurality of Germans voted Hitler into power. Now Hamas, whose charter and practices explicitly enshrine violations of human rights, has won an election.

If, as a result, a Hamas government must be called a “democracy” out of some habit of language, at least it must be called an illiberal or totalitarian democracy. And the differences between liberal and illiberal democracies — if we must call them that — have enormous consequences.

Such a government will oppress its own people — especially women, immigrants and those who don’t accept their ideology or their religion. More than that, if history tells us anything, the official hatreds and bigotries will impede peace with neighbors, and cause spreading wars.

The acceptance of Hamas as a “democracy” will seriously spur the totalitarian tide emerging from certain sectors of the Middle East. In “democratic” elections, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt recently received a heavy vote, as did Hezbollah in Lebanon. Both movements, like Hamas, are radical Islamist, explicitly illiberal and terrorist groups, so recognized by the European Union, Japan, the United States and many other nations.

Of course, liberal democracies do not spring full-blown and overnight out of the past. And we should never expect every nation to install governments and constitutions in the exact image of America and the West.

But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as the operative word indicates, describes the universal aspirations of humankind. Its fundamental political principles indicate the direction societies, within their own cultural designs, must move in order to qualify as “democratic.” The charters and proclamations of Hamas and the other radical Islamist movements point inflexibly and illiberally in the opposite direction.

So, in the interests of peace and democratic rights around the world, it is incumbent upon America, Europe and the United Nations (which created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) to steadfastly refuse to deal with, or provide any financial or diplomatic support to a Hamas-controlled government, which is dangerously undemocratic despite having won a vote.

But there looms a gigantic loophole. People like former President Jimmy Carter are saying, in effect, “we can’t recognize Hamas unless they accept peace and the existence of Israel — but there was a democratic election, and as long as the Hamas government behaves properly, we should give it support so that it will behave properly.” Both the External Relations Commissioner of the European Union and the U.N. Envoy to the Middle East have made similar statements.

That loophole needs to be shut tight. Hamas may well “behave (and talk) properly” until it gets enough money to stabilize and to proceed with its illiberal goals, such as the extermination of Israel and of any Jew in sight.

Given its history, if Hamas wants to convince us that it is on a truly democratic road, it must, in its charter, expunge the bigotry, renounce terrorism and accept the existence of Israel. And it must do at least that before it receives any financial or other support.

Earl Raab is executive director emeritus of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.