Commentary Magazine


Democracy and Homogeneity in Tunisia

As we try to determine the odds of a successful democracy in post-revolution Tunisia, it’s worth considering the question of ethnic and religious homogeneity. This quote jumped out from a Reuters story: “‘Tunisia is a small country but it has room for everyone and everyone’s ideas. They thought there would be chaos in Tunisia but we are united. We do not have Shi’ites, Christians, Jews. We are all Sunni Muslims and this unites us,’ worshipper Rida Harrathi told Reuters before Friday prayers.”

The argument that there’s room for everyone because everyone is the same sounds funny to American ears, but there’s actually a solid point here. In a wonderful COMMENTARY article from March 2000, James Q. Wilson identified homogeneity as one of four important conditions that have “underlain the emergence and survival of our oldest democracies.” (The other three being isolation, property, and tradition.) Wilson wrote the following:

Several democratic nations are today ethnically diverse, but at the time democracy was being established, that diversity was so limited that it could be safely ignored. England was an Anglo-Saxon nation; America, during its founding period, was overwhelmingly English; so also, by and large, were Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. . . . I am not suggesting that ethnic homogeneity is a good thing or ought to be preserved at any cost; nor am I denying that democracies can become ethnically heterogeneous. Certainly one of the great glories of the United States is to have become both vigorously democratic and ethnically diverse. But it is a rare accomplishment. Historically, and with few exceptions, the growth of democracy and of respect for human rights was made easier—often much easier—to accomplish in nations that had a more or less common culture.

Indeed, in the formative years of a nation, ethnic diversity can be as great a problem as foreign enemies. The time, power, and money that must be devoted to maintaining one ethnic group in power is at least equivalent to the resources needed to protect against a foreign enemy. When one part of a people thinks another part is unworthy of rights, it is hard for a government to act in the name of the “rights of the people.” That is why democracy in England preceded democracy in the United Kingdom: because many parts of that kingdom—the Scots, the Irish—had very different views about who should rule them and how.

This was written three years before the Iraq invasion, but its wisdom readily brings to mind the ongoing challenges of uniting Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis to serve a common national purpose. In addition to being saturated by Sunni Islam, the Tunisian population doesn’t have much in the way of meaningful ethnic division. There are many Berbers among the Arabs, but they’ve all more-or-less assimilated. As the revolt in Tunisia has thrown us all into the tea-leaves-reading business, we could do a lot worse than to consider the question of democracy from this reality-based angle.

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