While British politics takes a holiday, across the Mediterranean in Egypt and Syria, people are fighting and dying for their beliefs. I find no simple response to these events beyond sorrow at the mass of suffering. But the scenes we have witnessed as people battle for the future of their countries has set me reflecting, as both a citizen and a Buddhist, on the value of democracy.
Our politics is often fractious, but practising democracy means engaging with radically different opinions. I grew up in a strongly socialist family living in deeply Tory suburbia in the era of tribal politics. At election time the Labour poster in our house was a red punctuation mark in the line of blue stretching down the street. Then, I felt estranged from our neighbours. I now think that supporting one political party and being a democrat should actually mean believing in the value of your opponents. However strongly we hold our beliefs, democracy forces us to debate with people with whom we disagree, and perhaps listen to them as well.
Potentially, democracy both requires and fosters humility. It brings the uncomfortable knowledge that people are different and that none of us possesses the whole truth. From a Buddhist perspective this brings us closer to reality. As the philosopher Karl Popper remarked, ‘Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.’
Being ignorant, none of us fully understands the world, nor can we control it. Buddhism suggests that we conceal our ignorance by adopting views and ideologies and then seeing the world through their prism. These views meet our emotional needs and serve our self-interest while dressing them up as something much grander. That distances us from reality and Buddhism teaches that this inevitably brings suffering.
It may seem ironic that I am offering a religious perspective on how we form ideologies and use them to oppress others when religion has been used to do just that. Indeed, this has happened within Buddhism itself, as we see in Burma right now. Any belief system can become a badge of identity and an end in itself that overrides what the beliefs actually proclaim.
Religions function best when they offer a distinctive voice within a culture and remain in dialogue with others. The dialogue that stops beliefs becoming ideologies is the essence of democracy, and perhaps the one cause in which we can wholeheartedly believe.