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Democracy or the Caliphate

By David Long - posted Tuesday, 21 August 2007

On the July 4, 1776, when the American colonists declared themselves independent of Great Britain, they published The Declaration of Independence. Written by Thomas Jefferson, the document justified the American’s right of revolution against a tyrannical government.

Abraham Lincoln was to say that The Declaration of Independence was intended to apply to all people at all times, a continual reminder of the nature of just government.

Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism.


The Declaration states that it contains self evident truths: all men are created equal and all men are endowed by nature and nature’s God with certain unalienable rights; and because all men are created equal, just government requires the consent of the governed. This equality, therefore, is the great principle behind democratic (i.e., republican) government.

Yet, the Declaration goes further. By consenting to be governed in a certain way, we do not give a government unlimited power to do as it wishes, even if the Australian High Court likes to speak of the grant of “plenary powers” in the Australian Constitution.

We consent to a government in order that the government might better secure our rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We can hardly be said to consent to a government so that the government, by the use of its “plenary power”, might then deprive us of what The Declaration refers to as our natural rights. We do not and can not surrender our natural rights to any one. These are unalienable, fixed, as it were, according to our nature.

One of the great innovations of a republican government which recognises the principles of the Declaration is the natural right to freedom of conscience or religion. As Jefferson states:

The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extends to such acts only as are injurious to others.

A government, even one consented to by the majority, which denied a minority’s freedom of religion, would be acting tyrannically.


When the ABC’s Virginia Trioli interviewed Wasim Doureihi, a spokesman for the Islamic group, Hizb ut Tahrir (Lateline July 6, 2007), Mr Doureihi conceded that the object of his organisation was the “establishment of an Islamic Caliphate”. When Ms Trioli asked (numerous times) how Jews would be treated in the Caliphate, Mr Doureihi eventually replied that Jews would be treated well. He did not explain what he meant by “well”.

The Koran, for example, considers the Jewish religion as inferior to Islam and imposed restrictions on Jews within its boundaries. And, Doureihi may not have noticed, that Middle Eastern calls for the restoration of a Caliphate are made by the same people who threaten to drive the Jews into the sea.

A Caliphate would, therefore, appear unreasonable to people used to living in democracy even if the Caliphate does hold out the promise of eternal salvation. As every reasonable person knows that salvation can not be guaranteed only hoped for, that fact alone would be reason enough to always ask the governed for their consent.

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About the Author

David Long is a lawyer and writer with an interest in classical political philosophy and Shakespeare. He has written previously for The Bulletin and The Review.

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