The dramatic collapse of the Soviet empire under pressure from “people power” stirred the imagination of intellectuals, especially in the United States, where rather extravagant “the world is becoming just like us” interpretations quickly became orthodoxy. A think tank called Freedom House purported to show that in 1900, when monarchies and empires still predominated, there were no electoral democracies with universal suffrage and competitive multi-party elections.

There were a few “restricted democracies” – 25, accounting for just 12.4 per cent of the world’s population. By 1950, with the beginnings of decolonisation and the postwar reconstruction of Japan and Europe, there were 22 democracies, accounting for 31 per cent of the world’s population, and a further 21 restricted democracies, covering 11.9 per cent of the world’s population. By the end of the century, the report observed, democracy had arrived on the shores of Latin America, post-communist Europe, and parts of Africa and Asia.

At least on paper, 119 of 192 countries could be described as “electoral democracies” – 58.2 per cent of the global population. Eighty-five of these – 38 per cent of the world’s inhabitants – enjoyed forms of democracy “respectful of basic human rights and the rule of law.” So the report found that the ideal of “liberal democracy” was now within practical reach of the whole world. “In a very real sense,” ran the ebullient conclusion, “the 20th century has become the ‘Democratic Century,’” defined by “the extension of the democratic franchise to all parts of the world and to all major civilisations and religions.”

A similar story was told by “end of history” man Francis Fukuyama (1952– ), who said the collapse of communism proved that “the class issue has actually been successfully resolved in the West,” and the ideals of liberal representative democracy – free and fair elections backed by respect for civil rights and guarantees of private property ownership and free markets – had finally crushed their competitors. Perhaps, speculated Fukuyama, the world now stood at “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution,” with “Western liberal democracy . . . the final form of human government.”

This was big but biased talk. Its presumption that American-style liberal democracy was the gold standard came as no surprise. It was perhaps to be expected of a global empire whose mainstream intellectuals viewed the world narcissistically, through the narrow lens of its unquestioned self-image.

But the certainty was misguided, most obviously because the period since 1945 has witnessed the invention and diffusion of many unusual democratic customs that defied the norms of US liberal democracy. As the world came to be shaped by democracy, we could say, democracy became worldly, more cosmopolitan and less dogmatically liberal.

Consider the thought-provoking but not atypical case of Senegal, the western African country where the importation of elections from Europe showed that democracy could mix with négritude (a Pan-African positive sense of blackness) and meld with a predominantly agrarian Muslim society to produce unusual customs that were simply not describable as “liberal democracy.” Here was a people introduced to Islamic customs from across the Sahara by Berber merchants in the mid-15 th century; a territory where electoral politics in limited form dated back to 1848, when (unusually) voting rights were granted by the French colonial authorities to the adult men of the principal urban settlements; a country whose French-speaking elites thought of démocratie as a synonym for equality before the law, freedom of association, a free press and the holding of fair and open elections.

Under colonialism, voters were only a tiny minority of the population, but the culture of voting and elections gradually spread, culminating in a victory for male and female suffrage in 1956. Following independence in 1960, the government of Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001) did its best to turn the country into a one-party system. Attempts to ban opposition parties and rig elections failed, partly due to strong support for demokaraasi among Senegal’s Wolof-speaking Muslim majority.

In a remarkable shift of cultural coordinates, some party leaders and journalists, and many citizens, had learned to liken political parties and elections to the sacred place of worship, the mosque. Elections were seen as more than the ousting of a government by ballots, not bullets. They were moments when parties and their leaders resembled muezzins, whose job is to stand atop the minaret to call the faithful – voters – to prayer. Laypeople can become muezzins in Senegalese Islam, so anybody can form and lead a party. Just as at mosque, demokaraasi draws on the principle of rotation of muezzins under the supervision of the imam, the one who stands before the assembled faithful to lead them in prayer. Those who head government resemble the imam (the Arabic root of imām means “in front of”); supported by the wider community and supervised monitory democracy from a distance by the real holders of power, the religious brotherhoods, leaders are expected to guide others through daily life with the help of parties, on the basis that they have been put in front – chosen – by the wider community.

The Shortest History of Democracy

Excerpted with permission from The Shortest History of Democracy: 4,000 Years of Self-Government – A Retelling for Our Times, John Keane, Picador India.