Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

A Different Kind of Democracy | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Amidst all this clamor in our region regarding elections, democracy and the issues that surround it, which we hear about almost everywhere in the Arab and Islamic worlds, from the elections of members of parliament to members of the local municipality, from the head of state to heads of faculties ─ despite all of this fruitless clamor, we should stop and confront the dilemma that is democracy in our miserable Arab world.

Perhaps the views of the American researcher and journalist Fareed Zakaria regarding democracy in the Arab and Islamic worlds may be provocative and uncomfortable for the advocates of democracy.

Zakaria believes that what is required in the Islamic and Arab worlds “is not more democracy, but less.” This is contrary to the well-known phrase reiterated by advocates of democracy in all its forms that the remedy for all problems with democracy is more democracy. I recall that the Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh used this phrase in commenting on a crisis that was taking place in his country.

Fareed Zakaria is a dedicated researcher and it is difficult to accuse him of bearing some kind of hatred towards Muslims since he is of Indian-Muslim origin. He has long considered the cause of the Islamic world’s opposition to real democracy even after the wave of democracy had swept over most countries following the fall of the Soviet Union.

This question is raised in Zakaria’s book, ‘The Future of Freedom,’ that was based upon an article published in the American Foreign Affairs journal in 1997. The book has since been translated into Arabic and was published last year in Cairo by the Al-Ahram Center for Translation and Publishing.

The basic idea of the book states that it is incorrect [to believe] that by merely adopting democratic rule in the Islamic world, its situation would be rectified and that it would cause its communities to adopt values upon which the idea of democracy was established. Furthermore, it would not mean that these communities would transform automatically, and not necessarily quickly, into societies that are governed by a clear-cut constitutional structure by adopting the solid foundation upon which the “mechanisms” of democracy were established.

As mentioned in his elaborate review of his book in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, Zakaria said, “Democracy for Western nations is liberal democracy (constitutional) since it is a political system that is characterized not only by free and fair elections but also by the rule of law, the separation of powers, the protection of fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, religion and ownership.”

Is this broad image, which is based upon solid foundations and critical assurances the same image of democracy in the Arab and Islamic worlds?

Another serious conclusion that Zakaria reached was that liberalism is the womb of democracy; democracy is not a natural phenomenon and it should be the product of political, intellectual and, of course, economic liberalism. Zakaria believes that the United States must not pressure countries that adopt a dictatorial approach to apply democracy immediately; as such pressure could bring about even harsher figures that do not believe in democracy, namely, Islamic fundamentalists.

Fareed Zakaria exonerates the Islamic religion from this intolerant nature and the inclination towards religious autocratic rule considering that Islam itself entails aspects of freedom and revolution against injustice and tyranny. However, the prevailing interpretations [of Islam] today are what present this [autocratic] type of isolated Islam.

So does this mean that there is no benefit to the civil struggles of the Arab and Islamic worlds? Are we doomed to choose between a dictator and a fundamentalist ruler, the latter of which may be even more autocratic but “holier” than the former!

This is an extremely difficult question behind which there is a strong sense of dignity, compassion and disdain for this detestable “fatalism” of permanent regression that afflicts Arabs and Muslims. The answer to such an important question could be reached via several approaches: One such approach would be developmental; which states that economic prosperity and growth are the guarantors of eliminating regression and creating the appropriate environment for the emergence of political, intellectual and social liberalism.

According to Zakaria, this is what took place in Germany since democracy had produced Nazi Adolf Hitler. However, pure democracy was not the cause of Germany’s rise following its defeat in war; in addition to cultural factors and foreign American intervention, the German economic surge is what had pushed Germany back on to the path of Western liberal societies. Therefore, the focus should be on releasing the power of the economy, and the economy itself will be responsible for the rest.

Nevertheless, as Hashem Saleh stated, there is an inverted “Marxist” tendency to this approach in terms of its “sole” dependence upon the economic factor in mobilizing societies and history.

Another answer to this approach that is somewhat a revolutionary response is that Arabs and Muslims and those from civil societies in the West who encourage them should dissuade them against this dream. What happened in Europe and the United States is difficult to repeat and it was born of extremely complicated conditions, to the extent that one could compare it to Darwin’s theory of random mutation, according to al Sadiq al Nayhum in reference to the American model. He states that accordingly, we must consider another model of justice and freedom and we must also acknowledge the difference between human conduct in East and West.

There is yet another approach that is even more revolutionary however from a different angle and that is the opinion of those who question why people would be intimidated by Islamists and fundamentalists. They have not been granted an opportunity in governance and it is in fact the authoritarian governments that use them as a source of fear in order to prolong their own terms in governance. Therefore, in such case, Islamists become “scarecrows” to the West and advocates of civil society, according to Egyptian thinker Saad Eddin Ibrahim.

At one point, the Bush administration tended to support this perception and it was backed by the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. However, this approach was abandoned after members of the Muslim Brotherhood entered Egyptian parliament and after Hamas, which now governs “Gazastan”, took power in Palestine.

The answer to this question regarding granting Islamists a chance [to rule] and the accusation that governments use Islamists as “scarecrows” not only angered the authorities, understandably, rather, it also enraged some “secular colleagues,” according to Saad Eddin Ibrahim in an important article published in ‘Al-Masry Al-Youm’, 30 June 2007, commenting on the Hamas coup against Fatah and the seizing of Gaza.

The article was entitled, “Have Islamists in power failed?” In the article, Ibrahim stated that nobody was as enthusiastic as himself about granting Islamists the opportunity to rule the country and that he disagreed with the Egyptian president personally on this issue; a fact that angered authorities in Egypt. However, when he had witnessed the actions of Hamas after it had assumed power, he seriously began to question whether fundamentalism and Islamists were truly capable of practicing democracy.

These are just some of the responses to the dilemma of democracy in the Arab and Islamic worlds and these answers indicate that there may be a case of negative “Islamic exclusion” that prevents these worlds from being part of this era and adopting democracy in its entirety since democracy is the best political system that humanity has developed so far, despite some of its drawbacks.

I believe that the problem of the “Islamic exclusion” consists of an obvious failure in development that has led to people being misled by nihilistic inclinations presented by confrontational fundamentalism as well as major defects in the cultural structure that acts as a barrier and stands against modern human values. This barrier will not be overcome by relying on economic renaissance alone; there exists a model of economic renaissance in the Gulf region that reflects upon social, political and intellectual renaissance…but there is no absolute correlation between the two.

Above all of this, there is the deficiency of good governance and the absence of a real and persistent reform program in the Arab and Islamic worlds to be adopted by the ruling elites and which are necessary in order to achieve freedom and to set the scene for democracy.

Without this, governments will continue to practice their futile games as America continues its calls for democracy. Fundamentalist and totalitarian movements will also play the roles of believers in the values of civil, pluralistic and free society until it is time to eliminate these concepts − unless by some miracle or another something were to happen to change the course of history of the Arab world.