Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Democracy in the Arab World and Iraq | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The current Iraqi situation poses an important, if rarely discussed or recognized, problem: to what extent can a pluralist democratic system guarantee the rights of the ethnic groups and factions that make up the fabric of Iraqi society?

As was expected, the electoral process has led the Shiaa community to monopolize political representation and power; while conversely, the Arab Sunni community lost control. This drove its political parties and groups to condemn the election results from which they sensed they were being deliberately excluded.

Despite its known idiosyncrasies and the burden of inheritance from past eras, which prevented the development of an integrated society, this problem is present in all ethnically and culturally diverse countries, including democratic countries such as the United States, Canada and India.

The question relates to the extent the democratic process is suitable can empower the cultural rights (in their broader sense) for individuals, given that it was originally designed to guarantee political and social rights. This system is built on the concept of equality (by principal and perception) between citizens, regardless of their backgrounds. This concerns the equal distribution of employment opportunities and struggle for wealth, but it neglects the right to belong to a group with a distinct cultural identity and view of the common good.

The classical liberal theory based on the concept of citizenship has deepened the fault line separating religion and state, whereby the state is absolutely neutral towards ideological and cultural values of its citizens.

In practice however, it has been shown that the state is not neutral to the cultural components of society. Instead, it sought to impose a specific cultural component, in the name of the culture of the majority, on society at large, by way of ideological tools, to follow Louis Althusser, especially education, the media and legislation. In North America , a school of philosophy called for the re-examination of the classical liberal theory by incorporating cultural diversity. This means moving away from the classical concept of citizenship to the concept of a multicultural and diverse citizenship, as the leader of this school the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor indicated.

International organizations have began to absorb this new concept as it seeks to defend the rights of multiculturalism and search for a how best to legislate it as an immutable human right. In this respect, comes the international agreement on cultural diversity, adopted by UNESCO’s last conference in October 2005. However, so far, these efforts have remained mostly on the theoretical level and have not resulted in legal guarantees to protect cultural diversity, beyond the protection of heritage and endangered language from extinction.

As the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas illustrated, cultural rights are an integral part of the individual rights of citizens, considering the interconnectedness between private and collective identities. It is therefore legitimate to inquire about the ability of a particular legislation to ensure justice is met when conflicts of identity and disputes regarding the recognition of unique groups arise.

I do not wish to elaborate these philosophical deliberations even if they are closely related to the topic of discussion. To return to the Arab situation, one of the main obstacles to democratic transformation is the cultural factor and its incompatibility with politics.

This is evident on three main levels:

1- First, the religious level, or the relation between the concept of umma (nation) as a spiritual and ideological unity and, on the other hand, the existing political structure known as the nation-state. Even Islamic movements have failed to solve this contradiction between the spiritual meaning of umma and the political reality.

In this respect, how is citizenship defined? Does it include those belonging to one religion but different state or is it restricted to the existing nation-state even if it includes individuals belonging to different religions and communities?

2- Second, the national level, or the relations between the umma as a sentimental, historical, linguistic unity (according to early Arab nationalists) and, on the other hand, Arab nations belonging to a geographical unit. If the dilemma is currently being put forward in the European Union, the issue is more complicated with regards to the Arab world, where regional bodies remained tied down to idealistic wishes, incompetent institutions and ineffective agreements.

3- Third, the nation-state level, or the relation between central government and a diverse society that continues to be split by competing identities and solidarities.

It is important to distinguish between negative diversity which ought to be confronted and cultural diversity that is connected to the essence of identity and belonging. Electoral democracy that endorses the opinions of the religious and national majorities is unable to guarantee the rights of ethnic minorities that constitute the social fabric of society. This is why it is crucial to build additional mechanisms for representation to contain the varied and complex society rather than seek comfort in meaningless statistics.