Democracy, Sure but on Whose Terms?

Apr 23

I am writing this from my hotel room in Doha, Qatar where I have been invited to speak at the 7th Doha Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade. Back home this event has perhaps not received any public attention. While the smallest of violent event from the Muslim world brings with it instant analysis of the Islamic causality to such violence, the studious efforts of the Muslim world to take steps towards democracy and development are routinely neglected. Also conspicuous by their absence at this event are policy makers from America.

Today was the opening night of the program. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani opened the forum with an introspective lecture about the need for democracy in the Middle East and his personal disappointment at the slow progress being made towards this goal. Democracy may not be the best form of government, except as Winston Churchill said all other forms have been tried and they failed.

The other major speaker at the event was U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke about his personal observations about the Korean experiment towards democracy and argued that economic development is the pre-cursor to democracy. He probably meant sustained democracy. As the next speaker former Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Chinawatra attested to by citing his own undemocratic removal from power by the military junta was primarily the result of mounting economic problems in Thailand.

Usually the openings of such forums are staid events and one does not expect fireworks. But surprisingly there was a small one. Current leader of the British House of Commons and former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw reiterated President Bush’s view that democracies do not wage wars against each other as one of the rationales for democratization. This provoked an angry response from Amr Moussa, General Secretary of the Arab League when he pointed out the false causality between democracy and peace as democratic regimes (U.S., Britain and Israel) have invaded and occupied foreign lands from Palestine to Iraq.

Therein lies the dilemma of democratization in the Middle East. On one hand Muslims and Arabs admire the freedoms and free enterprise afforded to citizens who live under democracies from India to America. On the other, they note the hypocrisy and double standards when Western leaders refuse to engage with the most freely and fairly elected government in the Middle East, that of the Palestinian Authority. At the same time the protection of human rights, so sacred to democracies, are routinely violated as evidenced by Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the CIA rendition programs, which are being carried with the support of the undemocratic regimes in Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

One leading Arab journalist recently wrote that one of the leading sources of instability and political economic distortion in the Arab world is the unchecked use of state power, combined with the state’s whimsical ability to use the rule of law for its own political ends. About two years ago the Pew Forum hosted an event called, “Islam and Democratization in the Middle East.” One of the questions explored was if Islam was the main factor behind the hereditary autocracies of the Arab world and therefore perhaps a major obstacle to democracy? The fact that two-thirds of the Muslim population around the world live and participate in democracies indicates that the faith of Islam is no barrier to democratization. The experience of democracies in countries with large Muslim majority is just as new and imperfect as they are in countries where Islam is not the majority faith.

During my past trip to Doha for the U.S.-Islamic World Forum sponsored by the Saban Center at Brookings I had met Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Professor of Sociology at the American University in Cairo. In 2000 he was arrested by Egyptian authorities and spent more than 500 days in prison. In 2003 he was acquitted of all charges and released.

When we met 2 years ago, Saad spoke about the how America needs to positively engage with Muslims who hold deep sentiments that their faith ought to inform and guide them in their politics (no different from view of many Conservatives in the U.S. and also an increasing number of Democrats). In a later Pew lecture he cited examples that these Islamists (a term that is commonly used for Muslims who view Islam to be an integral part of politics) have been more effective than their secular predecessor. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party has been more willing to compromise on Cyprus than its Kemalist secular predecessor. It has also been more accommodating and tolerant toward Kurds. Moreover, the Islamists have not lived up to the urban legend of “one man, one vote, one time” used by many to keep them outside the political process. The appeal of the Islamists is so strong in the Middle East that it is difficult to imagine a viable democratic society without their cooperation. Ostracizing them can radicalize their fringe.

The Quran, in verses 42:38, and 3:159, instructs that the basic principle of governance should be based on “mutual consultation,” or shura. Islamic scholars say shura contains three essential elements – equal rights for all citizens, majority rule for public policy and the promotion of justice and human dignity.

Yet another inspiration for governance comes from the life of Islam’s exemplar – the Prophet Muhammad, who on his deathbed refused to appoint a successor, sending a clear message that it is up to the people to decide how they wish to be governed. After the Prophet’s death, shura was used to elect the next head of state.

The Prophet Muhammad, like the Biblical prophets David and Solomon, was also the head of a state, although not a king. Among his first acts as head of state was to draft a constitution. The constitution or charter of Madinah provided a pluralistic framework involving due rights and protection for all people who were governed by the state. Signatories to the constitution included several religious minorities, whereby each side retained its identity, customs and internal relations. The constitution also contained its own bill of rights including guarantees for freedom of religion.

A World Values Survey conducted between 2000 and 2002 gives some practical insights into Muslim attitudes towards democratization. About 68 percent of respondents in both Western countries and Muslim majority nations strongly disagree that democracies are indecisive and have trouble keeping order, and 61 percent in both societies strongly disagree that it’s best for a country to have a powerful leader who decides what to do without bothering about elections and government procedures. Over 85 percent strongly agree that democracy may have problems but it’s better than any other form of government.

Islam can be a source of inspiration in governance but certainly does not have to be an exclusive source. The Prophet Muhammad characterized believers as people who accept wisdom no matter what its source. This principle served Islam and humanity well in Spain where Muslim egalitarianism formed the basis of an impressive civilization based on knowledge, rational inquiry and tolerance, eventually becoming the precursor to Europe’s Renaissance.

Democracy will come to the Middle East, sooner than later. The people and their faith demand it. The question is which model serves America’s interest best – violent imposition of democracy as in Iraq or ostracizing it as in Palestine or supporting its organic growth by being intellectually and diplomatically engaged, something for which we have not expended a great deal of our resources . Judging by the reactions of the people I meet in this region, undoubtedly, the latter is our best chance to bring the world back from the brink of a clash of civilization to the la convivencia of mutual respect and understanding.

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