Can democracy take root in the Arab world?

As Syria burns, Iraq implodes and Tunisia and Libya struggle to democratize, one question remains central to framing discussions of participatory governance – Is democracy possible in the ‘Muslim world’? Is democracy an ‘internal wound,’ that has been left to fester for too long, within the Arab/Muslim world, as Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi argues? She says, pointing to Islamic history that, since the advent of Islam, there have been two traditions within Islam – the intellectual and philosophical tradition of the falasifa, of the Hellenized philosophers and the Sufis of Persian and Indian traditions and on the other hand, the Kharijite tradition of political subversion – which has been violent and bloody. This tradition continues, as we look around the Arab world and the struggles for power that are ongoing.

 As Mernissi says “The two traditions raised the same issues that are today told are imports from the West, issues that Islam has never resolved: that of ta’a (obedience to the Imam or leader of the community) and that of individual freedom. Political Islam resolved these issues neither in theory nor in practice, for the idea of representation was never effected, although the idea that the Imam is chosen by the community is deeply rooted in the Sunni Islam.” (1992, p.21). This choosing of the Imam by the majority is a democratic element that has been part of Islamic history, no matter how one reads it. The first caliph and those onwards, till Ali were chosen by consensus of the community, though it was not an ideal participatory voting mechanism, as we know it today. Some of these age-old tensions are still playing out, in many ways. This could be considered a part of the power-struggle within the house of Islam, at the risk of sounding orientalist. But there is a grain of truth to this.

I explored some of these questions a few years ago, when I took part in a two semester course called Democracy in the Middle East at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, as part of my MA in International Relations. This was in 2009, when life was stable in the Middle East and it would be a while till the word ‘Arab Spring’ would become part of everyday lexicon. Some of the bigger questions that we grappled with, as part of the seminar, taught by Dr. Miriam Elman were: Is Islam compatible with democracy, Are the countries of Middle East and North Africa inherently not able to adapt democratic means of governance and to what extent has history played a role in the way things are.

            Vicky Langhour (2002) points to the arguments made by some scholars that substantive democracy may need to be stalled in the authoritarian countries of the Middle class till there is a solid middle class that can demand legitimate democracy. This is operating on the assumption that the only alternative to the existing autocratic regimes is that of Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood, Al’nahda etc…) who are as bad, if not worse than the current authoritarian rulers for democracy – so goes the argument. She says: “The suggestion that substantive democratization be put off until middle classes develop is of limited usefulness. On the one hand, its assumption that middle classes do not support Islamists is belied by Islamist successes in the elections within middle-class professional syndicates; on the other, the growth of strong middle classes in several Arab countries has not made regimes any more willing to devolve power democratically. Western pressure is needed to push Arab autocracies toward a phased-in democratic opening designed to strengthen opposition parties.” The wide spectrum of Islamists from MB to Hamas to Hezbollah all demonstrate the various stripes in which these parties come. The question really is : Is the West willing to acknowledge Hamas as a legitimate party, once it is elected democratically. Now that Hamas does rule the Gaza strip, it is still not treated as an equal partner in dialogue by Israel. So, how does one deal with such hypocrisy from those who purport to promote ‘democracy’? This is a legitimate question and one that is being asked in the Muslim majority countries. Langhour suggests using economic incentives such as trade agreements and other incentives to push Arab governments to move in a certain direction – in terms of allowing greater participation among the political parties etc. But the West certainly cannot pull strings now, as it has in the past, given the recent wave of anti-Western sentiment and ongoing civil war in Syria and Iraq.

 

Is the Middle East exceptional, in some way?

Eva Bellin (2004) asks the question if the countries of the Middle East are in some way exceptional, in being resistant to democracy – by virtue of culture or economic development? No, she says and adds “The Middle East and North Africa are in no way unique in their poor endowment with the prerequisites of democracy. Other regions similarly deprived have nonetheless managed to make the transition. Civil society is notoriously weak in sub-Saharan Africa, yet twenty-three out of forty-two countries carried out some measure of democratic transition between 1988 and 1994. The commanding heights of the economy were entirely under state control in eastern Europe prior to the fall of the Berlin wall, yet the vast majority of countries in this region successfully carried through a transition during the 1990s.” She says that there isn’t one or even many preconditions for democracy, as it is a complex process. The question she asks is why there has not been even an attempt towards democratization. Given that she wrote this piece in 2004, that question has been answered now, with the Arab Spring and democratization of Tunisia and Libya, though the latter is struggling to keep it up. Drawing an insight from successful revolutions, she argues (based on Theda Skocpol’s thesis) that “Democratic transition can be carried out successfully only when the state’s coercive apparatus lacks the will or capacity to crush it. Where that coercive apparatus remains intact and opposed to political reform, democratic transition will not occur.”One can apply this reasoning to Egypt and Tunisia and see why the former failed as a successful revolution and the latter succeeded.

            In conclusion, it could be said that democracy needs not only an ecosystem in the form of civil society, an educated class of people who want change but also some preconditions – which are by themselves not necessary to guarantee it, but may facilitate its arrival. Finally, there is something to be said about the role of super-powers and the neighbors in a country. To what extent are their influences playing into the formation of alliances and networks of people is crucial to understand, as well. Also, it may be wise to remember Mernissi’s reminder that “the Gharib (West) is still Ajib (strange). The strange is always fascinating and as in the tales of the Arabian nights, one never knows that foot to stand on when faced with the unusual. Something that fascinates you, but you don’t understand, can eventually destroy you. Western democracy, although it seems to carry within it the seeds of life, is too linked in our history with the seeds of death. But the death of whom? Of the authoritarian technocrats or the powerless intellectuals? Of the officials who are the watchdogs or the people who raise the challenge?” (p.21).

Mernissi’s is a positive and hopeful vision of the future of democracy in the Arab world. She ends her book using an allegory of the Simorgh from Farid Attar’s classic Poem The Conference of the Birds, a classic written in the 12th century, an equivalent of the modern day classic Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. “The Simorgh is us” she says, arguing that the realization of all the best ideals of a Western liberal democracy and Islamic state are better individuals and a better community. Once we realize this, then the end result would be perfect, she seems to be saying. This is a vision that cannot be wrong or faulted. And in the years and decades to come, one can hope that it is realized by all those who are concerned about the future of the Middle East and its people.

 

References

Mernissi, F.(1992). Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. Peresus Books. Cambridge, MA

Langhour, V (2002). An Exit from Arab Autocracy. Journal of Democracy. Vol 13, No.2

Bellin, E (2004). The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective. Comparative Politics. Vol. 34. No.4

2 thoughts on “Can democracy take root in the Arab world?”

  1. You can arrive at a conclusion similar to Mernissi by asking the simple questions, “What is democracy for?” and “What is Islam for?”. The answer is likely to be something comparable to “better individuals and a better community”. This process is a basic negotiating tool. Always seek a common goal or purpose by looking for the higher logical level. Alas, it is a simple tool that is often neglected in the heat and fury of religion and politics.

  2. Hi John, Yes. But the process of how to accomplish this is conceptualized differently, depending on the role of the individual and state. Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis for instance want to regulate behavior, similar to the Evangelists in the U.S., something very different from a Western liberal construct of how democracy should operate. While the intentionality of both systems is human welfare, the means to achieve it are very different.

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