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ISLAM AND DEMOCRACY

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THE ARAB SPRING EXPLODES AN OLD MYTH

AND BRINGS IN NEW CHALLENGES

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By Hamid Elyassi

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The Montréal Review, January 2012

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The ongoing process of revolutionary change in the Middle East and North Africa may not have spent all its potential force yet, but even this far, it has altered the world attitude to the region and its political folk culture. In particular, the outcome of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya seem to have dented the claim that the popular alternative to regional dictatorships has to be Islamic fundamentalist regimes bent on suicide bombing the West and depriving the indigenous intelligentsia of the few personal freedoms they enjoy. The notion, still a favourite line of defence of some of the remaining regional dictators, is in fact a relatively recent invention of Islamic extremists who contend that "true Islam" is inherently incompatible with democratic values and institutions.

The assertion is based on the rather tenuous argument that because Muslims are endowed with a comprehensive body of canonical laws that encompass every aspect of social and private life, they have no need of man-made laws. They must, therefore, reject any form of government that gives people, or their elected representatives, the sovereign rights to legislate and rule. These rights, it is contended, belong to God, or rather, the elucidators of His laws, who, not surprisingly, usually happen to be the mentors of those who put forward the argument.

Admittedly, religion still plays an important part in the life of many Muslims. But to conclude from this that they should prefer religious tyranny to democracy is contrary to both the Islamic precepts and the beliefs and understanding of the majority of the followers of the religion.

According to Islamic traditions, early Muslim rulers, who succeeded the Prophet as the leaders of the community of the faithful, traced their authority to public assent and governed in consultation with the people. Furthermore, as the difference of opinion among Islamic jurisprudents suggests, many Muslim scholars make a clear distinction between divine obligations ordained by the Koran and the founder of the religion, and legislations by subsequent generations of Muslim rulers and lawyers to meet the needs and exigencies of their times. In fact, much of the harsher rules advocated by the Islamic extremists are said to belong to the latter category.

Besides, observance of canonical laws and claims of divine sovereignty are not exclusively Islamic ideas. In the Middle East itself, the adherents of the extensive corpus of Jewish law have not withdrawn from the social and political life of the democratic, secular state of Israel. And in the West, the claim by holders of certain spiritual or temporal positions to represent Divine sovereignty did not prevent European Christians from pursuing their democratic rights for fear of compromising their faith.

More importantly, liberal democracy is not a given form of government or a rigid set of rules and institutions that may conform to some cultural norms, and contravene others. Democracy refers to a worldview, a broad political frame of mind that advocates that human beings have the right to elect how they wish to be governed, which may include government under "Divine laws". In other words, democracy can just as readily support a preference for "divine rule" provided that the preference is expressed by the free will of an open-minded majority, and not imposed by a few with the presumed prerogative of having the sole knowledge of good and evil. Indeed, the originators of the "Islamic resurgence" ideology advocated political Islam as a unifying force to bolster popular movements in support of decolonisation which, they hoped, would result in the establishment of progressive and democratic Islamic states.

Dreams of the Past and Challenges of the Future

The Arab Spring may have exploded a myth or two, toppled or rattled a few dictators, and inspired hopes of democratic change throughout the developing world. But it has also evoked dark memories of similar hopes and aspirations that were, once before, raised, and dashed.

Half a century ago, anti-colonial movements, often led by charismatic, freedom-loving leaders, swept across Asia and Africa and gave birth to new states whose citizens dreamed of economic and social betterment under democratic rule. But with independence also came the realisation that indigenous rulers of these poor countries were not able to meet public expectation of material improvement and at the same time, satisfy the appetite of the emerging ruling elite for positions of social and economic advantage. The rulers were soon faced with the dilemma of striving alongside the people to develop their countries, or siding with the powerful few who lay claim to political, economic and social privileges that were being increasingly concentrated in the hands of the state. Sadly, many of these rulers, ensnared by the material trappings of the office, chose the latter, and in doing so, lost the trust and respect of the people who had brought them to power.

The choice had grave consequences not only for the impoverished and disaffected masses, but also for the political structure and attitudes in the newly independent countries. Faced with public frustration and the ever-present challenge posed by the excluded elite, rulers of many of these countries chose to avoid the risk of losing office in free elections by discarding or manipulating the paraphernalia of democratic government. To add insult to injury, the despotic regime usually tried to justify the effective disenfranchisement of the nation by some sham ideological explanation. Democracy was decried and vilified as the mother of decadence and chaos, an impediment to the realization of equality and justice and a useless "luxury" which poorer nations could not afford. Conversely, the abnegation of democratic rule was presented as the foundation of "stable" leadership needed to neutralise neo-colonial conspiracies, ward off some internal or external, real or fictitious threat and guide the nation to true happiness. Some of these despotic regimes even described themselves as "democracies with local colouring" and, disingenuously, claimed to represent more perfect and suitable forms of democratic government. In the process, however, once popular and democratic leaders turned into Third World dictators.

The death of democracy in the Third World country did not simply entail daily suffering for its ordinary citizen. It was a continuous source of fear for the dictator himself.

Without popular consent and electoral endorsement, the dictator was stripped of the legitimate authority to govern. Instead, to retain his position, he had to resort to instruments of power ranging from the application of naked and cruel force to suppress dissent, to incessant state propaganda intended to fragment and demoralise the opposition. But in doing so, he became a hostage to his own agents of coercion who saw themselves equally eligible to govern. Soon, Third World politics became synonymous with oppression and a monopoly of insurgencies, rebellions and coups which rival world powers tolerated, even encouraged.

Of course, there are differences between today's Arab Spring and the independence movements of the past. The Arab youths, who have spearheaded the uprising, have refused to resign their responsibility and blindly entrust their political fate to seemingly well-intentioned, but untried individuals or groups. Rather, they continue to utilise the means of modern communication technology to participate in, and monitor the political process, and hopefully, acquire the political education needed to exercise their newly gained rights responsibly. It is the duty of the thinkers in these countries to ensure that the young revolutionaries turn into mature citizens of a democratic state and that youthful enthusiasm does not bring about chaos which often gives birth to dictators.

At the global level, two decades after the end of the Cold War, world powers know that it is no longer acceptable to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses by their protégés and justify this on ideological grounds. And even if it may still be some time before international law comes to rest on a more democratic and humane doctrine, the world community seems more willing to identify the central concept of the "sovereign rights of states" with the states' citizens rather than the dictatorial regimes that pretend to represent them. And if dictators lose their foreign backers, they have no other choice but to listen to, and rely on their own people.

Still, the Arab Spring is faced with serious challenges that lie ahead. Where successful, the movement has ruptured the apparatus of coercive power and bolstered grass-root solidarity. This is a valuable achievement to be preserved by any developing nation, because national cohesion is a prerequisite of democratic statehood. The divisive voices which at times have been heard, and excesses which have been committed are worrying. Some of these are the natural corollaries of rapid political change. Others are symptomatic of stunted political growth and deep-seated political ills that usually take hold of the body politic under dictatorship and must now be addressed and remedied. But the greatest challenge ahead is to speed up the process of social and economic development in the newly liberated countries in order to shore up democracy and prevent a relapse into corruption and tyranny. And this clearly requires full mobilisation of all resources at home and support from the international community.

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