Others get it but we still insist upon ...
Sunday, December 16, 2007
A Different Kind of Democracy 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
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
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
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
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
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.
Comment: The West had better listen to this-some of us have been saying this or
versions of this for several years-policy should match ability to deliver!
GS Don Morris, Ph.D. at