Do Muslims deserve democracy?
What’s stopping democracy from taking root in Muslim countries? Abdelwahab El-Affendi tackles a thorny issue.
To gain a revealing insight into why many Muslim countries fail to develop or sustain democratic systems, one has just to follow the news stories of recent times. Prominent among these was the vigorous campaign by Britain and its allies against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as he appeared increasingly intent on rigging the March general elections. Mugabe was vociferously criticized and threatened with sanctions, while the media seemed about to run out of loathsome epithets to bestow on the would-be dictator.
During the same period, however, Muslim leaders, whom nobody elected and compared to whom Mugabe is a saint, continue to be fêted in Western capitals or wooed in their own. Syrian President Bashar Asad even offered visiting American dignitaries the opportunity to ‘benefit from the Syrian experience in combating terrorism’, while the Tunisian Foreign Minister asked France during a recent visit to hand over ‘terrorists’ who have been given political asylum in Europe. These despots may thus be excused for seeing in the ruins of the World Trade Centre the reverse of what others saw in the collapse of the Berlin Wall: a vindication of their autocratic, even genocidal, methods for hanging on to power at any price.
That the world loves muslim despots is a major factor in sustaining anti-democratic regimes
Western leaders have been effortlessly converted to the despots’ view that Muslims neither need nor deserve democracy. Intellectual analyses have emerged with a glorified recasting of common prejudices as ‘scientific’ revelations about why the Muslims were anti-democratic, have always been so and will forever remain thus. Instead of highlighting the brutality sustaining the incumbent regimes in power, these analysts blame the victims.
The weakness of civil society in Muslim countries is ascribed by some to cultural factors, rather than to the sheer ruthlessness of regimes that did not permit society any room to manoeuvre: no free trade unions, no real opposition, no free press, no tolerance of even a hint of dissent. What is rarely highlighted is the miracle of a stubborn civil society in countries like Indonesia where, after over 30 years of brutal military rule underwritten by generous external economic and diplomatic support, the determination of courageous pro-democracy activists succeeded in restoring democracy against heavy odds. The fact that the world loves Muslim despots is no doubt a major factor in sustaining the anti-democratic regimes in the Muslim world. Take the recent civil unrest in Argentina that accompanied its economic collapse. The idea of a military take-over to restore order was unthinkable. But in Pakistan, a minor crisis was exploited by the military to step into power. Both Argentina and Pakistan are heavily dependent on international support for their economy, which makes international backing for any military dictatorship absolutely crucial. This support was not forthcoming in the case of Argentina, but became readily available for Pakistan.
It is easy to exaggerate the international factor. Regimes such as those of in Iraq, Libya, Syria or Sudan maintain their ruthless hold on power without foreign support. But even in the face of sustained attempts at destabilization from abroad, foreign connections still play a role. Rentier states cannot survive if they do not find someone to sell oil to. The West, which has imposed sanctions on Iraq as ruthless as its regime, continues to buy Iraqi oil and has never stopped buying Libyan crude. More important, though, is the fact that the West did turn a blind eye to unbelievable atrocities in Iraq — including the use of chemical weapons against civilians and systematic liquidation of opponents — and Syria, guilty of genocidal destruction of entire cities and repeated massacres of civilians.
But why does the outside world not support democracy in Muslim countries?
There are some easy answers, especially in relation to the Middle East. Industrialized nations’ interests in cheap oil and the survival of Israel are better served by authoritarian regimes which will resist demands for a fairer share of oil revenues or for a fair deal for the Palestinians.
In other parts of the world, countries like Pakistan or Indonesia were more useful as Cold War allies under despotic regimes.
There are other factors at play, however. The Muslim world is deeply divided. The main divide is between those seeking a more central role for religion in public life and those opposed to this. The rising support for Islamists, and the divisions within Islamist trends, coupled with the capture of power by some Islamist groups in Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan, has worsened the tensions and increased the worries of the dominant secular regimes. Since the Algerian democratic experiment of 1988-91 came within a whisker of putting Islamists in power through the ballot box, democracy became a dirty word in Arab political circles. The West swung decisively behind the autocrats, pleading concern for human rights and democracy’s long-term prospects.
High and dry
Such bitter internal divisions within societies are hindering democracy. This serves as a reminder that although democracy in its normative sense has a long history as an ideal, democratic modes of governance have been notoriously unstable. In former times, including Classical Greece and Rome, consensual government could only really be maintained within small areas where face-to-face communication was the norm. In modern times it has become possible to stabilize democracies thanks to a number of factors including: improved communications, economic and educational empowerment of the masses and the development of effective institutions of governance and representation. But the wave of democratization that has swept over many parts of the world during the past two decades has left the Muslim world high and dry. It is the only region where despotism appears to thrive. Some analysts search for ‘cultural’ reasons for this anomaly. Democracy, some argue, is ‘alien to the Muslim mind’. Islam emphasizes conformity and obedience, and Muslim societies have failed to develop civil society institutions. Muslim societies remain excessively patriarchical and rigid, while Islam has proved ‘secularization-resistant’. Secularization is seen by these theorists as essential for democratisation. Others point to economic and social factors, such as low literacy rates, the state’s economic independence from society, and the weakness of civil organizations and of the middle class.
Whatever the ‘Muslim mind’ dictates, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are actively demanding democracy. And while it is true that economic, political and social factors make the fight for democracy a steep uphill struggle, yet in many Muslim countries courageous individuals have emerged to challenge, at great risk to themselves, the monopoly of power by dominant cliques.
In Syria, a burgeoning civil society movement is fighting to establish itself against heavy odds. In Egypt, members of the moderate Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as human-rights activists and journalists, are routinely hauled before military tribunals and summarily jailed. Political prisoners in Egypt are estimated to be as high as 30,000, down from double this figure in the mid-1990’s, and torture is routinely used.
Turkey is often cited as the only genuine democracy in the Muslim world. However, even if specifically Western models are adopted, it would be difficult to regard Turkey as a full democracy. Discrimination against ethnic minorities is both systematic and brutal, extending to denial of basic cultural rights, something which even Israel or apartheid South Africa did not do. Like Iran, Turkey imposes a state ideology which impinges on the most personal freedoms, such as what names individuals may choose for their children, what they could wear and what they could say in private or public.
A more credible contender could be Malaysia, which has strong social movements, Islamist parties and a vibrant multi-cultural society. In spite of its recent slide towards autocracy, it has remained a democracy since independence and appears to show how the Islamist-secular divide could be bridged.
Tunisia offers another example where the promise of democratization is apparent. Over the past few months, a vigorous and courageous democracy movement has emerged there, representing a broad and loose coalition of human-rights activists, media personalities, opposition politicians, and at least one senior judge. Protesters paid a heavy price for challenging the ruthless regime of General Zine El-Abine ben Ali, who came to power in a military coup in November 1987. Activists were sacked from jobs, banned from travel, imprisoned on trumped-up charges, harassed, denied medical treatment and had their phones disconnected. Some were beaten up or saw their families assaulted and harassed.
But Tunisia represents an important test case due to the emergence of a genuine pro-democracy movement, transcending the divisions within civil society between Islamist and secularist, Left and Right, men and women. All are agreed on one thing: they want pluralist democracy and they want it now.
Tunisia thus looks increasingly like the first Arab country where the democratic movement has achieved maturity and become unstoppable. Ironically, this is an indirect result of the success of the Government in achieving stability and relative economic prosperity. The highly educated and prosperous middle class in Tunisia could no longer tolerate leaders who have a tendency to treat them as children or colonized people.
To varying degrees Malaysia, Indonesia and Tunisia show how democracy could come to the Muslim world. In all these countries a broad alliance of democratic forces, which do not exclude Islamists or anyone else, has emerged to champion democratic reforms. Success is conditional on reaching and sustaining a democratic consensus, based on inclusion for all. And of central importance will be resolving the role of Islam in the public arena.
Abdelwahab El-Affendi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster.