Who is really afraid of democracy?

The prospects for democracy in Muslim states are threatened less by internal forces today than by the outside powers which demand that it should be no more than an instrument for imposing their will on the Muslim peoples by other means

In a widely publicised address delivered at London’s Whitehall Palace in November 2003, President George W Bush prescribed democracy as the answer to tyranny and terrorism.

“Democracy, and the hope and progress it brings”, he declared, “are the alternative to instability and to hatred and terror. We cannot rely exclusively on military power to assure our long-term security. Lasting peace is gained as justice and democracy advance.” In another major speech delivered in Cairo, Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, told the Arabs that the day of the autocrat was over and the time had finally arrived for democracy in the Middle East.

The civil society organs in the Arab world needed no such prescription from outside as an intense debate on democracy already occupied the centre-stage of politics in several countries. Arab disillusionment with nationalism and socialism had contributed to the rise of what has come to be known as Political Islam.

Its militant tendency created fears that autocratic regimes of one kind may be replaced by equally intolerant theocratic systems of another kind. The result was a lively discussion on whether Islam negated democratic principles or was itself their fountainhead for its followers. At another plane, Human Development Reports had increasingly focused on the deficit of democracy and governance in the Arab world. These reports linked the contemporary Arab discourse to the larger view that democracy was vital not only to freedom and regime legitimacy but also to sustainable economic growth.

There was thus a convergence of internal opinion and that of the international community that democracy and development would arrest the drift of Middle Eastern societies into extremism. But this dream is being frustrated by the growing evidence that US-led initiatives for supporting democracy are valid only when the electorate returns results considered desirable by the West. This perception undermines democratic forces in the region. It revives memories of the horrific crisis that the rejection of the verdict of the people in Algeria produced in early 1990s. It also locates the current campaign against the emergence of Hamas as the freely elected Palestinian Authority squarely in the interpretation of the present policy of the United States as a neo-imperialist project in the region.

Democracy as a quintessential expression of the desire for a peaceful political change is never without its surprises. Even in Latin America, which Washington treats as its backyard, democracy brings to power or prominence leaders who have a fundamental disagreement with the political and economic ideology of the United States. In fact the transformation of the political landscape in Brazil, Venezuela and Bolivia, to cite just a few examples, illustrates the growing discontent with the dominant configuration of global political and economic power. Significantly, at the recently held World Social Forum in Karachi, several representatives of the new Left saw more hope for the regeneration of their ideas in the recent developments in Latin America than in any other part of the world.

In the Islamic world, there is an entire spectrum of radical attitudes ranging from the violent resistance witnessed in post-invasion Iraq and Afghanistan to the pursuit of Islamic social justice through a proactive participation in the electoral process. In countries as far apart as Turkey and Indonesia, Islamic parties are struggling to pre-empt violence from the extreme left and right through gradualist reforms.

A full blooded participation of Hamas in the elections and its landslide victory opened up an entirely new avenue for a militant, armed national liberation movement to be gradually transformed into a political party ready for a negotiated settlement. Nothing is more unrealistic than to expect it to abandon its raison d’etre and creep into a position of helplessness that it had challenged in the election. But it lost no time in offering a protracted ceasefire that would provide ample time for decisive negotiations for a just solution based on the pre-1967 borders.

Implicit in this offer was the acceptance of Israel’s right to exist as long as Israel conceded the Palestinian right to a continuous sovereign state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Instead of seizing the moment by encouraging this transformation, the West has loaded all contacts with the Hamas government with stringent pre-conditions. Acceptance of conditions such as renunciation of the right to resist the occupation, recognition of Israel and the re-writing of the Hamas charter is an event that, in the words of an objective Western analyst, Gabriella Rifkind, is “likely to happen if the West can support the transformation that the Hamas is going through, and read the cues they (Hamas) are giving for engagement.”

Rejection will bring nothing but resistance. The demand that this metamorphosis should take place before the Hamas government, a freely elected entity, is accepted as an empowered interlocutor and dialogue partner is tantamount to subordinating Arab democracy to the strategic dictates of Israel and its Western allies.

There is mounting evidence that democracy in Islamic countries would in some cases lead to a period of domination by parties with a religious orientation. It is also becoming evident that it is a mellowing process. Such a party rules secular Turkey today without causing any constitutional crisis. A markedly improved showing by candidates linked to Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian election has not created any difficulties. The victory of Hamas will doubtless run a similar course unless it is thwarted as in the Algerian case.

In Iran, the presidential election certainly strengthened the ideologically-oriented forces but these forces are not averse to compromise as long as it is honourable. Reduced to essentials, Tehran is struggling to preserve national sovereignty just as an almost secular and nationalistic elected prime minister, Mossadegh, did in another era of Western domination. The prospects for democracy in Muslim states are threatened less by internal forces today than by the outside powers which demand that it should be no more than an instrument for imposing their will on the Muslim peoples by other means.

The writer is a former foreign secretary. Email: [email protected]