Western democracy not a model for Middle East

Put aside the arguments on who incited the people in North Africa and the Middle East to start up the uprisings that have until now gripped the regions, specific occurences may equally provoke people to take the streets.

Of course, revolutions would be impossible, if everything was just fine. Although the uprisings in these countries seem to be synchronized – and perhaps like some sort of a copy-cat scenario, each countries had its own specific problems – these worries largely contributed in pushing the people into the streets. 

In some countries the middle class was very active. There were also places where great tribal or religious differences created tensions between the people and the government.

An Iraqi woman shows her inked finger after voting at a polling station in Dec. 2005 in Baghdad

The protesters asked for two main things from the government: the improvement of the social and economic situation for the majority of people and freedom which is seen as de-monopolization of power. There were no real ideological ideas behind these requirements. And it is still unclear what point of view and what side the public will take when they find out that after the change of the regimes nothing actually changed in common people’s life.

Keeping this in mind some writers called for the democratization of the region with the help of the United States.

In his article titled The U.S. Must Bring Democracy to the Middle East, published by Fox News, KT McFarland pointed out:

“If the dominoes [regimes] fall away from us, we could be locked into a clash of civilizations of biblical proportions between the democratic West and a radical Islamist Caliphate bent on spreading Sharia law throughout the world. If the dominoes fall toward us, we could see a flowering of freedom, development and economic opportunity throughout the region, and a golden era of peace and prosperity throughout much of the world.  The stakes could not be higher. That’s why it is crucial that the United States do everything in its power to help the dominoes to fall in its own direction.”

McFarland further noted: “While the outcome is up to the Egyptians … and Tunisians … and Libyans … and Iranians … there is much we can do to help their efforts along…The choice has now been made for us, by the people of Egypt. There is no turning back the clock. To bemoan the stability those autocratic regimes once offered Israel and the U.S. is like crying over spilled milk. We need to get over it and move on. America cannot change the past, but it can affect the future.”

However, it is unlikely that the western type of democracies will be established in the Arab world, unless the U.S. really “helps” the region. The history of Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine could be a proof that these processes take a very long time, even if favorable conditions are created.

The best option could be the type of rule chosen by Turkey. That is creation of a secular state on a relatively broad social basis while taking into account the Muslim cultural factors. There are other successful examples of the of application of this model such as in Indonesia and Malaysia.

According to the “Democracy Index”, the regimes in Lebanon and Turkey, that are considered to be one of the most democratic in the region, are classified as “hybrid regimes”. The Palestinian territories, Pakistan, Armenia and Iraq are also in the “hybrid regimes” category.

Revisionist theories argue that democracy is incompatible with Islamic culture and values. They argue that the lack of a clear cut difference between religion and the state stifles democracy in the region.

“There is a strong historic connection between religion and politics in the Muslim world, reflecting Islam’s character as a religion of laws pertaining to societal organization as well as individual morality. Thus Islam plays a critical role in shaping political culture, with no Middle Eastern Muslim country “able to escape completely from its overarching reach,” Mark Tessler pointed out in his paper which appeared in the  Comparative Politics.

“So far as democracy is concerned, some observers, particularly some Western observers, assert that democracy and Islam are incompatible.  Whereas democracy requires openness, competition, pluralism, and tolerance of diversity, Islam, they argue, encourages intellectual conformity and an uncritical acceptance of authority.  Equally important, Islam is said to be antidemocratic because it vests sovereignty in God, who is the sole source of political authority and from whose divine law must come all regulations governing the community of believers.  In the view of some scholars, this means that Islam “has to be ultimately embodied in a totalitarian state,” Tessler added.

However, this suggestion is rejected by many others. According to the Tessler’s research, Islam has many facets and tendencies. There is considerable variation in the interpretations of religious law advanced by Muslim scholars and theologians, and that among these are expressions of support for democracy, including some by leading Islamist theorists. Finally, they insist that openness, tolerance, and progressive innovation are well represented among traditions associated with the religion, and thus entirely compatible with Islam.

The above statements prove that elements that are not congenial to democracy can be found within Islamic doctrine and Muslim tradition.  The influence of the religion depends on how and by whom it is interpreted.  It also depends on the existing environment.

However, there are also “post-colonial” theories, such as those suggested by a famous scholar Edward Said. They explain the relative absence of liberal democracy in the Middle East by the long history of imperial rule during the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France and the contemporary political and military intervention by the United States, all of which have been blamed for preferring authoritarian regimes because this simplifies the business environment, while enriching the governing elite and the companies of the imperial countries.

“Despite a few exceptions, the Arab world has made relatively little progress toward political liberalization in recent years.  On the contrary, many of the experiments in democratization that were launched a decade or so ago have been cut back substantially or even abandoned,” Tessler added.

The existence of the “right” political institutions that are accountable in front of people is only the first step on the way to changes. The greater challenge lies in the area that involves citizen attitudes and values, often described as political culture which cannot emerge within a short period of time. Even for the United States it took about two hundred years to set their democracy on the right track. Elections alone bring neither stability nor democracy.

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