Are Arab Muslims Ready for Democracy?
The frustration experienced by peoples in the Muslim-majority Arab world during the fateful period of the Arab Spring, which has brought about consecutive failed democratic experiments and instability in the Arab Spring countries, has forced some to lament its occurrence and even to call for the return of dictatorial regimes.
Moreover, it has fortified the presence of surviving dictatorships and provided them with a degree of popularity and legitimacy based purely on the principle that “what we know is better than what we don’t.”
This period of time has indeed divided advocates of totalitarian regimes into two parties. The first believes that nothing can work with the Arab peoples but a repressive rule of iron and fire. Such a rule is deemed most suitable in light of an Arab culture which, according to their view, believes in the absolute rule of a person or party and that any objection to this rule is tantamount to sedition or rebellion. The other party justifies the importance of continuing dictatorial rule and the delaying of democratic efforts by saying that the Arab peoples are not yet ready, having decades of education and preparation ahead of them before they are ready to commit to democracy with full awareness of political practice and rights.
And until that day comes, guardianship must be imposed on the choices of the Muslims in the Arab world and other Arabs of different religions, as occurred during the June 30 demonstrations in Egypt.
Indeed, the beliefs of the second group are attested to by the philosophy of Winston Churchill himself, who famously stated that, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
The sentiment of this view is reflected in the situation of major global players such as Brazil. Although the political system there is constitutional republican, it is nevertheless mired in corruption and nepotism. Observers allocate much of the blame to poor state education and lack of public awareness, which keeps the majority of Brazilians in complete ignorance of the political process and leads repeatedly to the election of allegedly corrupt candidates.
And let us not forget that a majority of voters in Brazil are living below the poverty line, which makes it within political interest to keep them this way. But this hypothesis does not always hold true; consider, for example, a state with an elected government like Italy, which has a parliamentary system. Italy has a strong education system and the general public enjoy a sophisticated level of political awareness, but the country is still rife with corruption.
During a press conference on human rights, a reporter from the U.S. magazine Newsweek asked me if I thought that democracy would bring fanatical Islamists to power in the countries of the Arab Spring, and I knew immediately that the question was not genuine, nor did he wish to hear my true opinion.
American foreign policy is of the view that the peoples of the Third World are politically not mature enough to understand the true meaning of the word democracy, and that it would cause chaos if they were given the opportunity to choose who governs them.
However, I told him my opinion, which did not align with what he wanted to hear: “Democracy will bring whomever the people choose, even if that person is a fanatic, and those who brought him to a seat of power will remove him from it if he abuses that power. The people will get it wrong and regret their choices later. But aren’t these trials of the early years an essential part of democracy – the right of peoples to take a chance, re-test, and learn from their mistakes until they understand the lesson?”
People who lived through centuries of oppression and crushed dignity will not truly realise the meaning of freedom in its broadest and most absolute sense until they have paid the requisite price and expended the necessary time and effort. The recipe for a successful democracy begins with recognising the lack of justice in dictatorial regimes and the fact that a progressive democratic transformation will not happen overnight, nor will power someday be ceded in favour of the people.
After that comes education of the public regarding freedom, social justice and civil rights. But the most important thing is that we experience democracy today, not after years of educating the public and raising their awareness, as some would have it. The more we delay the induction of democracy, the more opportunities we will waste to learn and fix the errors that will inevitably be made.
Finally, we will need a lot of patience and a lot of time – let’s not forget that the French Revolution took 90 years to achieve its goals.
Published on IslamistGate.com February 26, 2014