Thursday, December 29, 2011

Forced democracy will not work in the Islamic world

This year witnessed unexpected political changes in the Middle East; the sand storm raised by the "Arab Spring" has not yet settled as it still continues to move through Yemen and Syria with peoples' sustained strength, while Bahrain and other regimes are trying hard to curb its resurgence.

The general notion of democratic exception in the case of the Muslim world does not seem to hold water anymore. The Muslim masses have been engaging in the struggle for democracy since the end of the colonial era but have not succeeded in attaining it due to obstruction from internal authoritarian political actors, be it armies, monarchies or self-made leaders like Gadhafi, Saddam Hussain, the Assads of Syria or Suharto in indonesia. The struggle for democracy in the Muslim world is also subject to the state of sectarian relations, as witnessed in power conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Bahrain and Pakistan.

There are two types of democracies in the Muslim world - one is of imposed democracy such as in Iraq and Afghanistan; the second is emerging democracy based on grassroots movements that began in Tunisia and are threatening to sweep all of the Middle East. Both of these models are facing considerable challenges that come in various forms - such as the sectarian character of Muslim societies, the massive power of the Arab monarchies, authoritarian states, military institutions, remnants of the toppled regimes, and the destruction in the aftermath of war and sectarian conflict. The recent deadly sectarian attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, where the sectarian conflict is being played at the top level in Shia and Sunni political factions, shows that, as the United States withdraws its troops, Iraq continues to be unstable.

In Iraq there is a contest for power between the pro-Iran Shia government vis-a-vis the secular Sunni and ethnic Kurdish minority political factions. In Pakistan there is a contest for power between the military, the mullahs and the democratic forces, which has intensified since the time of the Ziaul Haque regime and the related Afghan war; this competition continues to menace the securing of democracy there. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani fears a coup.

Exceptions are Indonesia, Tunisia and Turkey, where the army has returned to the barracks, while Afghanistan is still politically unstable.

Between these two models of democracy, those that emerged from grassroots movements such as in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria, will be more successful than those in countries with an imposed democratic model.

The fact is that the imposed democracies have not outgrown factors that lie at the cause of internal conflict, such as sectarianism. Sectarian conflict in the Middle East will expand to Muslim South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa for the simple fact that the root cause of sectarian division in Islam is political rather than religious.

The potential for deadly sectarian conflict in Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Iran in the face of the suppression grassroots movements for democracy is enormous. History shows that peoples' political movements offer more space for reconciliation and unity than imposed political arrangements.

Since the religious resurgence after the Islamic revolution of Iran in 1979, impartial scholars and policy advisors on the Muslim world have opined that the best response to religious resurgence is to allow the growth of democracy through peaceful change, through supporting Muslim democrats. But this advice is opposed by both local authoritarian rulers whose legitimacy is challenged and by external supporters whose interests are at stake.

The non-growth of democracy native to the Muslim worldview led to the emergence of violent political Islam, a la Bin Laden, which is now sidelined with the emergence the Arab Spring, which has no external support except in the case of Libya. As a multi-faceted movement, the Arab Spring regards Islam as a mark of identity and political morality. Hence, both the secular and religious parties will compete for office through the polls. The availability of space for political competition is a positive option for socio-economic development. In power, the success or failure of the Muslim parties now depends on meeting the demands of the masses; that result will determine their future role in the politics of the Muslim world.

Furthermore, the ongoing movement for political change will not result in a monolithic model of Muslim democracy but a variety of models befitting local environments and situations. This is evidenced in the cases of Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and struggling Pakistan.

Meanwhile, as a new democratic government takes power in Tunisia, the economic factor behind the Arab Spring uprising deserves most attention. The new Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali of the Ennahdah Party has promised to solve the severe economic crisis in Tunisia, where the unemployment rate is 20 per cent, combined with poor economic growth.

In spite of ongoing Constituent Assembly elections, the continuing battle between the army and activists, along with reports of sexual harassment of women by the army, tell us that the Egyptian revolution is far from settled.

The role played by women in the Arab revolutions should put to rest the Western notion that Muslim women are oppressed - which is an Orientalist invention. When it comes to the issue of women in the Muslim world, there is a need to distinguish between the forces of tribalism and Islam. Tribalism is still a dominant force in some Muslim countries, where women are subject to the horrors of honour killings and female circumcision. Such practices continue to survive under the guise of religion.

Millions of educated Muslim women are engaged in the struggle for liberation from tribalism disguised as Islam.

All emerging democracies in the Muslim world will have a reference to Islam in their constitutions; this is no different from the spirit of the recent statement by British Prime Minister David Cameron that Britain is a Christian country and there is a need to return to Christian values in order to overcome the state of moral collapse. In fact, all democratic political cultures have a religious reference in some way or another. The challenge before all countries today is to accept religious pluralism amidst diversity, and this may serve as an antidote to sectarianism and sectarian conflicts.

Countries that have an active democratic process, no matter their worldview, are better than those where democracy is an imposed product or is subject to intra-institutional political competition. Democracy based on grassroots movements combined with the aspiration for religious pluralism substantially reduces the danger of inter-sectarian and interreligious conflicts and tragedies.

By Dr Imtiyaz Yusuf professor of Islamics and religion at theGraduate School of Philosophy and Religion, Assumption University, Bangkok. “The Nation”

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