Monday, September 29, 2014

Is democracy consistent with Islam?


Essay by Nauman Sadiq

Some people are under the impression that democracy and Islam are incompatible. But I don’t see any contradiction between democracy and Islam. Though I admit, there is some friction between Islam and liberalism. When we say that there is a contradiction between Islam and democracy, we make a category mistake which is a very serious logical fallacy. We must be precise about the definitions of the terms that we employ.

Democracy is simply a representative political system that ensures representation, accountability, the right of the electorate to vote governments in and vote governments out. In this sense when we use the term democracy we mean a multi-party representative political system that confers legitimacy upon a government which comes to power through an election process which is a contest between more than one political parties, to ensure that it is voluntary. Thus democracy is nothing more than a multi-party representative political system.

But some of us romantics get carried away in our boundless enthusiasm and ascribe meanings to the words that are quite subjective and fallacious. Some will hyphenate it with liberalism and call it a liberal-democracy while others will call it an informed or enlightened democracy. In my opinion the only correct adjective to democracy is a ‘representative-democracy.’

There is a big difference between democracy and liberalism. Democracy falls under the category of politics while liberalism falls in the category of culture. And we shouldn’t mix politics and culture together because it will give us a toxic blend which is an anathema to some of our core sensibilities: religion is roughly a sub-category of culture and it will be a violation of the sacred tenets of secularism to involve religion/culture in the political matters. Politics must strictly be about allocation of resources, i.e. economics and any mention of culture, religion or value-system must offend our liberal sensibilities and secular aesthetics.

Puns aside, some people use the term democratic culture, what do they mean by it? It could mean anything from the fairytale of Romeo and Juliet to a belief in Santa and from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs. But does democratic culture means a liberal culture? Liberal as in more open-minded, understanding and tolerant? Tolerant in a way that Democrats tolerate the Republicans and the Tea Party questions the birthplace and secret faith of Obama?

In my opinion, a democratic culture only means following certain established conventions and rules of the game. Like holding free and fair elections, heartily congratulating each other on getting elected in a sportsmanly fashion, keeping militaries firmly under the heel of the civilian authority (ostensibly), burying our heads in the sand when it comes to the paramount business interests who control us all, and other such pretenses which are a hallmark of marketing-based neoliberal democracy.

After casting sufficient aspersions on mature democracies and bringing the ideal role-model down a few notches, let us now talk about the nascent democracies of the Arab Spring. The realities of the Arab and Islamic world fall well short of the ideal liberal-democratic model of our wishful thinking in a solipsistic Universe. But there is a lot to be optimistic about. When the revolutions took place in Tunisia and Egypt and before the Spring turned into an abysmal winter in Libya and Syria, some of the Leftist dreamers weren’t too cheerful about it.

Unlike the socialist revolutions of 60s and 70s when visionaries used to have a magic wand of bringing about a fundamental structural change that will heal all our wounds and culminate into an equitable distribution of resources overnight, the neoliberal revolutions of today are merely a step in the right direction that will usher the Arab and the Islamic world into an era of relative peace and progress.

These revolutions are not led by Gamal Abdul Nassers, Zulfikar Ali Bhuttos, Jawahar Lal Nehrus and other charismatic socialist messiahs that the utopian thinkers are so fond of. But these revolutions are the grassroots movements of a society in a transition from an abject stagnant state towards a dynamic representative future. Let’s be clear about one thing first and foremost, the democratic-Islamists will follow the same old economic model of their predecessors. It’s a growth-based neoliberal model as opposed to an equality-based socialist model. Does it takes the wind out of our sails?

It does, because Free Market Darwinism is the order of the day and nobody wants to emulate Castro’s Cuba and Bhutan’s gross domestic happiness anymore. If you have a better economic model, implement it first in the developed world and the developing world will follow the suit. But the developing world can ill afford to experiment with the whims of the intellectuals and the unempirical advice of the well-meaning albeit naïve ideologues.

A word about the term Islamist: most people use this term incorrectly. In the mainstream media even Erdogan’s party is referred to as an Islamist party. In politics we should only use the well defined terms such as conservative, moderate and liberal. We don’t label the Western conservative political parties as Christianity-inspired then why do we label the conservative parties of Islamic countries as Islamist? It creates a preconceived bias in the mind of a reader and he forms a negative opinion about such parties which are at the forefront of democratic movements in the middle east these days. Those who employ such counter-intuitive and reductive terms to describe the Arab Spring phenomena have an anti-democratic temperament and agenda.

Coming back to economics, developed economies must now focus their attention on social justice/equality. While the developing third world economies with large populations and scarce resources must make economic growth their foremost goal. It’s because poverty in the developed world is only relative while poverty in the third world countries is absolute. We do not have poverty in the developed world, that’s not poverty as in wants, that is only a relative inequality. There are only two classes in the developed world, the rich and the middle class.

I could be wrong but I have seen millions of my poor compatriots who go to the developed countries on work visas, they do menial jobs there, make money not only for themselves but they also manage to send their savings to their poor families back home. As long as one is working, one can’t be poor in the developed world. The West’s problem is only unemployment. Third World’s problem is unemployment as well as inflation. Even those who are employed cannot make ends meet. West’s poverty is only a state of mind and a lack of conditioning to their environment and circumstances. Western Business Roundtables who represent the net wealth of $6 trillion (6000 billion) don’t exploit them, they exploit the poor of the third world. The poverty in the third world countries is not relative, it’s absolute and abject. I wish I had pictures who could speak a thousand words but here is a rough stat.

Imagine spending a month (four weeks) on 100 dollars. That’s the minimum wage in Pakistan. Natural empathy is only a contagious empathy. It is provoked only when we see something gross happening before our eyes. Movies, pictures and words don’t provoke the similar kind of emotional response to the environmental stimuli. We often overlook what’s happening right in front of our eyes and fail to realize it’s significance. Realization is the key. Our minds are quarantined into our rich countries, segregated suburbs, affluent neighborhoods and equivalent social circles.

Coming back to the topic, what will the Arab Spring revolutions achieve when the resultant democratic governments will follow the same old neoliberal, growth-centered economic policies? Democracy is not the best of systems because it is the most efficient political system. Top-down authoritarian dictatorships are more efficient than democracies. But democracy is a representative political system.

Democracy brings about a grassroots social change. Enfranchisement, representation, transparency, accountability, checks and balances, rule of law and the consequent institution-building, nation-building and consistent long-term policies are the hallmarks of a representative democracy. Are these achievements any less significant compared to the goal of social justice and radical redistribution of resources?

We can’t live in a fool’s paradise. We must accept realities as they are, even if they don’t quite get to our ideal utopian goal. But utopias don’t exist in the real world. It’s just some theoretical, unempirical theories that the likes of Plato and Marx duped us into believing.

Kant said that moral autonomy produces moral responsibility and maturity. I think this dictum also applies to politics and governance. Political autonomy and self-governance lead to political responsibility and social maturity. A top-down political system is dependent on the artificial, external force that keeps it going. The moment you remove the force, the society will revert back to it’s old ways and the system will collapse. But a grassroots bottom-up political system evolves naturally and intrinsically. We must not expect from the Arab Spring revolutions to produce results immediately. The evolution of Western culture happened over a course of many centuries. And we are not willing to give the democratic-conservatives of the Islamic countries a few years in the office to prove their mettle.

We must not judge people, political parties and cultures by their putative intentions. We shouldn’t even judge them by their words and incoherent manifestoes and theories. The reality is always too complex to be explained in words or pronounced neatly in reductive theories. We must judge people by their actions. We must be patient and give them time to get their orientation right. These democratic movements are the best thing that has ever happened to the Middle East and the Islamic World. The revolutions of 60s and 70s only mobilized the elite classes. Some working classes may have been involved. But the elite don’t understand the workers (except as supervisors in their factories) and the workers are often misled by the elite.

Like I argued earlier, democracy falls under the category of politics and liberalism falls in the category of culture. There is no contradiction between Islam and democracy. But some friction between Islam and liberalism. Let them have a democratic representative political system first. Let them get their orientation right. Let them create their institutions first, because institution-building takes time. These are the short and intermediate term steps that we must take to qualify as tolerant and pragmatic individuals. We do not tolerate things that we already like. We only tolerate things that we dislike. If we, the so-called educated folks, cannot tolerate them, how can we expect from them, the so-called Jahils (illiterates), to tolerate us?

In the long term some cultural change is also a possibility. If our liberal values are based on merit, then it is the nature of social evolution to adopt the traits that are beneficial to their hosts. It is equally possible that we may adopt a few good values from their culture. But we cannot expect such a transformation happening in one or two terms in the office. It will at least take a generation or two.

Instead of aiming for a liberal democracy, a pragmatic mind will aim only for a representative democracy in the context of MENA and the Islamic World, at least in the short term. Let the conservatives of the Islamic countries enjoy a few terms in the office. In the meantime, liberals should get their act together, create and build a liberal political party and contest the elections. Pulling the leg of the conservative democrats in such a precarious situation will only strengthen the hand of the undemocratic forces. And we will get back to the square one.

Moreover, if the Arab Spring is not about the radical redistribution of wealth or creating a liberal-democratic system in the Middle East and the Islamic World overnight, what is it about then? Let me explain it by an allegory. Democracy is like a school and people are like children. We only have two choices. One, keep the people under the paternalistic dictatorships. Two, enroll them in the school of representative democracy and let them experience democracy as a lived reality rather than some stale, sterile theory. The first option will only produce half-witted dwarfs. But the second option will produce an educated human resource that doesn’t just consumes resources but also creates new resources. We are on a historic juncture in the Middle East and North Africa in particular and the Islamic world in general. This is the beginning of a new era. This is the beginning of an Islamic Renaissance and Enlightenment.

However, some recent developments particularly in Egypt have transformed the Arab Spring into an Arab Autumn. Here I’d like to clarify that the militant phenomena in Libya and Syria is distinct and separate from the political and democratic phenomena of the Arab Spring movements. When political movements for enfranchisement turn militant, do they cease to be political? No they don’t; but from a pacifist standpoint we make a distinction between political movements which we should support; and the militant movements which should be shunned. In the latter case the only prudent course for the international community is to pressurize both sides: the militants and the regimes, to show restraint and avoid using force; the political right of peaceful demonstrations for political and social reforms is always a given. The demonstrators must have our political, diplomatic and moral support but beyond that any militarization and intervention for ulterior motives in an opportunistic manner must be avoided.

Coming back to Egypt, here is a quick review of the recent developments and the causes of Mursi government’s fall from grace in the most populous Arab state:

1-The Egyptian establishment didn’t let the Muslim Brotherhood’s first choice for the president, Khairat al Shater, contest the polls. Al Shater would have been a far more suave and pragmatic statesman than Mursi who was reckless and lacked a sense of danger; which he proved by recklessly dismissing Tantawi and appointing Sissi in his stead. He also alienated Saudi Arabia and Israel by visiting Iran; the first and only visit by an Egyptian head of state after the Khomeini revolution.

2-The Egyptian establishment-controlled courts kept on dissolving the legislatures and annulling the elections on technical grounds; and impeding the process of constitution-making and legislation.

3-The Egyptian military staged an unthinkable coup against the civilian government on the pretext of an establishment-sponsored Tamarod movement which collected millions of signatures on its petition for the removal of Mursi government. If Brass Tacks, RSS or some neo-Nazi group follows this precedent to legitimize a coup against the democratically elected government of a country, how would one feel? The real reason and the immediate cause for the removal of Mursi administration was the appointment of 15 Brotherhood-affiliated governors to the Egypt’s 27 provinces. The Egyptian establishment censured Mursi for his arrogation of power and ultimately staged a coup against him. Is it not an exclusive prerogative of a democratically-elected president to appoint governors of his choice?

4-The Egyptian military massacred hundreds of innocent and peaceful Brotherhood protestors at Rabaa-al-adawiya square.

5-Then it carried out armed operations against the Brotherhood in numerous cities; imprisoned the entire leadership of Brotherhood; disbanded it as a non-government organization and also outlawed it as a political party. This was the ultimate goal of the coup since the beginning, which Arabist.net very presciently termed as the Algerian precedent of eradicateur.

6-The Egyptian establishment tasked an unrepresentative assembly of 50 technocrats to make a constitution for 85 million citizens of Egypt. A constitution which endorses the army’s political supremacy and protects its business enterprises and commercial interests; a constitution which bans the most popular Egyptian political party; brings back the Mubarak-era minions to the corridors of power; blatantly suppresses the popular will and sovereignty; brutally cracks down on dissent, opposition, and movement for reform, representation and enfranchisement.

7-Farcical elections were held in May 2014 and Sissi got 97% of the votes. From these figures it appears that he is even more popular among Egyptians than the longest serving dictators like Mugabe and Castro are in Zimbabwe and Cuba. Welcome back to the Mubarak-era police state.


Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, blogger and imperial politics aficionado with a particular interest in the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions.

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