Saturday, March 31, 2012

Democracy in the Middle East

Back in 1993, Phil Paine and I published "Democracy's Place in World History" in the Journal of World History, in which we argued that just about any part of the world had customs and institutions that might lead to democracy, that the development of democracy was not simply the elaboration of a unique "Western" tradition that "other people" could not really understand.

Phil and I have also argued at times that democracy is both older and younger around the world than is commonly realized, depending in part on whether you are talking about potential or realization.  And that the arrow of democracy doesn't always point in the direction of  "more," even if you live in a historically favorable environment.  (This should be obvious, but often pundits talking about the big picture breeze right past it.)

Given this background, I was very interested in Irfan Ahmad's article, How the West de-democratised the Middle East, which I excerpt below.

First, the position that Islam is incompatible with democracy was false from the beginning, because it served imperial ambitions of the West and violated Muslims' self-perception that, not only is Islam compatible with democracy, it was one of the engines of democratic empowerment.
Second, I argue that the West's discourse of democratisation of the Middle East is dubious because it hides how the West actually de-democratised the Middle East. My contention is that, from the 1940s onwards, democratic experiments were well in place and the West subverted them to advance its own interests. I offer three examples of de-democratisation: The reportedly CIA-engineered coup against the elected government of Syria in 1949, the couporchestrated by the US and UK against the democratic Iran in 1953 and subversion of Bahrain's democracy in the 1970s. I also touch on the West's recent de-democratisation in Iraq and Afghanistan.  
The Western view about Islam being incompatible with democracy is rooted in the Enlightenment which, contrary to the received wisdom, was prejudiced - and, to cite John Trumpbour, "shot through with Islamophobia". Thus Alexis de Tocqueville held that the Quran laid stress on faith, not splendid deeds, as a result of which Islam was inhospitable to democracy. In the post-World War II era, Kedouri, Huntington, Lewis and others presented different versions of this argument.
This Western view was, however, seldom shared by Muslims who believed that Islam and democracy were perfectly compatible. As early as 1912, the Indian philosopher Abul Kalam Azad (b1888) wrote: "Islam regards every form of government which is non-constitutional and non-parliamentary as the greatest human sin." Turkey's Mustafa Fazil Pasha (b1829) held that Islam determined one's destiny in afterlife but it "does not limit the rights of the people". Abdullah Abdurrahman of South Africa (b1870) observed that, without full equality, "there is no such thing as a democratic institution". Without multiplying examples, it is suffice to note that the notion of divine sovereignty advanced by India's Maududi and Egypt's Qutb were complex developments unfolding much later. 
That last point may seem counter-intuitive, but I take it seriously (which is not to say that I am sure that it is right).  There were plenty of "Western" thinkers in the 19th and 20th centuries, influential ones, who were denouncing democracy.  If we are talking about the potential of an Islamic environment producing democratic thought, my bet is that Ahmad has a point.

Finally, on Ahmad's citation of de Tocqueville on the Quran;  if Ahmad is accurate, I gotta say:  Alexis, did you never read St. Paul?

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