Where Islam And Democracy Meet – OpEd


By Aijaz Zaka Syed*

Ever wondered why the Middle East, the heart of the Islamic world, remains in constant state of flux and without the conditions essential for peace, stability, responsive governance and overall human development? Indeed, this is perhaps the only region that suffers from this deficit of peace, democracy and progress in conventional sense of these words.

There are many who blame this state of affairs on Islam, singling out the faith for the stagnation, backwardness and other woes of the Muslim world. However, that is not a fair criticism.

Islam has never held back its followers. Indeed, the Qur’an repeatedly asks the believers to think and ponder over the universe around them and their own place in it, asking themselves why they have been created. This may be why the early Muslims and succeeding generations for over a thousand years remained hungry for and open to new ideas no matter where they came from. Their civilization dominated the world for nearly a millennium.

Incredible as it sounds today, the western scientific advances wouldn’t have been possible without the pioneering ground work done by the Muslims.

Also, it is a fallacy to suggest that Islam and democracy cannot coexist or Islam is antithetical to modern concepts of representative democracy and governance. Islam came up with the concept of ‘shura’ and ‘ijmaa’ (consultation and consensus) long before the western concept of democracy evolved.

Islam enjoins mandatory jamaah (collective) on Muslim societies, asking them to choose an emir or leader even if two Muslims are together. Even at home they are asked to follow the same policy of consultation and consensus. After the Prophet (peace be upon him), first Caliph Sayyidana Abu Bakr was chosen following the same process, just as the three other caliphs had been. Not only Islam and democracy gel well, the very nature of the faith is democratic.

Even those countries that do not strictly follow the western model of democracy can’t be dismissed as totalitarian dictatorships. Essentially tribal societies, many of them follow a sort of social contract between the rulers and the ruled.

Of course, the region is also home to many dictatorships, which are answerable to no one but themselves with appalling human rights record, endemic corruption and abuse of power. Many of them have survived all these years with the active support and connivance of you know who.

Indeed, the colonial rule in many of these countries gave way to the rule of the empire’s chosen men — many of them in uniform — when they won independence in the last century. The world powers not only supported their favorite tyrants but they plotted to keep out good men known for their integrity.

Today, Uncle Sam and the Ayatollahs may act all chummy but who could forget how the CIA and UK’s MI6 brought down Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohamed Mossadeq in what remains the most infamous coup of the region.

Mossadeq paid a heavy price for being upright, incorruptible and, above all, his own man. Having studied at the best of European universities, he saw through all the little games of manipulation that the empire played. And he dared to put an end to the long decades of loot and exploitation that Iran’s economy and oil industry had long suffered at the hands of the West by nationalyzing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC, later British Petroleum). That coup of 1953 (codenamed Operation Ajax) may have set Iran back by decades and very well paved the way for the 1979 Revolution.

As Robert Fisk writes in his commentary on the coup against Mossadeq and the Middle East’s fledgling democracy, it was a reminder that the Plot — the international conspiracy (moamara in Arabic) was not entirely the product of Middle East imagination. There have been many others since who have paid their own price for their independence of mind and spirit and almost always for not toeing the Western line and received wisdom.

As in the case of Mossadeq, the oil played a decisive role in the undoing of Iraq’s Saddam Hussain and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. I am no fan of the Iraqi dictator. In life and in death, the tyrant brought nothing but great suffering and destruction to his country and people. His persecution of his own people remains unparalleled for its brutality and savagery.

But those who unseated Saddam by invading Iraq in violation of global public opinion and UN resolutions, visited even greater suffering and unspeakable horror and destruction on Iraq. Whatever Saddam’s crimes — and there were plenty of them — nothing justified the mindless destruction of an entire country and civilization, in the name of democracy, freedom and finding the non-existent WMD arsenal.

Poor Qaddafi, having seen the fate of Saddam, desperately tried to “mend” his ways, reaching out to the West and voluntarily ridding himself of his ancient arms and useless firepower. He showered expensive goodies, moolah and billions of dollars in contracts on France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Britain’s Tony Blair. Alas, all this proved of no consequence when it was time to go for the man who had for more than three decades been the master of all he surveyed in Libya. The metamorphosis of his Western friends was swift and breathtaking. When the Libyan leader was seen as an inconvenient liability, he was hunted and killed like an animal in full view of the world.

Was it a triumph of democracy and freedom? Perhaps. The whole world seemed to support the people power that erupted on the streets of Maghreb then as part of the Arab Spring revolutions. However, given the mindboggling mess that has replaced the brutal but ordered tyranny in Libya and Iraq, the answer is not a simple and straight one. The same dilemma seems to stare us in the face in Syria. The Syrians have paid the highest price so far for their revolt against the ruthless Baathist regime in Damascus that began with the uprisings in Maghreb in 2011. Nearly 300,000 people have been killed, more than half of the population is homeless and the whole country is in ruins. God alone knows when the long and dark night of Syria’s suffering will end. If only Syria had oil, it would have perhaps sufficiently lubricated the conscience of the world powers and international community into action.

Returning to the original question about the deficit of democracy, responsive governance and human development, there is no doubt that the credit for much of the current state of affairs in the region goes to its former colonial masters and their never-ending games of manipulation, exploitation and one-upmanship.

If only the conduct of the world powers in this part of the world had been dictated by the same lofty principles and ideals of democracy, freedom and human rights that they swear by, the region wouldn’t be stuck in a time warp with its broken models of governance, corruption, and never-ending conflicts while the rest of the world moves at a breathless pace.

While colonialism has ended for the rest of the world, its legacy lives on in many parts of the Muslim world in the form of institutions and policies that it has inherited. The chaos that was unleashed by the British-French duo Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot a century ago, dismembering the Ottoman Empire and paving the way for Israel remains at the heart of the region’s continuing instability.

*Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer.

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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