By Kazi Anwarul Masud
Before the onset of the Arab Spring Stanford university Professor Larry Diamond had posed the question -Why there are no Arab Democracies (Journal of Democracy-January 2010) ? Diamond discounted both religion and culture as convincing argument for democracy deficit in the Arab world. After all more Muslims lived outside the Arab world and practiced some form of democracy thus negating the “Islamic Exceptionalism” argument popularized, among others, by Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. Besides it was found that overwhelming number among the Arabs thought democracy as the preferred system of governance though almost half supported secular democracy while the other half supported Islamic form of democracy. But then religion has not been the problem for democratization of Muslim societies only as 19th century French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the relationship between religion and democracy in the West was the “great problem of our time”. Though with the advent of secular and now post-secular age in the West the conflict between the Church and the State for pre-eminence has been reduced considerably, the lack of twin tolerancethe idea that religious institutions and the State must recognize and respect the minimum boundaries of freedom of eachin some Muslim countries have given rise to the “Big Muslim Problem” among some Western thinkers.
Decades back Seymour Martin Lipset, now shared by many economists and political scientists, thought that a minimum level of economic development was necessary for sustainable democracy. Even by that standard per capita income of Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Oman was comparable to many developed economies. One could argue that though per capita income showed prosperity the distribution of wealth among the people was uneven and unequal. One could then look into the structure of the society with a large, centralized and corrupt government and lack of civil society as reasons for democracy deficit in the Arab countries. Larry Diamond had predicted that revolt in a single but significant Arab country, Egypt for example, coupled with a changed American policy could set off a domino effect in the region. This is precisely what had happened with the onset of the Arab spring. Throughout the Arab Spring, in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, and now hopefully in Yemen and in Syria, propped up in the past by the West for strategic interests, the end of these repressive and kleptocratic regimes may be in sight. Of the several reasons forwarded for democracy deficit in the Islamic world one was that Prophet Mohammed (SM) was his own Constantine. While it took one thousand years for Christianity to be broadly accepted as a paramount religion after the conversion of Emperor Constantine on his death bed to Christianity, Prophet Mohammed (SM) saw in his lifetime the spread of Islam beyond Makkah and Medina and soon thereafter to North Africa and eventually to many other parts of the world.
Christianity, on the other hand, points out historian Bernard Lewis (The Roots of Muslim Rage) was mired in ferocious struggle between the Catholics and the Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries driving Christianity in desperation to the doctrine of the Church and the State. This doctrine of separation of the Church and the State is also credited to Thomas Jefferson who had remarked that in matters of religion “divided we stand united we fall”. This movement toward secularism, distinct from atheism, helped the Christendom toward the adoption of democracy, albeit after long struggle with King John (in the case of Magna Carta) and feudalism while the classical Islamic faith was left behind with the belief of the division of the world into the House of Islam where Muslim law and faith prevailed and the House of Unbelief where the rest of humanity lived. Bernard Lewis tried to explain the rejection of Western values as Islam’s inability, in Lewis’ interpretation, to accord in theory and practice full equality to those who held other faiths.
Bernard Lewis (What went wrong) further explored the continuing fall of the Muslim world vis-à-vis the West in economic development, literacy, scientific achievement, and now in military strength making the Islamic world perpetually dependent on the West for relief and help in its quest for the Muslim world’s own economic development. Rise of other civilizations like Japan and now China and India has been of little consolation to those holding on to the “pristine” Islamic culture of the 6th century which is neither desirable, and more importantly not wanted by the Muslims except the followers of Osama bin Laden. But then the campaign that the Islamic world is opposed to democratic order is being done by the fundamentalists of other faiths who taking advantage of the resurgence of religion are preaching such calumny.
When George W Bush went to destroy Mullah Omar with the consent of the UNSC the Muslim world supported his move. The world, however, was less enthusiastic in his project of democratization of the Middle East because democracy like many other traits cannot be imposed from above but, among other factors, has to be generated from the people. The quick march toward democratization of former East European countries after the dissolution of the Soviet Empire is a glaring example of the subterranean desire of the occupied peoples’ urge for democracy.
It is, however, not certain that if the geographical location of East Europe had been elsewhere and the dissolution of the Soviet Empire had not happened whether the West would have been so quick to embrace these newly independent countries into NATO and the European Union. The hesitancy of the EU to take in Turkey as a member and call by some European leaders for referendum in the case of Turkish membership is an eloquent testimony to Christian Europe’s refusal to accept a Muslim Turkey. In this narrative one may wish to mention Christopher Caldwell’s provocative book Reflections on the Revolutions in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West in which Caldwell claims that Europe has become a continent of immigrants with more than ten percent of the people living outside their place of birth. Caldwell’s concern basically revolves around Muslim immigrants because Islam, Caldwell believes, is a creed that a secular, post-enlightenment Europe cannot absorb. He puts scorn on those who believe that Muslim immigrants are amenable to metamorphosis as Europeans keeping cultural diversity as in many countries that house citizens belonging to different religions, culture, language etc.
This treatise is not meant to explore the divide between Islam and Christianity but to devise a way to free oppressed people from the clutches of tyranny and possible genocide. In this case the government that wages war against its own people becomes authoritarian as distinct from rule by a government chosen by election where most of the populace are enfranchised. The key distinction between a democracy and other forms of government is usually taken to be that the right to vote is not limited by a person’s wealth or race (the main qualification for enfranchisement is usually having reached a certain age). A democratic government is, therefore, based on the support of the majority of the population. Though Arab Spring is yet to be transformed into full fruition exceptions remain as in the case of the Syrians who are being victimized by virtual genocide perpetrated by the Syrian authorities. In 1986 the International Court of Justice rejected the American “democratic peace” argument in the Nicaragua case that the Nicaraguan government by its totalitarian and military character had violated its oath to the Nicaraguans, the US and the Charter of the Organization of American States. Yet two years later UNGA declared that the will of the people shall be the basis of authority of the state that would be expressed through periodic free and fair elections. In other words the international community would no longer be indifferent to the character of a domestic regime or its conduct relating to its own people and the foreigners.
The responsibility to protect people from genocide and crimes against humanity has become a part of the duty of the international community and the UN Charter’s inviolability of sovereignty and territorial integrity has become subject to interpretation. The year 2000 African Union’s Constitutive Act specifically refers to “respect for democratic principles” thus signifying the supremacy of the will of the people. But what happens, for example in the case of Syria, where the government is murdering its own people but there is no way to ascertain whether these protestors are “miscreants” (a terminology used by Pakistan occupation forces during the Bangladesh liberation war) as described by Bashar- al-Assad government constituting a minority or they are like the Egyptians, Tunisians and Libyans i.e. the overwhelming part of the people seeking release from Assad dynastic tyranny? And what is going to happen if the UNSC becomes frozen due to veto by one or more of the Permanent members while unarmed people continue to be murdered by the military loyal to Bashar al-Assad? Besides how is the international community going to decide on the legitimacy if a government-in-exile is formed and requests for humanitarian intervention to stop the ongoing bloodshed? Here we have to face the struggle of ethics and morality against exercise of power. In India Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned as Railway Minister when a railway train collision resulted in the death of many people. Dwight Eisenhower was instrumental in the two term limit of the Presidency. There are many more examples of putting morality before power. Developing countries fearful of their experience of colonialism and of the reckless use of the doctrine of preemption by George W Bush administration are understandably hesitant to immediately support humanitarian intervention, more so as many of them are guilty of gross violation of human rights in their own countries.
Yet while blood of the innocent spills by the atrocities of the tyrants it is difficult for the civilized world to watch without taking corrective measures. Arab League monitors have not succeeded so far. Syria stands out as a case for humanitarian intervention without wasting any more time.
(The author is a former Ambassador and Secretary in the Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh)