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Arab Upheaval – Is It The Storm For Democracy In The Middle East?


By R. Upadhyay

The core demand of the leaders of the on going upheaval in Islamic countries of the Middle East is democracy and end of authoritarian rule responsible for unemployment, corruption, nepotism etc.

The media and leaders of democratic world while expressing concern over uprisings against the authoritarian rulers have been giving them wise advice for establishment of ‘real democracy’ in the region. But in view of the authoritarianism rooted to the civilisational ethos of Arab world, it is difficult to understand the future of the on going upheaval and the resultant political order in the region.

Middle East
Middle East

So long as the Islamic scriptures are not interpreted from the modern world point of view,the Muslim society which wants Islam as religion of the state cannot accept democracy due to irreconcilable difference between Sharia (Islamic law) and democratic ideals like autonomous Election Commission for free and fair election, independent judiciary, uncensored media, gender equality, value for human rights and overall development of the people.

In the name of absolute sovereignty of God, people are denied sovereign power to elect their rulers. Some of the radical Islamist group like Hizb ut- Tahrir founded in Jerusalem in middle of twentieth century and having its branches in many parts of the world still maintain that “democracy is a system of kufr” that is not approved by Sharia.

If we look into the Democracy Index of 167 countries in 2010 as published by the Economist, which has categorized them into full democracies (26), flawed democracies (53), hybrid regimes (33) and authoritarian regimes (55), the Islamic countries which are now shaken by the on going upheaval come under the last category. In fact none of the Islamic countries with Muslim majority has been under the category of even flawed democracy what to talk of full democracy.
Since democracy is considered by the Mullahs to be incompatible with Islamic culture, they are either within the category of hybrid regimes or authoritarian regimes. In fact out of forty-one Muslim majority Islamic countries (Wikipaedia) eight of them namely Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iran, Mauritania, Oman, Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia have adopted Islam as the ideological foundation for their political institution. Another group of fourteen countries namely Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Morocco, Sudan, Somalia, Somaliland (unrecognised state, claimed in whole by Somalia), Tunisia and United Arab Emirates have officially endorsed Islam as state religion. The remaining nineteen including Turkey claim themselves as secular countries.

The rule of Caliphates in their long history was not democratic in the modern sense. It was rather an imperial rule over Ummah (Muslim community) by the Caliphs which are often projected by the Mullahs as an ideal form of government. Similarly, the prevailing system of governance in contemporary Islamic countries where governments are mostly run by the dictatorial coalition of mosque, state and military under the command of Presidents, Kings and Emirs does not support a government under democratic values. Most of the despotic rulers in Islamic countries have not only built a strong army and an efficient intelligence apparatus but have also joined western alliances mainly to safeguard their dictatorial survival against the possible revolution from their own masses. Saudi monarchy allowed even a base of American army in its territory. Gaddafi the dictatorial ruler of Libya might have played anti-West role thirty years ago but that does not give him the license for mass killing of his country men demanding democracy and peoples’ share in power.

As people are having unyielding faith in the religious dictates of the fanatic Mullahs who are in the roll of the dictators, they have been suffering from the rule of the dictators for decades. The powerful external forces though claim to be the protagonists of democracy ignored all the anti-democratic and tyrannical oppression of the masses and patronised the dictatorial ruling class to fulfil their geopolitical, strategic and economic ambitions. Thus, decades’ long co-existence between autocrats and the Mullahs under the support of the West has made the prospect of real democracy in the Middle East very feeble. By an large the protesters expect from their leaders freedom and prosperity. But in absence of any road map for a clear path to seek political reforms by the protestors particularly when the revolutionaries were not a monolithic group and radical Islamist group also joining them as in the case of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt a prominent opposition during Mubarak regime, is there any prospect for fulfilment of peoples’ aspirations?

Imperial legacies in the in Arab and Gulf countries, discovery of oil wealth, Arab-Israel conflict, movements for Islamic reform have been pushing the Muslims to medieval Islamism with hate-West syndrome are some of the reasons which pose major obstacles in the path of establishing genuine democracy in the region. Monarchies in Arab world with their oil wealth have all along been funding Islamist radicals of the Muslim world and getting their support for their dictatorial rule in their countries.

Born and brought up in Arab-Islamic culture, people of Middle East who have a long history of undemocratic belief and authoritarian power structures are therefore not easily reconciled to the idea of democracy which they consider as alien to their Islam-centric mind-set. Besides, formation of political parties on ethnic, religious or regional division instead of policy based on democratic ideology shows that the leaders of the groups are not interested for the overall prosperity of the entire people. Despite the concept of Ummah in Islam the leaders have been self-seeking and power centric.

Due to the missing progressive free thinking religious scholars, reformers and philosophers who could interpret the Islamic scriptures to suit the current trends towards democracy with rational world view, the Muslim society has thus failed to counter the troublesome aspects of its societal core. As a result, the radical Islamists get open space to transform the Muslim masses according to the demand of the ruling class and did not allow them to unload their mental burden of the medieval era.

Thus, a government that included a Radical Islamist group would probably adopt harder line on Israel and would be soft towards the Islamist terrorist groups all over the world. Like 1979 revolution in Iran against the monarchy, the possibility of organized Islamist group of conservative forces gaining an upper hand and taking over a country in a situation of chaos cannot be ruled out.

Arab citizens might have begun to believe that their freedom from the authoritarian regimes and democracy are within reach, is it not perplexing that some Islamic preachers from various Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Bahrain, Kuwait and Lebanan have issued statements supporting the uprising but slamming democracy and un-Islamic political parties as incompatible to Islam? The Muslim clerics have argued that “democracy allows the people have the final say in their countries’ affairs which leads to the prevalence of several un-Islamic practices” (Jihad Watch).

The history of 1979 revolution in Iran against the tyrannical rule of Shah which was hijacked by the forces of radical Islamists with establishment of a more oppressive regime led by Ayatollah Khomeini giving free hand to the brute dictatorial attitude of the Revolutionary Guards under the command of Mullahs who turned Iran into a large prison.

As reported by many media commentators, the victory of Hamas in Gaza strip and Islamist forces in Turkey suggest that power in the hand of Islamist forces in predominantly Muslim dominated countries of Persian Gulf, Arabian Peninsula and North African countries will always be misread as the result of democracy.
Against the backdrop of the prevailing political situation in Islamic countries, until and unless the theory which argues that democracy is incompatible with Islamic culture and values is not countered logically by the reputed Islamic scholars from the Muslim world, breaking the nexus of Mullahs, military and the ruling class/group is a remote possibility.

It is also the duty of everyone to help the Arab revolutionaries to guard against the historical repeat of the outcome of twentieth century revolutions in those countries. Otherwise the same revolutionaries who are fighting against dictatorial and corrupt rulers with tremendous sacrifice will only be jumping from the frying pan in to the fire.

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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