Democracy or Hypocrisy
Our discussion today has to do with democracy in the Middle East, the subject of two debates that I watched two weeks ago, one on the BBC and the other on Al-Jazeerah.
The BBC debate which took place before an Arab audience in Doha, United Arab Emirates, and sponsored by Carter Foundation was moderated by Tim Sabastian of the popular BBC program Hardtalk. It proposed that George W. Bush has kicked-started democratic movement in the Arab world. Two Arabs were called to support the motion. One of them was Fouad Ajami, an Egyptian-American, who for decades has been teaching at John Hopkins University. Now he is an American and throughout the debate he identified himself as “we Americans.” Ajami is undoubtedly versed in Arab affairs as I remember reading his seminal work on Muslim fundamentalism twenty years ago. His supporter in the debate was the Editor of the popular Al-Hayat newspaper.
Ajami did not hesitate to express his support for the recent American adventure in the Middle East. He praised Bush’s invasion of Iraq, saying that it has yielded democracy. He tried to establish an emerging democratic trend in the region, citing what happened recently in Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon. He might have added Saudi Arabia. He even justified the American violations of human rights in Iraqi prisons, claiming that the victims are people who themselves brutalized Iraqis under Saddam Hussein.
The American supervised elections that were conducted three months ago were the strongest point of Ajami and his Al-Hayat supporter. They correctly pointed out that it was the first genuine election in an Arab country. Ajami also cited the ongoing change in Egypt, the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon and the Palestinian elections in the occupied territories. In Egypt, if we remember, Mubarak has asked the national assembly to amend the constitution such that, for the first time, more than a candidate can contest the presidential election. Prior to this time it was only Mr. Mubarak. That is all the progress there. In Lebanon, Ajami is happy that the protests have driven Syria out of the country, just as he is delighted with the exclusion of Yaser Arafat from Palestinian politics, as if Arafat was not an elected leader. In Saudi Arabia, local council elections have taken place, though without the participation of women.
All in all, what the supporters of the motion have shown is their understanding that the Arab world has been a subject of despotism. According to them, it does not matter if that freedom is achieved through the assistance of a foreign power. As the Editor aptly put it, “when someone is sitting on your chest, it does not matter if who removes him is the devil himself.”
I think there is no doubt that the Arab world has been under despotic regimes for decades. What is in dispute is the motion that America is responsible for kick-starting democratic reforms in the region. The second bone of contention is whether America is sincerely interested in democratising the region. In the first place, prior to the invasion of Iraq, America has never claimed that its war in Iraq would be for democracy. Its direction was completely different. The pretext given by both Washington and its London surrogate was the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. Even Fouad Ajami accepted that America stumbled on democracy in Iraq after its failure to discover weapons of mass destruction, like Columbus, to quote Ajami, who discovered the Americas while looking for a route to India.
The ‘discovery’ of democracy in Iraq could not be avoided by America; in fact, it boxed itself into that corner. America, nay, the Western world, has never been sincerely interested in democracy anywhere in the developing world. Its interest in democracy, where it occurs, is dictated by opportunism. After invading Iraq it found it impossible to win the tranquillity that is necessary for economic exploitation, as 21st century is too advanced to recognize legitimacy based on military occupation by a foreign power as it happened in the late 19th century. Elections are the only answer, hence the democratic rhetoric. This point was clearly proved by the opposing participants in the Doha BBC debate.
The elections that were held in the end of January could hardly be credible even by the standard of George Bush. As one of the opposing participants said in the debate, Bush made free elections as one of the reasons why Syria should leave Lebanon, saying there cannot be free and fair elections under occupation! How could elections held in Iraq under American occupation then be regarded as free and fair?
Now it is clear that the weapons of that mass destruction pretext was a sham. The real motive was the economic exploitation of Iraq. America went there for oil because it is the cheapest to drill in the world. Can people who are politically free allow their economic subjugation and exploitation by a foreign power? No. That is why people must accept that America’s commitment to democracy is mere rhetoric, a smokescreen, or at best a vehicle for installing puppets who will guarantee Anglo-American interest. When the BBC debate was over, a vote from the Arab audience was sought. No wonder that at the end of the count, 73% of the audience discredited America’s credentials in the Arab World. Only 27% agreed with Ajami and the Editor of Al-Hayat.
Whatever the outcome of that debate the fact that democracy is yet to take hold in the Arab world cannot be dismissed. That section of the globe is the most lagging, the most despotic, authoritarian and undemocratic, where economic and political participation is dependent either on basis of inheritance like in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Jordan, Syria and Morocco, or in the hands of a brutal clique as in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. The ruthlessness of these regimes is beyond description and their brutality is well known to the West for decades. The question is why the delay in the democratisation of the region? Has it got something to do with the region or with the regimes?
This brings us to the second debate in which Sheikh Jaafar Idris, a renowned Sudanese Islamic cleric and activist living in the Gulf, was the guest of Shariah wal-Hayat in Al-Jazeerah. The issues in the discussion were two. One of them was the seemingly generic contradiction between Islam and democracy. Both Idris and Ismat, the contributor to the discussion from Egypt and who is a leading member of Muslim Brotherhood, agreed on the need to democratise the Arab world. Where they differed was that Idris, the cleric, seemed to disagree with western style of democracy where people take the place of God. In Islam, as he correctly said, sovereignty belongs to God, not the people; so the basis of legislation must be the Shariah – the revealed provisions of Islam regarding fundamental aspects of belief and life. For example, God has prohibited loan with interest. It is therefore impossible for any Islamic government to legalize interest simply because it is the wish or interest of its people. The same thing applies to adultery, capital punishment, bribery, hoarding, alcohol, narcotics, etc.
Thus, while Islam has made consultation and people’s welfare the pillars of governance, prior to that it made Shariah the foundation. Once the foundation is not altered, anything can be built on it to achieve the egalitarian gaols of social justice. That is why Idris insisted that if democracy simply means representative government based on consultation, election, etc, then it is simply a variant of the principle of shura which Islam has recommended since its inception in the 7th century. If, on the other hand, democracy means transfer of sovereignty from God to People, then it will be difficult to find it accommodation in Muslim societies.
Dr. Ismat, the contributor from Egypt’s Islamic Brotherhood which is the main opposition party in Egypt was more pragmatic than Idris. In Egypt, he said, all parties, including the Socialists Party, have agreed that Shariah is the basis of legislation, meaning that no legislation can be valid if it contradicts Islamic precepts. The constitution, he said, has even given the Supreme Court in Egypt the power to annul any legislation that contradicts Shariah. But Idris was not convinced that any true socialist will accept Shariah as the fundamental basis of legislation as Marxism is a contradiction of Islam. The acquiescence of the socialists is simply a ploy not to run against the current of Islamic revival in the country.
I agree with Dr. Ismat that Muslim countries can fashion a democratic government that can make Shariah the foundation of its legislation. The details of the political process and structures, like elections and form of government, can then be left to the peculiarities of each nation. This understanding, simple as it is, is not acceptable to Western political establishment. Democracy in the developing world, to the West, must have two principal properties: One, it must come through a corrupt process, never transparent; two, its values and form must be Western.
The above requirements – corruption and Westernisation – must be met not only by the Arab and Muslim nations but by all developing countries. While corruption ensures economic subjugation of a developing country, adoption of Western values guarantees the perpetual mental enslavement of its people. Corruption allows room for the CIA and other organs of Western imperialism to manipulate the electoral process and allow its puppets to surface as winners. Adoption of western values, which now includes free market and the ascendancy of capitalism as an ideology, limits the capacity of the brain to locate solutions to problems of under-development outside the Western capitalist horizon. Once the two conditions are met, by Western standards, a democracy is invented and, behold, it is hailed by Western governments and their mass media. If it is nationalistic in outlook and has values that contradict or threaten the superiority of Western economic or military domination, then it is evil and dictatorship.
Thus, Zimbabwe is not a democracy even if Mugabe holds elections regularly and is supported by the majority of peasants. His sin is in returning to the native population land that was stolen by “white” thieves with colonial conspiracy. The opposition in Zimbabwe backed by imperialist forces in London, New York and Washington can appeal only to brainwashed elite in cities. China is not a democracy even if its government is representative. It requires a presidential or parliamentary system before it could be so qualified.
On the other hand, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt is regarded as practicing democracy even if only the candidate of his – The National Party – is allowed to contest the presidential elections. In addition, while Zimbabwe is subjected to sanctions, Egypt receives for over two decades a grant of over $2billion annually from the United States alone. And where is the Western value of human rights when America supports this most brutal regime on earth after Saddam? In the same vein, President Obasanjo of Nigeria was quickly congratulated by George Bush after the April 19 election that were globally recognised as a sham. But who can win elections and protect American economic interests better than a director of Africa Leadership Forum, a CIA outfit, as many have written previously?
Algerian and Iranian experiences in democracy have uncovered the hypocrisy of the West regarding democracy. After the Iranian revolution of 1978 that terminated American exploitation under the Shah, citizens of Iran went to referendum and approved an Islamic constitution. Based on the constitution a government was formed which has been holding elections as prescribed by the constitution. Iran has therefore fulfilled all conditions of democracy as a representative government. But because the values of Iranian democracy are not derived from the imperialistic values of the West, Iran is described today as evil, in line with the dictatorship of Syria and South Korea. What freedom then did the American President mean when in the last State of the Union Address he said to the Iranians: “As you stand for your freedom, America stands with you.” Where was this rhetoric when Iran was under the Pehlavi monarchy? We are waiting for the invasion of Iran to institute ‘democracy’, though, as it was the case with Iraq, the pretext now is nuclear weapons.
In Algeria we saw the shameless and brutal suppression of democracy by France and the CIA. When FIS, an Islamic party, won the majority in local government elections, the military were promptly recruited to topple the democracy and execute one of the most inhuman crackdowns on leaders and followers of FIS. Their crime is simple: why should they form a political party, contest and win elections when their heads are filled with notions of Islam, not of American imperialism?
Curious enough, Saudi Arabia is not under pressure on democracy from United States and Britain as is Zimbabwe. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy that makes leadership the exclusive preserve of House of Saud. Hardly do we hear Bush or Blair speak about democracy in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. Why should they, when the Houses of Saud and Sabah are allowing them unfettered access to oil wealth? Why should even Bin Laden be arrested, in spite of the advancement in positioning technology, when his family, like the House of Saud, is a business relation of the House of Bush?
It is therefore difficult to ascribe the failure of democracy in Arab countries to the ideological difference between Islam and Western values or to a myth peculiar to the region. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for example has been proponents of democracy since the 1940s. But with the support of the former Soviet Union during Naser and of America since Sadat, they have been frustrated consistently through proscription, massive arrests, most severe tortures kangaroo trials, mass executions and other forms of inhuman abuse for over sixty years now. What is happening is therefore clear: It is not in the interest of the West for any developing country to become truly independent to the extent of granting its citizens the freedom they need to advance their development. This policy will never change as long as western economic and military supremacy survives.
In conclusion, it is apt to quote for the third time in this column Democratization of Professor Nwabueze to support the view that Western concern about democracy in our countries is mere hypocrisy. Nwabueze quoted John Stuart Mill who in 1859 said: “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually affecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar of Charlemange, if they are so fortunate to have one.” Ya kobsa.
Nwabueze also added: “Lord Bryce, writing in 1920… (said) democracy and free government were not suitable nor meant for, and should not be embarked upon by ‘backward peoples’ among whom he classified the rest of mankind apart from Britain, Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan; despotism, he said is what is good for them, and the democratic ‘experiments that are now being tried might have been better left untried.’ And if at all “the working of fitting’ such peoples for self-government is to be attempted, it should be done by slow degrees.”
Some people hardly change.