Posted by Joshua on Thursday, September 14th, 2006
September 14, 2006
It has often been suggested that the Arab world is not ready for western style liberal democracy. One often hears that there is something unique or intrinsic about the Arab culture that inhibits democratic governance. Such sentiments have made it possible for the region’s dictators to widely suppress all basic principals of individual freedom, civil liberties, accountability and free elections.
While a culture of tribalism is often sited as a reason, other traditional interpretations of authoritarianism in the region point the blame at its colonial past. One can argue that just like the French and British before them, American foreign policy has invested and promoted military-security institutions at the expense of civil-legal ones in order to maintain control over the region’s restive societies and its vast energy resources.
During the 1950’s and 1960’s, young army officers used military coups to reach power at the expense of a number of the regimes that were affiliated with the British and French colonialists. Regrettably, the new Arab leaders over promised and under achieved.
The old colonial rule simply gave way to a traditional brand of authoritarian tyranny. Almost without exception, the new military regimes have had little respect for human rights and have come to use whatever means necessary to silence political opponents.
The above course of events is not dissimilar to the experience of Latin America. Just like the Arabs, the Hispanic world was thought to be naturally more authoritarian and hierarchical than western Anglo-Saxon cultures. It was long argued, therefore, that the continent would never be ready to part with its own brand of authoritarianism that has followed its own colonial past. Indeed, during the second half of the twentieth century, a number of countries in the region became hostage to authoritarian regimes that were unparalleled in their brutality and suppression of civil society and political movements.
U.S foreign policy did not help. By favoring dictators like Pinochet over the democratic (Socialist) government of Salvador Allende in Chile, the U.S. government put its weight behind dictators that promised stability, anticommunism, and economic trade and investment opportunities. In “Thank God they’re on our side: The U.S. and right wing-Dictatorships”, David Schmitz, notes how this policy conflicted with a theoretical embrace of the principles of liberal democracy and human rights. U.S. officials viewed Latin Americans as racially inferior and strong authoritarian leadership as necessary for economic modernization.
Just like all others in history, the Latin American Authoritarian regimes performed poorly in terms of economic development, and together with extensive human rights violations, they ultimately lost legitimacy internally. Democracy soon emerged. Economic growth soon followed. Note how this took place in spite of, rather than because of, U.S. policies.
But if democracy emerged in Latin America in spite of U.S. policies, should one therefore be optimistic about the prospects of a similar scenario in our own region?
As I will explain below, I think that the Islamists of our region will prove a major obstacle in this endeavor. Latin American liberals benefited from the fact that they did not have to compete with their own religious fundamentalists for power as the vacuum emerged. We do.
Enter Islam and the Middle East:
As the Latin American dictators fell from power, it was that region’s liberals that filled the vacuum. Regrettably, the liberals of our region come a distant third behind their current dictators and the Islamists who are waiting second in line. Unless something is done, if and when our dictators are removed (military regimes rarely leave power unilaterally), it is most likely going to be the Islamists rather than the Arab liberals who will be the next winners in our region. This should not come as a surprise.
With most other political and social groups decimated by the state, Islamists have had the exclusive benefit of building large constituencies, thanks to the social and economic services they provide to a suffering population (Hamas and Hezbollah are perfect examples). The secular Arab rulers have in the meantime masterfully used the fear of Islamism to perpetuate their absolute control.
Arab liberals, in the meantime face a catch 22 situation. Were their dictators to fall from power, the Islamists who aim to abolish secular, social and political order and replace it with an Islamic one will be their new masters. Otherwise, were their current dictators to remain at the helm, one can only expect more human rights abuses, arbitrary arrest and detention, fundamentally unfair trials in security courts, infringements on privacy rights, police corruption, restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly and association.
Some hopeful commentators and scholars have argued that mainstream Islamists have changed. They point to signs that these Islamists have now come to conclude that democracy is the most effective mechanism to guard dictatorships and protect the human rights of the Muslim populace. This writer is hardly as optimistic.
The liberals of our region face a massive uphill battle because their third position in line renders them a target from both the dictators and the Islamists. In the minds of many Muslims, liberal democracy is synonymous with western political hegemony and domination. As the scholar Fawaz Gerges argues, democracy tends to be seen as a manipulative tool wielded by Western powers to intervene in Arab/Muslim internal affairs and to divide and conquer.
Some Islamic movements have tried to reengineer the traditional western liberal democratic values to give them a more Islamic look. This effort is unlikely to succeed.
Islamicizing liberal democracy does not work. Indeed, Islam and western liberal democratic principals are incompatible.
Our dictators in the meantime have masterfully exploited the parties that lie behind them in the pecking order.
In the case of Syria, the risks of the Islamists have been more than hypothetical. The only serious challenge to the country’s authoritarian rule arose in the late 1970’s from the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood who rejects the basic value of the secular Baath and object to rule by the Alawis, whom they consider heretical. In response to the uprising, the government crushed the insurgency of course. Syria’s liberals have paid the price since then. All calls for democracy and civil rights have been implicitly and explicitly rejected as the regime presented itself both internally and externally as the sole political force that can rescue the country from the threat of “dangerous ideologies”. This is a form of threat construction. In Latin America, the threat of communism or capitalism. In Syria and other parts of the Middle East, the desire to oppose Israel and later Islamic fundamentalism proved an important motivating factor.
Had it not been for the Islamic fundamentalists, one can argue that the Syrian regime and others in the region will sooner or later lose their legitimacy in a world dominated by the reemergence of democratic governments throughout the world. It is the opinion of this writer that the inability of our liberal voices to occupy the second spot constitutes a major hurdle that has dramatically slowed democracy in our region. The Islamists need to give way. The notion that our present dictators are our only choice against “dangerous ideologies” is a card that needs to be taken away from them.
In the meantime, those that condone the actions of our region’s dictators and make excuses for their horrendous track record should be exposed and put to shame. On the other hand, the liberals amongst us who risk their lives as they oppose the current status quo deserve our utmost respect. Progressive forces in our region are regrettably a small minority. The international community ought to identify them and support them at the expense of the autocratic regimes that have crushed the aspirations of their citizens and drove them into poverty and despair. In the meantime, Islamists need to be constantly reminded that they have no room in politics and civil society. Rather than holding banners proclaiming that “Islam is the solution”, they have to be reminded that they have been one of the main obstacles that have slowed our region’s march from authoritarianism towards liberal democracy.