ARAB SPRING AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY
In Continuation of the Article posted on TF Blog on 4/13/2013
THE ORIGIN OF DEMOCRACY AND ITS ROLE TODAY
متاعِ معنئِ بیگانہ از دوں فطرتاں جوئی
You’re seeking the subject of your affairs from mean cultured foreign sources
ز موراں شوخئِ طبعِ سلیمانے نمے آید
From the well disciplined ants the intellectualism of Solomon cannot emerge
گریز از طرزِ جمہوری غلامِ پختہ کارے شو
Stay away from the democratic form, be a slave of the experienced wise person
کہ از مغزِ دو صد خر فکرِ انسانے نمی آید
For the brains of two hundred donkeys do not produce wise thought of a human
جمہوریت اک طرزِ حکومت ہے کہ جس میں
Democracy is a form of government in which
بندوں کو گنا کرتے ہیں تولا نہیں کرتے
People are counted not weighed or judged
(Sir Allama Muhammad Iqbal, Poet-Philosopher of Islam)
These verses of Allama Iqbal reflect his sentiments about political form of Democracy in which people are counted but not weighed. Here he is not speculating on Secular Liberal Democracy.
What is “Arab Spring”? The term “Arab Spring” was popularized by the Western media in early 2011 when the successful uprising in Tunisia against former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali emboldened similar anti-government protests in most Arab countries. It was, in fact, a series of protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across the Middle East rather than a struggle for a “liberal democratic rule.” Its purpose, relative success, and the outcome, remains hotly disputed in Arab countries, among international observers, and between world powers interested to exploit the changing political scenario of the Middle East. But the events in the Middle East went in a less straightforward direction. Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen entered an uncertain transition period, Iraq, Syria and Libya were drawn into a civil conflict, while the wealthy monarchies in the Persian Gulf remained largely unshaken by the events. The term Arab Spring, today, is viewed imperfect, simplistic, and the protest movement of 2011 as an expression of deep-seated resentment at the decades-long and illegitimate Arab dictatorships. It has proved as an expression of anger at the unemployment, rising prices, and corruption that followed the privatization of state assets in some countries. Protesters in monarchies like Jordan and Morocco wanted to reform the system under the current rulers, some calling for an immediate transition to constitutional monarchy; others content with gradual reform. People in republican regimes like Egypt and Tunisia wanted to overthrow the president, but other than free elections they had little idea on what to do next; beyond calls for greater social justice there was no magic wand for the economy. The expectation that decades of authoritarian regimes would be reversed and replaced with a stable liberal democratic systems across the region, Arab Spring has proved a failure. It has disappointed those expecting that the removal of corrupt rulers would result in an instant improvement in their living standards. Moreover there are still some hard-line Islamists, holding sufficient ground, who are more concerned with enforcing strict religious norms. Its success is that it has, however, helped the Arabs to understand their position between a fading authoritarian order and the need for a liberal or a political democratic order compatible or accommodative with the spirit of their religion.
Arab Spring and Secular Liberal Democracy: Since the first wave of revolt in the Arab world launched as ‘Arab Spring’, it seems uncertain that the western form of ‘secular liberal democracy’ will emerge and take hold in that part of the world. So far there are no signs that the future of liberty and democracy in the Arab world is bright. Liberal democracy is a system that emerges from the bottom up, implying a horizontal relationship among individuals in a society, i.e. human to human; while at the bottom the masses are religious. It requires a form of political secularism, not Godless but devoid of any divine interference. In Islam, religion is primarily a vertical relationship between an individual and his God, where Divine sovereignty is imposed from top down. In the Muslim world, even today, the primary intellectual, political, and cultural resources at the disposal of enthusiastic Muslim democrats are theological, where for the staunch Hanbali, Wahhabi, and Salafi Arabs, divine sovereignty cannot be compromised. Here the most important question is, are the ruling elite or the military dictators in the Arab land adopted to the concept of divine sovereignty willing to give up power in favor of the sovereignty of the people? Within such a framework of religious thought, Islam’s primarily vertical relationship between a person and his God, divine sovereignty clashes with liberal democracy’s horizontal conception posing a key question: “Is Political Islam compatible with liberal democracy in the Arab world?” In order to find an answer to this question we have to probe whether it is the revealed Divine message, or the tribal cultural and traditional ethos, or the astonishingly poetically based literary and sentimental heritage of the pre-and-post Arabic poetical language’s literature, barricading the emergence of liberal democracy? Is there a possibility that the Arabs should not emphasize that religion is far above politics, or at least in the beginning stage of a nation’s political order “one serves as an instrument of the other.” Or they can find a way to liberal democracy by following what the renowned American poet Walt Whitman reflected about liberal democracy in USA as: “For I say at the core of democracy, finally, is the religious element. All the religions, old and new, are there”; and also what President Barack Hussain Obama has said, “Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Can the concept of “Twin Tolerations”—the minimal boundaries of freedom of action that must somehow be crafted for political institutions vis-a-vis religious authorities, and for religious individuals and groups vis-a-vis political institutions—intertwining liberal democracy with the belief of religious oriented mullas and masses, help the political leaders indigenize a form of religion based liberal-democracy? The real problem with the Arabs and the Muslims in general is that the believers view religion as far and above politics, while the modernists seek liberal democracy free from the shackles of religion. However, there exists a symbiotic relationship between a religious adaptation and the liberal-democratic formation. Though the French political scientist Alexis Tocqueville’s claim that “the first political institution of American democracy is religion,” seems odd when compared to secularism, religion paradoxically and typically helps proceed the democratic process; they are in fact interwoven and interrelated processes just like a secular-liberal-democracy of USA with a dictum of “In God We Trust.” The first reason for Tocqueville to see religion as the primary political institution of democracy is religion’s powerful conviction about the centrality of human liberty to the entire purpose of the universe. He argues, “Faith adds to a morality of mere reason, an acute sense of acting in the presence of a personal and undeceivable Judge, Who sees and knows even actions performed in secret, even willful acts committed solely in one’s heart.”
Role of Literary-Geo-Social Background: What if there was no Islam in the Arab land, would the Arabs have conceived a rational ideology or a democratic form of government just like the Greeks? In order to understand this, we need to search and study the literary-geo-social background of the Arabian peninsula. In my article “The Origin of Democracy and its Role Today” I have argued that the birth of democracy in ancient Greece was linked with the art of tragedy. For the Athenians, who were the architects of democracy, not only that democracy and tragedy shared intrinsic links, but also both were the product of Greece’s geographical atmosphere and social temperament. The story of democracy, much like a tragic tale performed on stage unfolded as a social and political order. Sociologists believe that different myths, cultures, traditions, literature, religions, and political systems are the product of geographical landscapes, and atmospheric environments. Muhammad Asad (Leopold Weiss 1900–1992) a Jew converted Muslim scholar of the 20th century, regarding the geo-social background of the Arabs argues, “Though there are many more beautiful landscapes in the world, but none, I think, that can shape man’s spirit in so sovereign a way as the bare and clean desert that knows no compromise. It sweeps out of the heart of man all the lovely fantasies that could be used as a masquerade for wishful thinking, and thus makes him free to surrender himself to an Absolute that has no image: the farthest of all that is far and yet the nearest of all that is near.”
As far as Arabic literature is concerned, in pre-Islamic Arabia the warring tribal chiefs extending their rivalries into the urban settlements, a remarkably lively tradition of fine poetry had sprung up—a sharp contrast to the plays of Greek tragedies performed on stage for the common citizens. The main purpose of these poems, it seems, was to extol one side of the quarrel and to pour insult on the other. These poems, and the legends remembered or fabricated to explain their purport, remain a principal source of information on Arabian affairs in the country of the Prophet of Islam’s birth. In those days poetry was not a kind of aesthetic-luxury for the cultured few, but sole medium of the common people of the desert of what they felt and thought. Poetic literature, as a voice of the people, gave life and currency to an ideal of Arabian virtue, which, though based on tribal community insisting that only ties of blood were sacred, nevertheless became an invisible link between diverse feuding clans. It helped form, whether consciously or not, the basis of a society known as Arabs, a larger community of sentiment—not based on reason and rational thinking as we have seen the role of theater in the case of Greek society. Poetry helped create an extensive vocabulary of themes, images and figures, establishing Arabic as a sublime rhetoric language of the Qur’an that made it easy for the common people to embrace its verses as miraculously enchanting. Language is not only a vital medium of communication, it significantly helps us to articulate and clarify the incoherent turbulence of our inner world. We coin and use words when we want to make something happen outside ourselves. It is no less a surprise that during the eighth century, Arab thinkers and philosophers while translating Greek sciences and philosophy translated many Greek and Latin terminology quite easily into Arabic, beautifully coining new words. But there is no word to be found in classical or Qur’anic Arabic that is exactly synonymous with “secularism” as an ideology beyond religion. Consequently the only words for “secularism” spoken today by the Muslims are, dunyawi, zamaani, or dahri, and the term “secularism” now being interpreted as dahriyyat, which is understood by a believer as atheistic or Godless. On the other hand “secularism” in its political affirmation does not mean Godless. According to the Newsweek, February 25, 2008, “Secular was first used in the Middle Ages to mean things and people not belonging to church—as Webster’s puts it, ‘not covertly or specifically religious; not ecclesiastical or clerical.’ Today this remains its best and important meaning. In this great experiment that is American democracy, ‘secular’ is the only word we have to describe the idea handed down by the Founders of American democracy—not that they do not believe in God—rather they do not belong to God, they belong to their people.”
We know that poetry is the voice of human emotions and sentiments. It expresses reason and wisdom through sentiments, as we see an example of sentimental expression of democracy by the poet Allama Iqbal cited at the top of this article. On the other hand theater or drama within its forms of comedy and tragedy, presents human emotions and sentiments through reason, where rationalism supersedes emotionalism. In Islam the vertical axis of religious sentiments clashes with the horizontal axis of humanist reason. Therefore, it is not a simple and straightforward course for the Muslims to adopt a secular-liberal-democratic form of political system, unless a major compromise like the “Twin Tolerations” is brokered.
Historical Background: However, exploring the historical background of the earliest period of Islam we find that for the Prophet of Islam declaring man a servant of God did not cause any hurdle in following a political system which was not based on revealed injunctions. We find an excellent example of the Prophet’s toleration that even exceeds the idea of “Twin Tolerations.” The Hijra, the migration of Prophet Muhammad to Medina, marks the beginning of his political activity and the hypotheses that led to an Islamic Political system. He laid the foundation of a new body politic, an Islamic city-state without precise geographical landmark. He framed a charter famously known as the Constitution of Medina, to manage law and order amongst the feuding tribes of Medina. Although the charter invoked the name of Allah and Muhammad as his messenger, it was neither a religious canon nor an invention of a political theorist, but a kind of Secular Contract—not overtly or specifically religious, not ecclesiastical or clerical—based on natural moral rules and rooted in pre-Islamic pagan-Arabian tribal traditions. The Prophet would settle all matters in the light of natural law remaining within the frame work of the charter. When the Prophet died in 634, Islam was secure as the paramount religion and political system of all Arabia. The believing Arabs were firmly welded together into a theocratic community ‘obedient to Allah and His Prophet’, to be joined in a bewildering short time by countless multitudes of non-Arabs accepting or capitulating to the Call. This secular Constitution of Medina remained in force and was fully honored by the first four Right Guided Caliphs who were elected—though not directly by public vote but consensually by a body of the elders—until it was scrapped by the Ummayyads. The Arabs believing in hereditary leadership at that time were neither familiar with the Greek Democracy nor it was within their tradition to elect a leader.
All through the Golden period of Islamic history the Arabs, who accepted so much and so readily from the Greeks, never knew, or never cared to know, the glories of Greek literature and its politics. First of all Aristotle’s Poetics was translated along with the rest of the canon and at a later stage Plato’s Republic and Laws, and then Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics became available to Arab readers. We notice from the works of al-Farabi, the terms ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ as well as ‘political philosophy’ were quite meaningless to the Arabs. In fact the drama in the western sense remained unknown to the Islamic people until comparatively modern times. Throughout their past and medieval history the Arabs developed a creative mind that had a flair for poetry and storytelling by focusing the faculties of imagination and memory on vertical axis as an integral part of their culture. In order to conceive philosophical ideas and contrive theories in social sciences, poetic fancy and intuitional faculty is of little help. Caliph al-Mamoon’s early period marks that the formal Arabic ode or ghazal became a form of Persian literature and poetry still enjoying its old primacy of aestheticism. Study of philosophy was presumed to invade the sanctum of theology that gave birth to a conflict between rationalism and revelation. By the tenth century the three currents—theological, philosophical and mystical—made confluence to attempt an all-embracing harmony. Orthodox Islam, though suspicious of the mystics, accepted Sufis as allies against their far more dangerous enemies, the free thinking philosophers. The Ottomans in the Middle East and Central Asia, the Sufvis in Persia, and the Mughals in India became the promoters of Sufism and thus “free thinking philosophy” came to an end.
The Causes of Decline: In the world of Islam the decline in rational and scientific thinking is linked with the rise of Sufi mysticism. Though al-Ghazali did not invent Sufism, which already had deep roots in the Arabian and Central Asian cultures. In the difficult circumstances of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—the period of Mongol’s invasion—it emerged as a need of that crucial time. However, Ghazali did more than anyone else to legitimize it within Islam and to give it the central place among ways of knowing. He strongly opposed ibn Rushd’s rational and scientific thinking as well as his concept of separation of religion and politics. In doing so Ghazali pushed aside reason and logic. He prepared a hierarchy, in which the rational intellect was reduced to a subordinate status from which it was neither able nor allowed to challenge knowledge gained through mystical intuition and tradition. During the eighteenth century when the West was beginning to adopt progressive form of democracy and human liberty, Islamic world experienced the retrogressive religious ideology of Wahhabism shifting Muslims back to pristine Islam causing a great set back to free reasoning and rational thinking. Abdel Wahhab’s teachings of a pre-modern fundamentalist belief of Islam wedded the Arabs into politico-religious unity rather than the separation of religion and politics. The Arabs started viewing democracy as decidedly this-worldly ideology and Godlessly secular.
The declining Islamic civilization came to further ruin after the advance of European imperialism which added enervative humiliation to its past pride—even the earliest tradition of electing a caliph was also ignored. Of all the Muslim lands only Arabia, Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan escaped subjugation by the Europeans. A state of confusion created by modern inversions and religious reversals developed a collective psychology that for generations has grown as a second nature of today’s Muslims. Added by the complex of victimhood even the teachings of Islam have been denatured. It is against such a background of abject degradation after imperial glory, that the passionate struggle for national independence through the world of Islam is to be viewed and understood. Though a political rebirth started in the nineteenth century but its main stimuli was Western culture and political movement of French Revolution, and British liberal idealism. The literary and artistic models, the scientific, technical, the political examples, were to a great extent furnished by Europe and the United States. Even the very impulse to study Muslim history, and to appraise the cultural achievements of medieval Islam—as a chief source of greater pride and aspiration for the Muslims—goes to the credit of the Western Orientalism. These facts go a long way to account for the love-hate relationship that characterizes the attitude of many Muslims today towards the West as well as the Western political philosophy.
The Possible Way Towards Liberal Democracy: Psychologists affirm that more extreme a person’s views are the more he thinks he is right. Both hard-line religious fundamentalists and extreme modern liberals have a staunch belief of superiority with disdain for all those who do not share their views. In order to prepare a ground for the emergence of a liberal democracy an educational system has to be introduced that help produce a generation of free and moderate thinking. Democracies depend upon the presence of the moral psychology of their citizens which has to evolve from a society’s educational and literary impetuosity and pass through the gates of its cultural, environmental, social, historical, and also religious ethos. During the Golden Era of Islamic history, philosophical and scientific thinking remained dominant and Islamic civilization flourished. But no nation or civilization basking on the past glory can give its present a “new past.” It has to shape its present by adapting the four basic dimensions of its contemporary period: educational, cultural, economic, and political. Since humans are naturally both spiritual and rational beings, the educational dimension should establish a harmony between faith and reason. For cultural dimension, there is freedom within Islam to adapt to different cultures and environments, to experiment, to change, and to develop. As regards economic dimension, the Prophet himself being a merchant, the road to adopt modern economic values is always open for the Muslims. For political dimension, there are four universal liberties, which are also Islamic liberties: liberty of worship, liberty of speech, liberty from poverty, and liberty from tyranny. Islam’s interpretation of human rights and liberty are clearly reflected by its greater emphasis of “Haquq-ul-Abad” which is over and above “Haquq Allah.” Islam’s concept of “Haquq-ul-Abad” is egalitarian and a close interpretation of the modern view of “secularism.” To resolve the economic, cultural, and political crisis in Islam, an awakening, a renewal, and a rejuvenation both in literal sense and in the way of thinking is the need of the hour. A democracy is always fluid in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. Critically, the rules of democracy can be changed, amended, and adjusted according to the needs of the people which is an inclusive nature of democracy that distinguishes it from religion and from theocratic based political systems. Democracy is founded on economic stability and will continue to exist up until the time voters discover that they can vote themselves for the generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury. So far the only success of the Arab Spring is in smashing the myth of Arabs’ political passivity and the perceived invincibility of arrogant ruling elites. It is a time of transition which is going to decide that the earliest Islamic politico-religious and the medieval glorious achievements cannot be used to provide reason for a modern Arab world. Today is the era of global connectivity where in every moment everyone is connected with no one in control; no religion or ideology is going to be fully in charge. By transcending man’s biological limitations and merging humans and machines, modern technology with the help of its cyber-network is evolving a new cultural, social, religious, and political Universal Order.
Religion the First Political Institution: Argued by Alexis de Tocqueville
The Universal Hunger for Liberty: by Michael Novak
Islam and the Arab Awakening: by Tariq Ramadan
The Future of Freedom: by Farid Zakria
Islam and Modernity: Edited by John Cooper and Ronald Nettler
Islam and the Challenge of Democracy: by Khalid Abou el Fadal
A Literary History of the Arabs: by Reynold Nicholson
Aspects of Islamic Civilization: by A. J. Arberry
Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition: by Fazlur Rahman
Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: by Nader Hashemi