Let us be Democratic about Democracy

by Dr. Abdul Aziz Said
The United States has a vital supporting role to play in the drama of Middle Eastern democratization through its views and initiatives for reform in the Greater Middle East. To play that role well, American policymakers will need to resist the temptation to act like producers or directors. If they choose the supporting role, Americans can help regional actors reach new heights of artistic expression. If they choose the role of producer or director, however, Americans will encounter resistance from the actors’ union. At best, their efforts to orchestrate and choreograph change will be met with accusations of paternalism; at worst, they will be regarded as neo-colonial.

To skillfully play the supporting role, America needs a different model of engagement with the Middle East, based on altogether new guiding principles. These guiding principles must include a more democratic theory of democracy that acknowledges the cultural basis of transformative politics.

Democracy is not a western product. It is a global process of organizing political needs on an equal basis that must be deeply rooted in the dreams and hopes of the great majority of a nation to flourish. We frequently tend to conflate the American liberal form of democracy with the substance of democracy. The substance of democracy is a human society that has a sense of common goals, a sense of community, a process of participation in decision-making, and protective safeguards for dissenters. The form of democracy, on the other hand, is always cast in the mold of the culture of a people. The practice of democracy is always less tidy than its definition, because it is more dynamic than its formal description and prescription.

There is no fundamental incompatibility between Islam and democracy. The lack of democracy in the Middle East is due more to a lack of preparation for it than to a lack of religious and cultural foundations. In addition to social functions, Islam serves a practical role in politics by offering recourse to a transcendental order to which rulers can be held accountable. The oppressed can defend their rights by appealing to religious standards. Islam offers a vocabulary of resistance to corruption and repression, and a vocabulary of hope for the cultural future.

It is particularly self-defeating to exclude Islamic extremists if they are willing to participate in democratic politics. The central issue raised by extremist movements – the failure of development in the region – is legitimate. By repressing extremist voices, existing elites force the Islamic impulse into narrower channels characterized by violence. Instead, the United States should encourage Middle Eastern governments to create the space necessary to dialogue with extremists and engage their core concerns and grievances. What is required is an Arab alternative that is neither a superficial compromise nor a schizophrenic reaction, but rather a response based on Islamic values which reflects the historical development of Islam and responds to the challenge of contemporary life.

Western democracies emerged after years of deep introspection, existential anxiety and conflict over its faith system with hard-won lessons and achievements in the realm of political coexistence. Muslims are not required to reach the same conclusions that Christians adopted with regard to their faith, and do not need to in order to develop an authentically Islamic response to political empowerment. There is a great need in the Muslim and Arab world to deliberately integrate the person, the citizen and the Muslim. Christianity has emerged with a close linking of personal behavior with citizenship and social values, while Muslims today are on the threshold of discovering the obligations and meaning of Muslim citizenship.

The United States can facilitate democratization by sponsoring and engaging in dialogues that nurture a renewed understanding of individuality in community. Rather than an American monologue, the US can begin by asking key questions that empower Middle Easterners to define what they want – to flesh out the answer to the question: “What does democracy look like for us (form and substance)?” Education and the media will play a critical role in the transition process. Both are necessary for the indigenous development of democracy.

Muslims must also ask themselves: what kind of citizens can their societies create, animated by Islamic values and contexts? What kinds of solutions can Islam bring to affect participatory decision-making in the absence of authoritative guidance in social matters? What Islamic values and social mechanisms can be brought to bear for ameliorating the poor economic conditions of modern, urban living?

Islamic social institutions are more dynamic and variegated than is widely recognized, and provide the basis for genuine participation at the social and political level. The traditional Muslim leader (amir, sheikh, sultan) was not a dictator. The leader made decisions through a process of consultation (shura) and informal meetings (majlis) and organized open forums to hear grievances of victims of injustice (madhloumin). The institution of leader functioned properly through constant negotiation of relationships.

It is the Muslim community itself that must discover how this integration can apply to modern living, and in the process discover original ways of implementing Islamic precepts in changing social conditions. Muslims have the right to participate in the unfolding and direction of their community, while creating their own values and terms within the enduring context of Islam. Democracy is not built upon a particular variety of electoral institutions, but upon genuine participation. In this regard there are democratic precepts in Islam, as there are in other religions, to include both the preservation and development of the community, and social justice and consultative mechanisms.

Today’s challenge for Muslims lies in the expansion of the original ideas of Islam, and a willingness to demonstrate curiosity about historical experiences and achievements of the West. Where are the Muslim ‘Lawrence of Arabias’ who seek to discover and know the Western Christian worldview? Why has there been so little research among Muslim scholars on the Christian perspective of the Western experience, or the encyclicals of the Catholic Church, or the Christian struggle to find religious meaning in politics? Much may be gained in insight from the historical political trials of Christianity for Muslims at this time, as it emerged at a time of profound oppression, injustice and during occupation.

Democracy cannot be installed by a military coup any more than by a so-called “White Revolution” (a reform program launched by the Muhammad Reza Shah of Iran in 1963). Democratic behavior is a learned behavior, and democracy can be learned only by practice. While repressive regimes can be imposed by subversion, democracy cannot be successfully implanted from the outside, and certainly not by subversive means; it is an indigenous process rooted in the active participation of a broad spectrum of citizens in the political process.

The United States experienced false starts in building democracies before, beginning with Wilson and his idealism. Succeeding US presidents have displayed timidity and an absence of vision; they have lacked a sense of strategy. Their efforts have been seen as reactive, pro-status quo, personality-based, and elitist: building a global elite network of the rich and powerful, dependent upon the American rich and powerful. This persisted throughout the Cold War, when US presidents operated according to a prescribed colonialist mentality that justified friendly, authoritarian regimes on the grounds that these non-Western societies were “not ready” for democracies.

Today, the United States faces a delicate task: there is a need for a new beginning in the Arab World. Here is an opportunity for the US to engage in a substantive dialogue with a population traumatized by years of brutal political oppression. If dialogue about democracy can begin to extend beyond elites, we will witness not only a transformation in historical relationships and understandings, but also the emergence of true leadership that thrives through the flourishing of others. It would be a beautiful production, in which the people of the Middle East could play the starring roles.

Abdul Aziz Said is professor and director of the American University’s Center for Global Peace. This article is part of a series of views on the initiatives for reform in the Middle East, published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
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The Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust—A new partnership
A Small State for Palestinians: A Great Step for the Greater Middle East
A view from Washington
Reform in the Arab World: Tensions and Challenges
Promoting Reform Efforts in the Middle East
The Greater Middle East Initiative, a Turkish Perspective
The Greater Middle East Initiative
The Greater Middle East: Moving Beyond Mutual Refutation to What is Required
Reform in the Arab World Requires that True Intellectuals Speak Out
Difficult but necessary: a joint strategy to promote political reform in the Middle East
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Other articles in this series

The Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust—A new partnership by Senator Richard G. Lugar
A Small State for Palestinians: A Great Step for the Greater Middle East by Gidi Grinstein
A view from Washington by Pamela and Robert Pelletreau
Reform in the Arab World: Tensions and Challenges by Shafeeq Ghabra
Promoting Reform Efforts in the Middle East by Nizar Abdel-Kader
The Greater Middle East Initiative, a Turkish Perspective by Dr. Duygu Bazoglu Sezer
The Greater Middle East Initiative by Richard W. Murphy
The Greater Middle East: Moving Beyond Mutual Refutation to What is Required by Hazem Saghiyeh
Reform in the Arab World Requires that True Intellectuals Speak Out by Daoud Kuttab
Difficult but necessary: a joint strategy to promote political reform in the Middle East by Dr. Steven Everts