Thursday, June 18, 2009

Islam and Democracy

Sections of a paper I wrote many moons ago, when the agenda-setters in world politics were crucifying anything and everything that had to do with Islam. I think it funny now that the color green connotes hope and resistance when some years back the 'red menace' was replaced by the 'green peril.' Too, the cry 'God is great' is no longer deemed a cry of terrorists but of freedom fighters.

Of course this assessment refers specifically to the Arab Muslim world, and I wonder now whether the uprising in Iran is making old timers in the Middle East quake in their boots. Revolution - it is catching.

Post 9/11: Selling Democracy

Just as the collapse of the Soviet Union was unforseen by the leaders of the “free world,” so too were the events leading up to the attacks of September 11, 2001. The 1990s were marked with sub-state instability and civil wars. It was clear that while the likelihood of inter-state conflict may have been diminished with only the United States remaining the lone superpower, insecurity would come from a-territorial elements. The 9/11 attacks showed that stable autocratic allies, while ensuring “stability” in the Middle East and secure access to energy, had not led to a blemish-free Pax Americana.

Discounting questions of the legality of invading Afghanistan and Iraq, and how the United States went about these wars undemocratically, the new foreign policy seems intent on finally integrating “soft” measures with “hard” ones. In an uncharacteristic turnabout from the war rhetoric of a few years back, Condoleeza Rice has admitted that the US has a sixty-year record of supporting “stability at the expense of democracy in...the Middle East.”

Addressing the National Defence University in Washington, President George Bush reiterated the vision of a democratic Middle East.
We know that freedom, by definition, must be chosen, and that the democratic institutions of other nations will not look like our own. Yet we also know that our security increasingly depends on the hope and progress of other nations now simmering in despair and resentment. And that hope and progress is found only in the advance of freedom. This advance is a consistent theme of American strategy -- from the Fourteen Points, to the Four Freedoms, to the Marshall Plan, to the Reagan Doctrine.
Given the history of US intervention in the Arab world, scholars from either side agree that the new American tact suffers greatly from a credibility gap.

The Arab intellectual elite, often educated in the West, express deep suspicion of the US’ democratisation rhetoric. It is troubling that this influential group who are most able to sway public opinion doubt US intentions. US aid to incumbents in the region totalled $250 million in the 90s. These were designed not to rock the status quo as American security concerns required stable (if autocratic) allies.

Some of the foreign policy initiatives meant to foster democratisation include the Middle East Peace Initiative (MEPI) unveiled in 2003. It was meant to assist democratisation “indirectly” through the support of civil society movements advancing education and women’s rights. The initial funding of MEPI at $29 million certainly seems a paltry sum compared to the $250 billion spent on the Iraq war effort thus far.

While the US is prepared to deliver hard solutions alone, it is taking a more inclusive tact on its democratisation drive by bringing up the agenda in multilateral talks and institutions. The United Nations’ Arab Human Development Report of 2002 was downloaded one million times in its first year of release.

Also, another program, the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMENA) was unveiled by the US in the G8 Summit of June 2004 (Hobson 2005). On the cultural front, the launch of Radio Sawa ("Together") and the Al Hurrah ("The free") was meant to initiate young Arabs to American culture.

All these initiatives lead us to the question of whether a democracy can be created through external pressure. The danger in this scenario is that while a polity may be induced to acquire the trappings of democratic institutions, elections being the most visible and readily doable, it remains a question whether “the people” have the capacity to exercise their democratic rights.

“Democracy” and a transition to democracy need to be unpacked. Substantive definitions should go beyond mere electoralism, which essentialises democracy as a ceremony with ballot boxes. A substantive conceptualisation of democracy has to address the state apparatus’ accountability to its people and any “transition” to democracy necessitates changes in the institutionalisation of broad political participation. However, democratisation in the Middle East (and indeed many developing countries today) depend not only on domestic agency and local socio-historical contexts. Increasingly, it also hinges on the enabling or stunting role of external agents in a global context. This leads us then to examine the relationship of internal and external conditions in the Arab world that may open avenues and present obstacles to a transition to democracy.

Crafting Rule of the People

The dominant doctrine for political development in American scholarship today has abandoned questions of political philosophy and theory. Minimalist recommendations are easily measurable and polities can be mapped on a linear progression, moving towards or away from “democracy.” (O’Donnell, Schmitter and Whitehead 1986). Paul Cammack calls this normative commitment to democracy “procedural”:
…A system of government that meets three essential conditions: meaningful and extensive competition among individuals and organized groups (especially political parties) for all positions in government, a highly inclusive level of political participation in selection of leaders and policies (at least through regular and fair elections), a level of civil and political liberties (1997: 219).
“Democracy” is fundamentally a political system that legitimises decisions on the basis of formal, procedural, legal correctness without distinction of content except in respect for civil liberties and the equality before the law of all citizens. There is no reference to substantive justice and no link to a system of ultimate values.

This kind of minimalist prescription has led to a “low intensity democracy” in many newly-democratic societies since the “third wave” (Huntington 1991).

A low intensity democracy is a result of both external and internal pressures. But more than anything, authors Gills and Rocamora claim it is an opening meant to facilitate penetration of global capital. It is an unstable political system as it opens up the political space for mobilisation of elements from both left and right while the state apparatus itself, and the incumbent regime, struggle to maintain political order (1992). Seen through the linear progression of transitologists mentioned earlier (O’Donnell et al), then a low intensity democracy is but a few paces away from “transition.”

The 2005 elections in Iraq revealed that fractures of society are divided along ethno-religious lines. Political liberalisation in a sovereign territory which has not reflexively defined itself as one “nation” can only be susceptible to disintegration or a remapping of borders. Democratic institutions, as they have evolved in the Western model, are meant to foster competition. In a country that has not functioned as a single politico-cultural unit, minimalist democracy exacerbates internal imaginary divisions based on different identities.

A nuanced conceptualisation of democracy and democratisation takes a more multi-dimensional approach. The work of Jean Grugel (2002) and Rueschemeyer, Stephens & Stephens (1992) take into account the economic and societal prerequisites of democratisation and their impact on politics.

While democracy is a political order, its efficacy depends on certain preconditions. In the developing world some modicum of citizens’ economic stability directly impinge on their ability to exercise their democratic rights and duties. Operating on a “one-cannot-eat-one’s-right-to-vote” principle, “citizens” are more than willing to trade the sanctity of the ballot for a week’s worth of grocery money.

In Capitalist Development and Democracy, Rueschemeyer, Stephens and Stephens offer a more textured and complex relationship between capitalist development and democracy. While the authors are cognizant of the democratising powers of capitalist development, they do not simply attribute this to the creation of a middle class, the improvement of education or an increase in the numbers of televisions or telephones per household, “measurables” in modernisation theory.

Transition and consolidation of democracy, according to their framework are contingent on the following:

1. Balance of power among different classes and class coalitions
2. Structure, strength and autonomy of the state apparatus and relations with civil society
3. Impact of transnational power relations (on 1 and 2)

The authors claim that ultimately, the contradictions of capitalism generated pro-democratic forces in their case studies in Latin America and Asia. More importantly, Rueschemeyer Stephens and Stepehens emphasise the fundamental requirement for any functioning democracy to take place - that of a strong institutional separation or differentiation of the realm of politics from the overall system of inequality in society (1992: 42).

Grugel’s Democratisation: A Critical Introduction also favours a conceptual framework on democratisation which examines the dynamic between the political and the economic. Similar to the previous authors mentioned, Grugel also uses three levels of analysis:

1. The State
2. Civil Society
3. Globalisation

A democratic state apparatus is one which has undergone institutional change, representative change and functional transformation (what the state actually does and its functional responsibilities). Some obstacles to the democratisation of the state concern national identity, issues on sovereignty, poor state capacity, authoritarian legacies and political fallout from economic reform.

A viable civil society able to mobilise is based on a strong middle class. Historically, the creation of a middle class was crucial in putting pressure on the state apparatus to maintain its “autonomy” (i.e. relatively insulated from capture by certain factions).

Lastly, economic globalisation is an external pressure to facilitate global trade, production and investment as well as intensify integration of global markets. Globalisation impacts local democratisation in various ways. As countries integrate into the world economy, this reduces political and economic options for countries, especially ones with a weak state apparatus. Globalisation is also a process institutionalised by global regulating bodies, such as the international financial institutions (IFIs), the WTO (even the United Nations), which aim for global liberalisation…Trade liberalisation was expected to create free markets which, in turn, would facilitate the creation of citizenship, a middle class and a civil society (Grugel 2002: 118).” This is certainly the theses of Huntington (1991) and even the likes Thomas Friedman (2005).

On the other hand, globalisation has losers along with the winners:
More influential…in shaping the project of global democratisation, are the pressures generated by the global economy, leading to new patterns of dependence, marginality and exclusion. Along with the creation of a global communications network, these guarantee the diffusion of a stylised image of democracy, alongside the penetration of capitalism, the creation of new markets and trading relationships and the establishment of new modes of consumption. More than anything else, the emergence of a global political economy is responsible for the prevalence of democracy as discourse and ideal, because it is able to penetrate dependent societies and influence mentalities and aspirations (Grugel 2002: 138-139).
While the role of external forces are important in the transition to democracy, the authors mentioned domestic conditions above all must be conducive to political pluralism. External support for democratisation only plays a complementary role to domestic pressures.

Islam, Islamists and Islamic Democracy?


Some authors argue for an “exceptionalist” explanation as to why the Middle East and North Africa have been laggards in democratising. A quick survey of the region certainly illustrates this.

Eight out of twenty-two Arab states are ruled by monarchs, including all 6 in the Gulf Cooperation Council, Jordan and Morocco. Countries not ruled by monarchies are similarly run by quasi-monarchs - Saddam Hussein of Iraq stayed in power for thirty-five years, Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya for thirty-seven years, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen for seven presidential terms (thirty-five years if he finishes the current one), Hosni Mubarak in Egypt for twenty-four years, Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia for thirty years while successor Ben Ali has been in power for nineteen, Hafiz al Asad in Syria for thirty years and his son-successor Bashar now in his sixth year of rule.

In a survey conducted by World Values Study of nine countries with Muslim majorities and their political and social values, the results showed these did not differ much with Western states with regard to approval of democratic performance, approval of democratic leaders and disapproval of strong leaders. What they do differ on are values regarding women, homosexuality, procreation and divorce. Which means the fundamental difference between Islam and the West is not over democracy at all (as Huntington's thesis asserts).

Within the religious text themselves can be found core concepts and bases on which to build a modern yet authentic Democracy. While the commitment to the ideals of modern democracy is underpinned by “moral values” located in a “post-Reformation, market-oriented Christian Europe," this does not necessarily mean that these values are hopelessly irreconcilable with Islam.

While the Qur’an does not provide a specific form of political organisation, it provides guidelines into which political values are desirable – social justice, non-autocratic and consultative governance as well as institutionalising “mercy and compassion in social interactions (Abou El Fadl 2004: 5).” Further, Islam in principle is against absolutism as it draws strength in diversity:
Absolutism in principle is alien to Muslim political thought. Indeed, Muslim society has historically been marked by a high degree of what we would today might call civil society…Ironically these principles of limited governance were broken primarily in the twentieth century by new authoritarian regimes based on Western nation-building principles in which the Leviathan state assumed maximum control over all areas of life to build the all-powerful state (Fuller 2003: 32).
The Islamists who established authoritarian regimes in countries like Iran who insist on a top-down approach of Islam, is a violation of the Qur’anic principle – “there is no compulsion in religion.” (Fuller 2003: 32).

The question of whether “the people” or God should be sovereign can be reconciled by the religion’s own political philosophy. Islam accepts that humans are “vicegerents” i.e. representatives of God on earth, which carries with it the idea that humans are responsible for carrying out God’s justice (as enshrined in Shari’a law for example). Even then, this little conundrum was circumvented by Iran by establishing a theocracy. The Iranian state was supposed to have been “bestowed by God” and as such, matters of the state override religion because the former is already legitimised by God.

This shows that the religious texts are flexible enough to be open to various interpretations. The ulama, or religious leaders, enjoy political legitimacy from their scholarship of religious matters. Ehteshami claims they serve as unique political class (2004: 93). It seems enormous work need to be done by these religious scholars to reclaim their Islam and to work on reconciling what has been written centuries past with the realities of today.

Some indigenous elements for democratisation also include the shura or consultative council (although monarchies such as Saudi Arabia say the consultation is “non-binding”), ijtihad or independent reasoning and ijma or consensus, baica or approval of leaders by the umma, ash-sharica or deliberation of worldly matters and religious matters where god did not make a reference.

In sum, with regard to religio-cultural aspects, there is nothing inherently opposed to Democracy in Islam.

The State

A legacy of colonialism in the Middle East is the mukharabat - a strong state apparatus to safeguard the gains of independence as well as a reaction to the creation and continued existence of Israel. Alkadry calls this “defensive modernisation,” that is, the nation and state building process takes place in the context of external intervention. This kind of nationalist modernisation privileged stability over broad democratic participation.

Another problematic is - what, where and who constitutes the state? There are still border issues as a result of arbitrary colonial partitioning. The most notable ones are between Pakistan-India-Bangladesh, Iraq-Kuwait, Israel-Palestine, Yemen-Saudi, Kurdistan-Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

A result of the forced fragmentation into a multitude of small weak states was the persistence of sub- and supra-state identities that weakened the identification with the state that was needed for stable democracy. In such conditions, where political mobilisation tends to exacerbate communal conflict or empowers supra-state movements threatening the integrity of the state, elites are more likely to resort to authoritarian solutions.

Aside from defensive modernisation and nation-building taking precedence over openness of the polity, a unique socio-political formation in the Middle East is the oil-exporting rentier state. As oil rents finance day-to-day governance and even welfare measures such as free health care and subsidised education, there is little need or pressure for the rentier state, also a monarchy, to agree to power sharing.

However in recent years there are pressures on the stability of rentier monarchies, especially on the fiscal side. Since the 1990s, the Gulf States have been experiencing economic crises coupled with a booming population.

The timeline varies depending on the scientific study one consults, but once the oil disappears, so too will the rentier state. The only option for these countries today is to steadily diversify their economies or pool their resources in a regional grouping. In the end the economy may well be a precipitating factor in reuniting the heart of the Muslim world.

Islamists and Civil Society

A survey of the Arab world and the different socio-economic groupings do not show a promising context for democratisation. Even with interim colonial occupation the social structure of the 19th century remains intact. For example in 1958 Iraq, 68 percent of agricultural lands were owned by 2 percent of total landowners. In Lebanon 2 percent of landowners owned 2/3 of the cultivated lands. In Syria, 2.5 percent of landowners held 45 percent of irrigated and 30 percent of rain-fed land while 70 percent of the total population held no land at all. In Egypt, 2/3 of the land was owned by 5.7 percent of the population (Halperin 2005: 1137).

With regard to the middle class, mostly professionals, its survival is dependent on the state’s munificence. It is a coopted middle class. As there is little diversification in industries, the government is, in many cases, the only employer. For example in Qatar and Kuwait 95 and 99 percent of nationals work for the State. Non-rentier monarchy Egypt, still has 6 million civil servants. There is no labour force to counter traditional elites as these countries also import labour. Saudi Arabia alone employs 6 to 7 million foreign workers.

Since the state apparatus will not broaden access to political power for reasons already given, and there are no “moderate” social forces that can hold the state accountable, then it can be said that Islamists are the closest approximation of “civil society” in the Middle East. Islamic movements gain legitimacy from the local populations by championing them and providing help for the economically marginalised and by consistently pointing out the artificiality of the current state-system and its entrenched elites.

Denied access to political participation, some have even resorted to radical and violent measures to advance their agenda. Increasingly Islamists have been advocating democracy simply because they are easy targets due to its absence. Islamists, as the major opposition to entrenched regimes, languish in prisons in the Muslim world more than any other political group.

Opening access to political participation has consistently given rise to Islamist parties as the strongest opposition as in the case of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Palestine, Saudi Arabia. Islamists have participated in elections in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco, Palestine and Yemen.

Just as the United States suffers from a credibility gap, so too do Islamists who have actually gained power – the Sudan, Afghanistan and to an extent Iran. There is a legitimate worry that once an Islamist movement is able to take over the state apparatus, that it will abandon its democratising project and reveal its “true colours.”

The Arab World, the United States and Democracy

Evaluating the chances for democratisation in the Middle East has shown that there are no social forces strong enough to exert pressure from the bottom up. The only groups which can be seen as pro-democratic have traditionally been marginalised by US-friendly autocratic regimes and have been put under the spotlight so to speak since the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Most peoples in the Middle East see a difference between the Palestinian resistance and genuine terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. It does not help the US cause to unceremoniously lump together Hamas with these terrorist groups.

Some American policymakers have actually admitted that democracy in the Middle East will threaten US interests. Zbigniew Brezinski claims democracy in Egypt will put the Muslim Brotherhood in power. King Fahd's overthrow in Saudi Arabia might put the likes of Bin Laden in power.

The whole region has been in a heightened state of alert and seemingly constant danger since the onset of the Cold War. In such a scenario, it is business as usual for the American military-industrial complex. The US has increased arms sales to its client regime since 2000. 20 of the top 25 recipient countries in 2003 are including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.

Stability in exchange for the supreme control of authoritarian regimes in the region is no longer considered a viable option for US establishment. However its push for democracy in the Middle East seems to be running contrary to its short-term goals of remaining in the region and maintaining stable access to energy. Should the people be allowed to vote, then the marginalised majority will want to put Islamists in the state apparatus. There are currently no non-Islamist internal/local social forces capable of making the transition to a substantive democratisation as evinced in history.

An externally-imposed democracy will be a democracy in name, but not in fact.

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