Democracy, Islam and Oil

by Wahida Valiante

While Arab leaders are tripping over each other to be first in line to provide space and facilities for launching America’s immoral pre- emptive war against Iraq, George Bush is telling Muslims, those “children of a lesser God,” that he is on a divine mission to build democratic nations in his image, in Iraq and in the rest of the Middle East.

Meanwhile in the U.S., democracy is fast shrinking. The president’s spokesperson warns Americans to “watch what they say.” They are told to spy on their neighbours. And anyone who dares to criticize, questions the government’s actions, or even asks why these terrible events have happened, is branded as “unpatriotic.” There is no debate on political or moral questions—only war abroad and repression at home.

In his critique, “The Four Myths of Democracy,” Benjamin Barber states that democracy cannot be imported because it is not a finished product or a commodity that can be delivered or assembled on site. Nor can it be imposed from the top down; it grows from the bottom up, building from grassroots of each distinct hosting culture. It is the fruit of hard-won struggles against myriad local conditions.

According to Barber, democracy by its very nature, is an ongoing indigenous process. Although the underlying ideals of the rule of law, the protection of fundamental human rights, a free election, accountability, and transparency are universally held in common, democracy’s applied forms are as various as the local and regional struggles through which it is achieved. “Poland is a very deeply religious country, but like Ireland it has no separation of Church and State and the Swiss celebrate communal rights rather than individual rights,” Barber observes.

Given the undisputed diversity among old democracies, why shouldn’t Muslim countries find their own appropriate institutions to develop and express it? Muslims surely can look to their own religion, culture, civilization and history for ample sources of inspiration upon which to develop democratic structures and civil societies. The short answer is yes, but not according to the anti-Islam trio of Daniel Pipes, Samuel Huntington, and self-described Orientalist Bernard Lewis, who never tire of repeating re-cycled clich鳠such as, “Islam is incompatible with democracy.”

Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, an organization dedicated to the Israeli cause, has repeatedly called Islam a religion with nothing functional to offer. In the November issue of Commentary, Pipes dismisses assertions by American academics that Islam is a peaceful religion and argues that the nature of Islam’s traditions make it unlikely to accept democratic political order or civil society.

Huntington in his “Clash of Civilizations” concludes that “the underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.”

Bernard Lewis, on the other hand, claims that Islam is “inherently anti- democratic” and could not possibly embrace democratic traditions if it were in a position of dominance. His main thesis is that Muslims are suffering from a uniquely explosive syndrome caused by humiliation, which has lead to such abominations as terrorism. Like his co- religionists, Pipes and Huntington, Lewis offers no explanation as to why, or even pauses to reflect on how this has become a mode of “hostility.” He rejects all the obvious explanations such as the failures of American policy in the Middle East. He does not want anything less than to have the U.S. step in and re-colonize the Middle East. This is the very template against which Americans are being prepared for a final onslaught against those naive enough to think there could be any alternative to America’s military model of democracy.

Yet so much of Islam’s history is at odds with the writings of Huntington, Pipes and Lewis. In his paper “Islam, Democracy and Civil Society,” Chandra Kukathas affirms that from the outset, Islam recognized the reality that religion cannot embrace the whole of society as long as there are non-Muslims in its midst, so Islam concerned itself with the question of how to treat those who dissent from its teachings. In fact, Islam has always viewed non-Muslims in light of the Qur’an’s universal message: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” (Qur’an 2:256)

Kukathas argues that there is no inconsistency between Islam and universal traditions of tolerance and peaceful co-existence. As various scholars have argued, Islam embraces not only the practice of tolerance but also the deeper concepts which give it theoretical expression—the concept of opposition and disagreement (ijma), that of consensus and consultation (shura), and that of freedom of thought and expression (ijtihad).

It was under Muslim rule that Jews and Christians enjoyed greater acceptance, protection and respect than had ever been accorded them before. “Indeed the local Christians even aided the invading Muslim armies to escape persecution at the hands of ‘foreign’ Christian orthodoxy. And it was under Muslim rule that the Jews were allowed back into Jerusalem, ” says Kukathas.

What is this democracy thing, then? America never cared what sort of government or political form it was dealing with, as long as world leaders of any stripe could be persuaded to tow America’s line. It did not concern America who ran Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Jordan, as long Washington’s interests were guaranteed and its economic needs met. Most of the current repressive regimes are still propped up by the U.S.

Admittedly, there are internal problems that impede the process of democratization in Muslim countries, but by far the most serious obstacle is America’s unwillingness to allow, let alone encourage, the emergence of liberal democracies like that which most of its own citizens enjoy. During the early 1990s in Algeria, when the FIS Islamist party won the national election, it was promptly banned. The Algerian army was called in, plunging the country into a horrific bloodbath. American response was one of understanding that the Algerian Army had to intervene to “protect democracy from its real enemies.”

Bush is really after the control of Middle East oil reserves, not democracy. Democracy will eventually come to Muslim countries, but not through foreign imposition or by an American-influenced ruling elite. It will instead emerge through the efforts of ordinary women and men who are doing extraordinary things to survive under the inhumane sanctions and brutal Israeli occupations created by their leaders and the U.S.

Mrs. Valiante is national vice-chair of the Canadian Islamic Congress. She is a professional family counselor who recently visited Palestine as part of a fact-finding medical team. While there, the team visited refugee camps, health care clinics, hospitals, orphanages, local and international charities and women’s refugee centres, and spoke with social workers and local Palestinian families.

By courtesy & ? 2003 The Canadian Islamic Congress & Wahida Valiante

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