|Volume 5 Issue 04 | April 2011|
Democracy and Dogma in the Middle East
Western dogma can be as undemocratic as that of the Muslim world, argues JALAL ALAMGIR.
There are many among us who, at the first mention of religion and politics, wiggle their forefingers and shake their heads and tell us that the two should never mix. Religion is a matter of faith, they assert, and politics -- well, politics requires crafty calculations. Religion is a matter of rules, but in politics, anything goes and everything's negotiable.
The same wise people, educated in the West and "secular" like me, might point to the Muslim world and say, look what happens when dogma guides decisions: thieves get their hands chopped off and women are stoned to death. How can democracy take root in countries where medieval faith still shuts out modernity and reason?
The argument contains a truth and an irony. The truth is that dogma and faith have indeed shut out democracy in the Middle East for a long time. What's ironic is that the dogma of the "modern" West has been as anti-democratic as that of the Mullahs that the West likes to vilify.
Three beliefs, in particular, have conspired against democracy in the Middle East.
First, Western leaders believed that the world's oil flows would freeze unless pro-America governments controlled Arab countries. This belief goes back to 1945, when US President Franklin D. Roosevelt reached a deal with Saudi King Abdul Aziz to protect the Saud regime in exchange for US access to Saudi oil.
The continuity of this belief overlooked the plain logic that oil-producing countries are critically dependent on oil revenues, and so it would be suicidal for them to stop selling oil regardless of who is in power. It also overlooked the fact that Western military adventures in the region have produced bigger spikes in oil prices than have Arab nationalisation of oil fields. Nonetheless, the faithful of the modern world have supported dictatorships across the region, and kept oil wells out of the reach of the masses.
The second belief was that right-wing dictatorships are preferable to left-wing nationalism. This belief originated in the Cold War and in postcolonial politics. In the 1950s and the 1960s, many newly-independent countries, fresh out of their colonial experience, took a strong position against capitalism and imperialism. Western countries intervened frequently across the Third World to stamp out these sentiments. Along the way, the West supported brutal governments, from Iran's Shah to Egypt's Mubarak to Indonesia's Suharto to every dictator in Pakistan from Ayub Khan to Pervez Musharraf. In a memorable sentence, US President Lyndon B. Johnson described this approach of keeping dictators as pets: "They may be bastards, but they're our bastards."
It is evident that the pursuit of this belief has not made the world more secure. Quite the contrary: it has left a thick trail of blood that continues to breed fierce anti-West spirits. In Indonesia alone, Suharto's government massacred half-a-million people, after branding them as communists and then denying them the right to organise. Pakistani generals, supported by the Nixon administration, sanctioned the massacre of millions of Bengalis in 1971. Add all these up, and you get an anti-democratic history of the West that is, as Arundhati Roy put it, "spongy with the blood of others."
The third belief was that Islam cannot be democratic. This view suggested that Islamist political parties can never be considered mainstream, and that they would participate in elections only to grab power, once and for all. The pro-Israel lobby in the US has been instrumental in convincing American policymakers of this belief. In 1993, the columnist Judith Miller cautioned the Clinton Administration that free elections in Muslim countries were "likely to lead to the triumph of Islamic groups that have no commitment to democracy in any recognizable, meaningful form." Jonah Goldberg of National Review reminded the Bush administration that electoral victories by Islamist movements would amount to "one man, one vote, one time." And in the wake of Egypt's recent revolution, Richard Cohen of The Washington Post declared that as long as the Muslim Brotherhood is around, the "dream of a democratic Egypt is sure to produce a nightmare."
This anti-Islamism belief, too, has no relationship to reality. Across the world's 47 Muslim-majority countries, 154 national elections were held between 1990 and 2006. Out of all these, Islamist parties won free and fair elections only three times: in Algeria in 1991, in Turkey in 1995, and in Palestine in 2006. In none of the three cases could they govern properly or complete their term; reactive Western policies forced them out of power.
The three beliefs have combined in various ways, and together they have led the US and its Western allies to make erroneous risk assessments about not just the Middle East, but the wider Muslim world, including Bangladesh.
I have been to seminars and conferences with Western policymakers who are obsessed about the danger of Islamism in Bangladesh. They believe that the main risk to democracy in the country comes from Islamists. I have pointed out that the historical record does not support this belief. Islamists have never been able to get more than seven to eight percent of national votes. And every interruption of democracy in the country, including the most recent caretaker episode of 2007-8, has come from the military. Regardless, most policymakers seem steadfast in their belief that the greatest danger to Bangladesh's democracy came from Islamists. Such are the politics of the faithful: they are unshakeable in their beliefs.
So, one should be forgiven for being a bit skeptical about the West's risk analyses and its role in the tectonic political shifts going on in the Middle East. US President Obama promised in his famous 2009 Cairo speech to support human rights "everywhere". But US response to democracy movements in the Middle East has varied quite a bit due to strategic considerations. In Libya, the West has taken a forceful approach. But in Yemen and Bahrain, the stance has been more muted, even though governments there have been brutal in dealing with pro-democracy demonstrators. And in Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most repressive country in the Middle East, the approach has been simply generic and insipid.
True -- in no country other than Libya did the leader send in the air force to attack citizens. But Yemen and Bahrain sent in tanks and deployed their military against a civilian opposition. On March 18, government gunmen in Yemen shot and killed 50 demonstrators. Bahrain was invaded by Saudi troops to prop up the monarchy. Raucous discontent is mounting in Syria. And in Palestine, despite supportive rhetoric, the West has been powerless to stop Israel's brutal occupation and the building of its settlements in the style of nineteenth century colonialism.
Of course, the year of Arab democracy has just begun, and sweeping away some of the longer-standing injustices will take time. Along the way the integrity of Western policymakers will be tested severely. Will these tests produce cracks in the faith of the faithful and begin to shake the unshakeable? Can reason finally replace the underlying dogma of Western foreign policy?
After reflecting on the mixed record of his country in the past, Barack Obama asserted in Cairo: "this much is clear: governments that protect [human] rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure." If this line of thinking persists in action, only then can we hope that the pro-democracy movements everywhere will finally get the support they deserve.
Jalal Alamgir is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a Fellow at Harvard University's South Asia Initiative. He's a member of Drishtipat Writers' Collective.
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