Some people are under the impression that democracy and Islam are incompatible. But I don’t see any contradiction between democracy and Islam, as such. Though, I admit, that there is some friction between Islam and liberalism. When we say that there is a contradiction between Islam and democracy, we make a category mistake which is a serious logical fallacy.
There is a fundamental difference between democracy and liberalism. Democracy falls in the category of politics and governance while liberalism falls in the category of culture. We must be precise about the definitions of the terms that we employ in political science.
Democracy is simply a representative political system that ensures representation, accountability and the right of the electorate to vote governments in and to vote governments out. In this sense when we use the term democracy we mean a multi-party representative political system that confers legitimacy upon a government which comes to power through an election process which is a contest between more than one political parties in order to ensure that it is voluntary. Thus democracy is nothing more than a multi-party representative political system.
Some normative scientists, however, get carried away in their enthusiasm and ascribe meanings to technical terminology that are quite subjective and fallacious. Some will use the adjective liberal to describe the essence of democracy as liberal democracy while others will arbitrarily call it informed or enlightened democracy. In my opinion, the only correct adjective that can be used to describe the essence of democracy is representative democracy.
After settling on the theoretical aspect, let us now apply these concepts to the reality of the practical world, especially the phenomena of the nascent democratic movements of the Arab Spring. It’s a fact that the ground realities of the Arab and Islamic World fall well short of the ideal liberal democratic model of the developed Western World. However, there is a lot to be optimistic about. When the Arab Spring revolutions erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen, and before the Arab Spring turned into an abysmal winter in Libya and Syria, some of the utopian dreamers were not too hopeful about the outcome of those movements.
Unlike the socialist revolutions of ‘60s and ‘70s, when the visionaries of yore used to have a magic wand of bringing about a fundamental structural change that would have culminated into equitable distribution of wealth overnight, the neoliberal movements of present times are merely a step in the right direction that will usher the Arab and the Islamic World into an era of relative peace and progress.
The Arab Spring movements have not been led by Gamal Abdel Nassers, Zulfikar Ali Bhuttos, Jawahar Lal Nehrus and other such charismatic messiahs that the utopian thinkers are so fond of. But these revolutions have been the grassroots movements of a society in transition from an abject stagnant state towards a dynamic and representative future.
Let us be clear about one thing first and foremost: the Tunisian moderate Islamist political party, Ennahda, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would have followed the same old economic model of Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. It’s a growth-based neoliberal model as opposed to an equality-based socialist model. It’s a fact that the developing Third World economies with large populations and meager resources cannot be compared to the democratic socialist countries of Scandinavia.
A question arises that what would have the Arab Spring movements accomplished if the resultant democratic governments would have followed the same old neoliberal and growth-centered economic policies? It should be kept in mind that democracy is not the best of systems because it is the most efficient system of governance. Top-down autocracies are much more efficient than democracies.
But democracy is a representative political system. It brings about a grassroots social change. Enfranchisement, representation, transparency, accountability, checks and balances, rule of law and the consequent institution-building, nation-building and consistent long term policies are the fruits of representative democracy.
Immanuel Kant sagaciously posited that moral autonomy produces moral responsibility and social maturity. This social axiom can also be applied to politics and governance. Political autonomy and self-governance engender political responsibility and social maturity. A top-down political system is dependent on the artificial external force that keeps it going. The moment that external force is removed, the society reverts back to its previous state and the system collapses. But a grassroots and bottom-up political system evolves naturally and intrinsically.
We must not expect from the Arab Spring movements to produce results immediately. Bear in mind that the evolution of Western culture and politics happened over a course of many centuries. Moreover, the Arab revolutions of ‘60s and ‘70s only mobilized the elite classes. Some working classes might have been involved, but the tone and tenor of those revolutions was elitist and that’s the reason why those revolutions failed to produce the desired outcome. The Arab Spring movements, by contrast, mobilized the urban middle class of the Arab societies in the age of electronic media and information technology.
In the nutshell, if the Arab Spring movements have not been about the radical redistribution of wealth, or about creating a liberal utopia in the Middle East overnight, what was the objective of those movements then? Let me try to explain the aims of the Arab Spring movements by way of an allegory. Democracy is like a school and people are like children. We only have two choices: one, to keep the people under paternalistic dictatorships; two, to admit them in the school of representative democracy and let them experience democracy as a lived reality rather than some stale and sterile theory. The first option will only produce half-witted cretins, but the second option will give birth to an educated human resource that doesn’t just consumes resources but also creates new resources.
Finally, I would like to clarify that the militant phenomena in Libya and Syria has been distinct and separate from the political and democratic phenomena of the Arab Spring movements as in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. A question arises that when political movements for enfranchisement turn violent, do their objectives cease to be legitimate? No they don’t, but from a pacifist standpoint we ought to make a distinction between political movements, to which we should lend our moral support; and the militant phenomena which should be discouraged.
In civil law a distinction is generally drawn between the lawful and unlawful assembly. It is the inalienable right of the people to peacefully assemble to press their demands for political reform. But the moment such protests become militarized and violent, they cease to be lawful. Expecting from the heavily armed militants as in Libya and Syria, who have been described by the Western mainstream media as “moderate rebels,” to bring about political reform and positive social change is not only naïve but bordering on insanity.
In the latter case the only prudent course for the international community is to pressurize both sides: the militants and the regimes, to show restraint and avoid using force; the political right of peaceful demonstrations for political and social reforms is always a given. The demonstrators must have our political and moral support but beyond that any militarization and so-called “liberal interventionism” for ulterior motives in an opportunistic manner is only likely to further exacerbate the conflict.
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and MENA regions, energy politics and Petroimperialism.