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The Middle East should not adopt Western democracy

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In order for democracy to really take hold in the wake of the recent Arab Revolutions, the people of the region should be careful not to conform to Western ideas of democracy and instead develop their own model, one relevant to their own cultural norms and in tune with their own rich history of democracy.

The Arab Revolutions themselves give us insight into what this model might look like. Indeed, recent events are to be admired for the extent to which divergent voices have been heard, legitimate grievances have been aired, and women and minorities have been involved.

They are also to be admired because a balance has often been struck between the pragmatic and the ideal, between the secular and the religious, between the desire not just to oust failing tyrants but to replace them with something new, something that could respond to the varying needs of the citizens.

For the people who set themselves alight in Tunisia, for the protestors who took control of Tahrir Square in Egypt, for the rebels fighting in Libya and for those demonstrating across the region – it was democracy they wanted and democracy which they assumed would solve their problems and answer their questions.

However, at least in the Western media and in popular discourse, there has always been an awkward mismatch between such calls for democracy and our contemporary understandings of what democracy is and – most importantly - where it comes from.

In fact, the history of democracy with which we are all familiar does not neatly fit with events in the Arab or Islamic world. This standard history of democracy emphasises the keystone moments in the story of Western civilisation: the achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the more recent development of the British parliament, the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution.

This is usually followed by a reference to the events of the First and Second World Wars, and then the Cold War, which are so often viewed as triumphs for the Western liberal model of democracy. In turn, these events are said to have given way to the gradual global spread of democracy under Western tutelage.

An unfortunate product of this standard history of democracy is that the West is so often thought to have a unique ability to understand and practise democracy. On the other hand, non-Westerners – and especially Muslims and Arabs – are thought to have no democratic history to draw upon and are therefore simply incapable of coming to terms with or implementing inclusive and egalitarian governance.

The recent Arab Revolutions have exposed the lie underpinning these ideas.

Among the many challenges facing Arabs and Muslims today – and indeed facing all peoples whose history is not included in the accepted story of democracy – is to work out ways to move beyond this Eurocentric picture and make democracy more relevant for all people beyond the heady days of a revolution or the excitement of casting a vote for the first time.

To do so, Arabs and Muslims should look not to the story of Western civilisation, but to their own history and celebrate those moments when Middle Eastern and Muslim peoples have practised forms of governance that are remarkably democratic in nature.

For example, there is considerable evidence that the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia and the Levant were in fact host to some of the world’s earliest democracies. Well before the significant achievements of the Greeks, the people of the ancient Middle East were convening assemblies in order to debate and decide on the important issues of the time. Democracy has origins in the Middle East that not only pre-date Athens, but probably directly influenced the Greeks and therefore the birth of Western civilisation.

Moving forward, as Europe wallowed in the brutality and inequity of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, it was the faith and various empires of Islam that kept democracy alive. Despite the common misconception that Islam is antithetical to democracy, it can instead be seen to espouse virtues such as equality, freedom of expression, political participation and governance by the people. As many have rightfully asserted, Islam – as a religion, historically and as a civilisation – has inherent foundational principles that are compatible with democracy.

This inherent connection between Islam and democracy became the central focus of many Arab scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of particular interest here is the work of Islamic feminists who argued that adherence to the Quran would serve to significantly enhance – and definitely not worsen – the role of women in society.

What is particularly interesting here is that with contemporary debates raging in the West about women’s rights in Islam and the role of a hijab in a secular state, the voices of these women – and their Islamic feminist forbearers – are rarely heard or acknowledged.

It is also often forgotten that many Arab states experimented with democracy during the colonial period. For example, the first half of the twentieth century saw states such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and others hold mass popular elections, which brought to power functioning parliaments that enacted media freedoms, the rule of law and a burgeoning civil society and opposition movements. While it is true that these were all done under foreign occupation, they nonetheless serve as another chapter in the democratic history of the Middle East and have left behind a legacy of democracy that can be drawn upon today.

Finally, the recent effort to bring democracy to Iraq serves as another interesting example. Despite the attempts by the US to undermine and control Iraq’s democracy, the extremes of violence and sectarianism and the abhorrent conditions, the Iraqi people have proven themselves remarkably adept at understanding and practising democracy.

Of particular interest here – and of particular relevance to the recent Arab Revolutions - are the enormous protests in which Iraqis of various religious, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds have taken to the streets in order to hold the occupational forces and the Iraqi government to account, and to call for a more democratic future.

Together, these alternative stories of democracy serve as a powerful historical memory that can be drawn upon by contemporary Arab protestors. Democracy is not ‘ours’ to give to the Middle East. It is a dynamic system of governance underpinned by virtues of justice, equality and liberty.

And these are virtues that the people of the Middle East have at least as much historical claim to as anyone in the West.

This article was first published in The Punch on 30 May 2011 at:

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