Friday, April 29, 2005

Jahanam or Jail...

Warning: "D" word repeated MANY times...long...but needs to be said and understood...i'm probably not saying anything new but what the heck...its my rubyatain... or think of it this way, read it as the last words of a dying blog...

An article in this week's Economist called Should the West always be worried if Islamists win elections? hit the nail on the head. The argument that is propogated by most Arab governments, Bahrain being no exception, is that we don't deserve democracy because democracy will bring islamists to power, islamists are backward, and should have no place in the modern world. In fact they are enemies of democracy, and they would use the democratic channel to create an islamic state. Islamic states are anti-western, they breed extremism blah blah...increasingly trying to picture islamism as the anti-thesis to democratization. Hence, we should all be grateful for pro-western corrupt autocratic states, because of course, no one wants religious police and segregation. Citing Algeria 1990 only too often. In my opinion this argument is seriously flawed. Extremism itself is a product of oppressive regimes who are make this case against democracy. The Economist concurs and asks, are islamists such a threat?

Indeed, the wave of islamism over the last two decades, has clearly influenced the outcomes of the limited elections that have occurred in the Arab world (examples cited in the article from Morocco to Iraq), even in Bahrain, the likes of Alsaeedi and co. gained parliamentary seats. The autocratic state then argues that its either us or the islamists, portraying the notion as a choice between Jahanam or Jail (as Akbar Ahmed puts it); the choice between the wrath of the mullah or the prison of the dictator, has led to certain disillusionment amongst the youth, and u get endless diatribes like this and this, questioning whether we deserve democracy at all. The Economist argues, that some islamist movements are actually quite progressive and understand the modern day needs of people whilst trying to preserve their islamic values.

One of the basic tenets that should be encompassed in a democratic system is that of pluralism and tolerance meaning that distinct ethnic, religious, or cultural groups are present and tolerated within a society- be them the BNP or Monster Raving Loony Party (extreme parties in the UK). I personally do not fear the emergance of islamist groups/societies/parties/candidates. They have the right to stand and to participate in a democratic system like anyone else. Their influence and power will depend on the collective ignorance or awareness that exists in society, which will eventually come to understand and to judge those who represent their interests and vote on that basis. The emergence of islamists as a strong social force isnt an argument for ruling out democracy at the outset.

Abdulkarim Saroush, also contends that even the enemies of democracy should have a place in a democracy in the pluralistic sense. It is necessary to read the debate on political islam raging between Iranian thinkers especially, such as Hussain Nasr in the US, and Suroush in Iran, based on the their living Iranian experiment reconciling democracy with the religious establishment. This debate can get highly philosophical going back to Ibn Rumi and Hafez who may view pluralism as positive (differences occur as a result of the richness of truth ) or a negative (differences occur because of ignorence). The question can then be put forth, is democracy a function or a value. In the Arab context, I think democracy is a function. As a function, we can adapt it to suit our specific political situation and sensitivies. Although I have diverged somewhat, this leads me onto another issue.

In the midst of the debate about democratization, an invaluable point often missed by everyone in general, and the state in particular, is the emphasis on the role of civic society in underpinning democracy. Democracy, as proposed by the West, has only too often appeared to be the magic pill that is supposed to solve our predicament. Unfortunately, this pill isn't blue and doesn't have instant effect. People need to understand what civic participation is and their role in society, how to organise themselves in action groups, institutions, lobbying etc. However, I still go along with the thesis that disproportionate growth in the state's strength vis-a-vis the society leaves the latter still at the former's mercy. The major obstacles to inaugurating democracy are the presence of strong states and weak societies, where not only are there no effective groups and associations to limit the state's power but also the majority of people remain poor and uneducated. The first thing as a state, if you are true in democratising is you need to allow social dynamics to work freely with no impediments in order to build a strong civial society NOT threatening to close societies down, or needing permission for gatherings of more than 5 people. Generally however, Bahrain despite state interference, has a long tradition of civic society, as witnessed by the proliferation of societies since people were given room to breath in 2001 even if they largely relfect social divisions or what Khalaf (2003) describes as the policy of vertical segmentation. Generally the civil liberties movement over the last century has not ceased and was a peaceful one even if it was quashed over and over again by the state and coloniolists (see last post)

Homer proposed the concept of "cohabitation", which from what I understood assumes a half-half equation of power between the nation (x) and the state (y) in which their will be a perpetual crisis due to the inherent conflict of interest (an agency problem). Hence, even if there is total support for this imposed bicameral parliamentary system in place, this conflict will simply move to the four walls of the parliament building and al9afria palace. Clearly, this system or parliament will not resolve the political conflict in this case. Its not hard to see that this equation needs to assign different coefficient ratios to the two parameters (math's speak). The solution to the problem is not x=y (cohabitation), but either x greater than y (democracy) or x less than y (autocracy).

Democracy is not just a ballot box and a few puppet MPs, as Imran Khan kindly pointed out in a recent BBC interview mentioning Bahrain. The winds of change are blowing strongly, and will soon blow the putrid stench of corruption and despotism away from the desert lands of Arabia... we need a steadfast civic society ready to takeover when it does. Civic participation starts with you and me, you don't like a society out there, then go start you're own.

I don't have a degree in political science, but that is my take as inspired by today's Economist and if you've managed to read this far then well done.

Posted by BB @ 4/29/2005 05:54:00 PM

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In my view the key to understanding the root cause of the democracy predicament in Muslim countries does not lie in the text or in the tradition of Islam but in the context of modernity, politics, and culture. The rather arbitrary use of the term Islamic to describe states, regions, and even people adds to the confusion and blurs the real issues. Although a solution may require addressing Islam and its interpretations, the basic issue is not about Islam but about Muslims. It is not about religion but about modernity. Islam is only one element in the history and culture of the 50-something Muslim nations in more than eight distinct regions. Their cultures are influenced to widely varying degrees by the traditions and values of Islam. They are as diverse as the cultures of predominantly christian nations from America in the west to the Philippines in the east.

Despite the rather hapless situation at present, that there are grounds for hope. Education is having a significant impact. In addition, there are strong pressures toward liberalization, both because the media continuously provide alternative models from other countries and because states in the muslim world can no longer function without fundamental structural reforms and without more effective partnerships being developed between the government and the governed. Looking ahead, I am an optimist. We need to watch the discourse taking place among Muslim intellectuals by which they are bringing about authentic Islamic interpretation of how they should govern themselves in modern societies. I have a lot of faith that this debate will lead to democracy and to full recognition of human rights, but it will come with local language and interpretation and it will be approached from a totally different perspective than we are familiar with in the West.

Posted by Blogger Bahraini by nature @ 4/30/2005 09:54:00 PM #

Bahrania: "I personally do not fear the emergance of islamist groups/societies/parties/candidates." Er...might this be related to your posts all over Mahmood's Den that you're an Islamist activist with Al Wefaq Islamic Action?

If the Economist wanted an example of the moderating affect of political office on Islamists, then surely it should have looked no further than your boys and their mirror images on the salafi right in Bahrain? For 'moderation', how about Al Wefaq's elected officials' campaign to racially segregate Manama, the more traditional demands for forced gender segregation at the Bahrain University and the rampages of Brownshirts? (Gearing up for another against the Star Academy show?)

Given that it's the Economist may be they're not even going to object too much to your leaders' race policies - after all the mag defended Apartheid South Africa and consistently opposed sanctions, so there's hope for you.

I'd rather trust Michael Jackson in an unsupervised kindergarten than the Economist's judgement on the big ethical and political issues.

Posted by Blogger Scorpio @ 4/30/2005 11:32:00 PM #

Scorpio.. you committed the classic fallacy of killing the about u respond directly to the arguments in the topic...

I have been following your comments for a long time...I am just wondering, are you Bahraini? do you speak arabic? do you know what goes on in Bahrain other than what is reported in the GDN?

Posted by Blogger Bahraini by nature @ 5/02/2005 07:32:00 PM #
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