Friday, April 29, 2005
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.