DEMOCRACY AND THE ARAB WORLD: THE CULTURAL CHALLENGE
By Roland Watson
December 1, 2015
Islam is now blamed for - many people consider it to be the same thing as - terrorism, due to the actions of a very small percentage of the world's Muslims. But, almost all Muslims want nothing to do with terrorism. Like all people everywhere they are just trying to get on with their lives: to making a living, to finding love, and to being happy. Terrorism has nothing to do with their day-to-day existence, and that is exactly the way they want to keep it. They are as afraid of terrorism as everyone else, of being the victims of arbitrary and unexpected violence.
The majority of Muslims are also from the Arab World, from Arabic-speaking countries, and many of these countries are dictatorships. Their dictators are modern-day sheiks - these are effectively "sheikdoms," rule by privileged families; and also theocratic clerics, who tell them what they have to believe and how they have to live. Both types of systems, as with all political dictatorships, maintain their rule by force.
Most Arabs and for that matter most Muslims overall, excepting the theocratic true believers, would like to live in a democracy. They've seen the movies. The problem, though, is that they don't really know what it means. Other than through certain types of leadership councils, they have limited experience with democratic governance.
Moreover, only a minority of Muslims are wealthy enough to travel, to experience life in developed, democratic societies. Other than as war refugees or economic migrants, they are too impoverished to leave home. (Many of course flee because they are so impoverished.)
As a result, they do not understand democracy, either conceptually or practically. For example, freedom is a great concept, but you can't really grasp it, what it means at its core - freedom from fear and freedom of thought, and also just how wide it can be - a free life, if you haven't experienced it.
Once you are free, once the shackles have been removed and you can stretch out and breathe, everyone can understand the wonderful feeling of not having to be afraid anymore. Again, people are people.
This initiative is designed to be one small piece of the puzzle, of helping to bring this freedom to Arabic-speaking people. Establishing democracy in the Arab World is a huge undertaking because of this cultural challenge, and also due to the fact that there are more than twenty such countries - all of which are repressive and at least half of which are outright dictatorships, and which in one way or another their citizens will have to overthrow. But, this is the basic piece, the starting point - education - an effort to teach native Arabic-speakers what democracy really means.
Fortunately, most Arab World countries (unlike China) do not practice heavy censorship of the Internet. Instead, they rely on the language limitation that many of their people only know Arabic (and local languages), which by definition restricts outside influences (as well as the lack of Internet access in rural areas). This, though, is their weakness. It will be straight-forward to infiltrate - simple, really, all we have to do is post it - the Lessons in Democracy Arabic translation. Through this we will help motivate the education that is necessary for a real cultural transformation to occur.
(Note: For the Islamic jihad true believers, they effectively comprise a cult, even in some cases, as has been noted for ISIS, a death cult. The only way to change the thinking of a cult member is through deprogramming, a process that is well understood but which also requires concerted and long-term personal contact. The overall cultural challenge, therefore, requires this contact, or, alternatively, the military defeat of the cultists, as well as the education of everyone else.)
To be honest, the democracy challenge for the Arab World is, of course, intimately related to the tenets and practices of the Muslim faith. Because of this, it is necessary to consider these connections in more detail. Of note, this summary of Islam draws heavily from the seminal work of scholarship, History of the Arabs, by Princeton University Professor Philip K. Hitti, first edition 1937, references - chapters 8-11, eighth edition.
There are some 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, and we can never hope to see peace in the Middle East, much less democracy, if we insult their faith. Therefore, the only suitable starting point is to try to understand Islam. What is it about the religion that so many people find attractive, and which at the same time a small number of fanatics use to justify the most savage acts imaginable?
Islam is quite straight-forward. It is the belief in the supreme rule of a transcendent being, which is coupled with a divine decree of good and evil. This decree explains the life practices which people should follow. If you do Allah's will, you will be rewarded in Heaven; if not, you will be punished in Hell.
As such, the religion is similar to both Christianity and Judaism, which are also monotheistic and which prescribe a religious set of ethical rules. It does differ from them, though, in the degree of obedience required. Islam is the religion of submission, to surrender to the will of Allah. Through this, "adherents enjoy a consciousness of resignation and contentment unknown among followers of most creeds."
The core expression of Islam is: "There is no god whatsoever but Allah; Mohammad is the messenger of Allah." These are the first words spoken after a baby is born, and the last words at a funeral. The phrase is said at every prayer and many other times a day as well. No words are heard more often in Islamic societies.
Mohammad had a difficult childhood. His father died before his birth, and his mother when he was six. He was then cared for by a grandfather, and following this by an uncle. Then, as a young man, he married a wealthy widow, and his life circumstances changed. With this support, he began to follow his natural inclination, to engage in meditation and a consideration of the circumstances of life. It was at this point that the Islamic holy book, the Koran, began to be revealed to him, by the Angel Gabriel, in a small cave above Mecca. Mohammad then started to preach his revelations, but found a limited audience among the Meccans. Ultimately, he moved to the town of Yathrib, now called Medina, attracted a large group of followers, and became involved in a long and complex conflict with the Meccans. When Mohammad and his followers prevailed, the Meccans and other groups in Arabia pledged allegiance, and the Islamic community began to grow.
After his victory, Mohammad led an unpretentious life, even mending his own clothes. He is considered to be a "Perfect Man," and many Muslims do their best to emulate him. He is Allah's supreme ruler on earth. As such, during his lifetime he was both spiritual leader and the practical or governing head of the Islamic community.
Importantly, Islam accomplished an elemental transformation throughout much of Arabia. Where formerly one's allegiance was to blood - to family and tribe, Islam superseded this. One's first loyalty changed to Allah. All other followers thereby became brothers. Through this, Islam and Mohammad changed the basis of social organization, and brought peace to a region - a "Pax Islamica" - that had long been plagued by war.
Mohammad then died suddenly after developing a severe headache, about the age of sixty. He did not have any male children, and he did not appoint a successor.
The Koran is the set of Mohammad's revelations, first in Mecca and then after he moved to Medina. It is considered to be "uncreated," the words of Allah dictated through Gabriel. As such, it is "the greatest miracle of all." Indeed, every letter - by one count 323,621, is significant.
The Koran is further Allah's final revelation, and Mohammad the last prophet.
The Koran covers everything - all important areas of life, from spiritual belief and practices, to law, government and even science.
In the past - and perhaps even today, it is also the textbook from which almost every Muslim child learns to read Arabic. This means that children in Islamic societies are taught a systematic form of religious belief earlier than the children of any other society - when they are first learning written language.
Through this, the Koran has arguably become the most widely read book ever written.
Five pillars of Islam
The religion of Islam has an uncomplicated structure. There is no priesthood, no hierarchy, and no central see - as with Catholicism. The formal setting of the religion is the mosque, run by a local imam.
The Islamic religion has three foundations: religious belief; acts of worship and religious duty; and right-doing (day-to-day ethics). For the second, "the religious duties of the Muslim center on the so-called five pillars of Islam."
The first of these is the profession of faith, as stated: "There is no god whatsoever but Allah; Mohammad is the messenger of Allah."
The second is prayer. Muslims pray five times a day, facing Mecca. Of note, regardless of one's native language, the prayers are in Arabic. The only public, and obligatory, prayer is on Friday at noon. For all prayers, Muslims begin by standing in self-arranged rows.
The third is alms-giving. Muslims give a tax, which is used to support the poor, to build mosques, and for government expenses.
The fourth is fasting, the most notable example of which is the fasting month of Ramadan.
The last is the pilgrimage, or "Hajj." Once in their life, if they can afford it, Muslims are supposed to visit Mecca, at a set time of year.
The Attraction of Islam
Islam as a religion has many attributes that its followers find appealing. It is an accessible system of belief, and invested with great power both as an explanation of and a guide for life. Islam cares about the poor and disadvantaged. (The first converts were slaves and from other lower classes.) The Prophet also experienced early life difficulties, and chose a humble life following victory. There are further numerous passages in the Koran - these amount to legislation, which are beneficial to orphans, the weak, and the oppressed, and which are backed up by the alms.
Even more, in a variety of ways Islam preaches equality. From its clerical structure, to the lines of believers at mosques, to the overall declaration that all are brothers, Islam reinforces the belief in - and the practice of - personal equality, and social unity.
This is also seen through the pilgrimage, particularly before the advent of air travel. For centuries, Muslim pilgrims from across Arabia and North Africa trekked overland to Mecca, coming together to form large columns. This provided an extraordinary opportunity for social contact between people from very different backgrounds, and to unify their bond of brotherhood. Indeed, "of all the world religions, Islam seems to have attained the largest measure of success in demolishing the barriers of race, color and nationality - at least within the confines of the community."
Finally, in addition to this list, the faith of Islam is reinforced, practically, through four other characteristics. These include the strength of the bond - the aforementioned submission; the fact that one is born Muslim, if this is the faith of the parents (the Koran actually has a passage which says that everyone is born a Muslim); that social conditioning of the faith begins at a very early age, as it is taught along with written language; and since it is impermissible to leave the faith.
Islam and Peace
Since the death of Mohammad, in particular because he did not have a male heir or chosen successor, there have been disputes over who would carry-on the religion. In addition, since the faith was first established in part through conflict, some individuals in later generations promoted additional conquest, to expand the brotherhood (and for economic gain). Along the way major splits have developed, and also the formation of smaller sects.
The conflict between Medina and Mecca was a jihad, a holy war. Nonetheless, jihad is not one of Islam's Five Pillars. However, these later individuals (including now the followers of ISIS), have attempted to redefine the faith and make jihad a sixth pillar. They say there is a duty to expand the "Land of Islam" into what they call the "War Territory."
While Islamic conquest certainly secured additional territory, it was one of the significant drivers behind the faith's fragmentation. Moreover, the last major attempt to establish an expanding caliphate, one hundred years ago by the Ottoman Sultan, "proved an utter failure." What has happened is the formation of powerful nation-states created a formidable barrier to jihadic expansion (and more generally to any attempt at empire-building.)
In summary, then, Islam is not inherently at odds with peace. Jihad is not one of its pillars. Indeed, not only is ISIS engaging in reprehensible behavior (suicide bombings and other attacks on innocent people, burning people alive, etc.), which certainly contravene all conventions of right-doing; the group is fundamentally opposed to the mission of Mohammad himself, who established peace. ISIS is destroying peace and the unity of the Islamic brotherhood. It has no place in the religion. While it is certainly appropriate for non-Islamic nations, along with those that are Islamic, to confront it militarily, the entire Muslim population at the same time can, and should, confront it spiritually. Jihadis like ISIS should be ostracized and banned from the faith. The world, and with Islam in it, can be at peace.
Islam and Democracy
For Islam and democracy, the main theoretical hurdle is that Mohammad was both the spiritual and the day-to-day leader, together with the fact that the Koran describes numerous government practices. Nevertheless, millions of Muslims today live in - and accept - societies that are democratic. While it is true that most of these societies are not in the Middle East proper - the largest examples are Indonesia, Malaysia and Nigeria, the Middle East nations that are dictatorships are not openly structured as fervent Islamic theocracies, run by religious figures. Instead, they are sheikdoms, governed, starting with Saudi Arabia, by royal families (although these families certainly do maintain close allegiance to the clerics - in effect, there is a theocratic structure within or parallel to the political system). The only nation that is openly run by a religious supreme leader, in this case an ayatollah, is Iran.
Indeed, one can say that the sheikdom structure has reversed Mohammad's brotherhood and returned the world to the pre-Islam days of clan and tribal rivalry (just as the jihadists have returned the region to war). Muslims should oppose the sheiks and work to install democracy for their national societies. Even more, and as I have described, Islam above all else promotes equality and brotherhood. The only modern political system that is capable of achieving these goals is democracy.
Finally, while theocracy may have worked well for a small community and with a revered leader, it is simply insufficient to function in the face of the modern world's complexity. This is also part of the reason why Arab nations, and even Iran, have independent governments. There is so much to do. There has to be an independent bureaucracy.
There is no fundamental reason why the Arab World dictatorships cannot be restructured as democracies. The citizens can continue to follow Islam. As is already happening in the democratic societies, they just need to move beyond the tenets of the faith that can be interpreted as a demand for theocracy.
In conclusion, there are two issues that underlie the pressing relationship between Islam and the rest of the world: jihad, and theocracy. It is up to Muslims to reject jihad in the name of peace, and to achieve democracy in the name of equality. Muslims should also consider other reforms as they see fit, and as a personal comment I would advocate that this begin with granting the freedom to leave the faith. While Islam means submission to the will of Allah, this commitment should be freely made, not implied as a result of one's birth circumstances (or coerced in any other way).
Perhaps it is too bold to suggest this, but were Mohammad to look down on the modern world, would he not be for peace and democracy? Is this not the will of Allah?