Monday, October 7, 2013

Guest Post: Muslims? Democracy? Preposterous! Or is it?

In the dialogue surrounding Middle East foreign policy and the Arab Spring these days, I often hear discussion of the question, “Is the Middle East ready for democracy?” Many pundits tend to argue that, no, the Middle East is not ready to switch from its authoritarian roots to an open, democratic societal system. But why do they feel that way? What is the logic behind this reaction? It’s simple, really: according to the aforementioned pundits, Middle Eastern culture and values make it impossible for Arab nations to attain such lofty levels of political freedom and awareness. The idea that religious and cultural beliefs alone can preclude a nation from achieving democratic governance is rather insulting to Arabs the world over.

I wonder, how do the nay-sayers know for certain that democracy in the Middle East is an impossibility? The glaringly obvious answer would be that, gee, up until now, there haven’t been any successful established democratic systems in Arab nations. At first glance, it seems as if this line logic has left no room for argument. I would like to point out that, until now, certain foreign powers have prematurely vilified and obstructed elections when they felt that their strategic interests were threatened. Based on this new information, perhaps the question begging to be asked is not “Is the Middle East ready for democracy”, but rather, “Are outside powers ready to accept the forms of democracy that will be produced by the Middle East?”

In Iran, 1951--again, not an Arab nation, but still considered part of the greater Middle East--Mohammad Mossadeq was democratically elected Prime Minister. Mossadeq was not an illegitimate candidate. He promised progressive social and political reforms for Iran and also planned to nationalize Iranian oil so that his country could master its own natural resources. Until this point in time, a concession granted to William D’Arcy in the early 1900's dictated that the majority of Iranian oil and oil revenues belonged to Britain and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). Nationalizing Iranian oil would mean that a greater portion of the revenues coming from the AIOC would be redirected into the Iranian economy, rather than finding their way into the hands of the British. Concerned at the prospect of giving up their lucrative enterprise, the British MI-6 collaborated with the CIA to overthrow Mossadeq in 1953 and replace him with the previously ousted Mohammad Reza Shah--a joke of a political leader and a Western puppet. Documents declassified in 2011 verified the CIA’s participation in the overthrow of a democratically elected leader in order to replace him with one who would be more easily malleable to Western foreign interests.

The coup of 1953 is a perfect example of Westerners' fear of what they cannot control--especially when it comes to the rise of Islam in politics. Many suffering from Islamophobia refuse to accept the legitimacy of candidates whose religious beliefs are at odds with their own. We would back a secular candidate over an Islamic one in a heartbeat, and justify it by saying, "Islam is incompatible with democracy," completely disregarding their qualifications to rule, as we did in Iran. The second Mubarak was ousted, the Western world was gripped with fear that an Islamic leader would take his place in the power vacuum. Before we had heard anything about Mursi's qualifications as a leader, the words "Muslim Brotherhood" had us all up in arms. It might be prudent to mention here that today's Muslim Brotherhood, although still far too conservative for my standards, is not the violent radical Islamist party of the 1930s-1970s, having renounced its violent ways decades ago. Despite Mursi's incompetence as a leader, the democratic process was founded on the principle that all parties wishing to participate must be allowed to do so, not just those with whom we agree.

Democracy is not something that can be taken out of a mold and forced upon a nation. Democratic systems must change and adapt to best fit the personality of the country in which they are operating. This means that yes, even Islamic parties can produce successful democratic candidates! Islam and democracy can exist simultaneously, if given the chance--just look at the developments in Turkey within the last decade. Foreign leaders need to accept that democracy, as a dynamic institution, develops differently in different parts of the world. A democracy that has developed outside of the narrow bounds of Western notions is not inherently any less legitimate than our own.