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Democracy Within Islam

July 14, 2011 by  


By Geoffrey Cook, TMO

Tunis / Tunisia–About one and one half months ago, I was allowed to sit through the comments of a Professor Alfred Stefan here in Tunis via the miracle of cyber transmission.  He has held Professorships in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Continent.  Amongst many other remarkable accomplishments, he was the founder (in 2006) and currently is the Director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, Tolerance and Religion housed at New York City’s Columbia University.  He has authored or co-authored many books.  Of the most interest to our audience is Democracy, Islam and Secularism: Turkey in Comparative Perspective (Columbia University Press, forthcoming in 2012)which he co-edited and his manuscript which he, also, co-edited — that is under consideration at the same academic press — Indonesia, Islam, and Democracy: Comparative Perspectives.

Stefan, was invited to Tunis  by the Washington “think tank” the Center for the Study of Democracy and Islam whose founder / Director, Radwan Masoudi, is a natal son of Tunisia, chaired the event.
Now, the Tunisians were not only the first nation that overthrew their North African ancien regime, but have been the most successful of the emerging democracies within the Arab “Spring.” 
As Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Libya and Iraq went through a period of Arab-palatable socialism during the post-revolutionary period from the (former) Colonial powers which helped these nations lunge developmentally forward from their independence.  These regimes, however, became more autocratic as time progressed with their increased wealth, but to hold on to power the succeeding elites increased repression and corruption against their own citizens.  Yet their populations desired evermore a greater share of the wealth.   

With the overthrow of the (comparatively) liberal monarchy in (non-Arabic but Islamic) Afghanistan during the 1970s, and the invasion subsequent invasion of the Hindu Kush Mountains by Moscow at the end of that decade to bolster the Communist-controlled system there from increasing resistance to the Afghan Communist Party-controlled system by civil society there.  Consequently, a War of resistance ensued in which a large number of Arab “mercenaries” entered the mountainous battle theater – many of those from the very oppressive nations that they were previously battling that fell or may fall to this Arab “Spring.”

As civil society in Islam now believes Socialism to be “godless,” and that and the traditional monarchies to be corrupt, bourgeois democracy (there has always been an Islamic “capitalism”) now has its appeals as offering a better way to achieve the hopes and aspirations of Muslims in the region.  Yet, what truly is the Islamic path to such a future political ascendancy?

Alfred Stefan began his proposals by questioning the acceptance for the democratic within the Arabic-speaking world.  If the Tunisians can become successful, it will make an impression upon the North American peoples of a sea-change over much of the North African / Middle Eastern world.  Further, it would disprove the Israeli propaganda that Arabs are incapable of democratic governance.   
The truth is that 483 million Muslims are under democratic administrations already.

As your author has been heard to say on these pages previously, Stefan, also, whose English-language books have been translated into Arabic, and, whose ideas are known amongst the intelligentsia within the Punic space stated that there cannot be a singularity of democracy or even of modernity itself.  That is, as your reporter and he , further, holds Westminster or Jeffersonian democracy are not the only molds that can enfold equality, but there are other possible forms for the diverse Islamic peoples, too — not limited to the Arabic but to every ethnic sub-grouping within that religious classification.  In fact Stefan and your journalist, also, have determined that this prerequisite for the success of democracy to take root under any particular soil is the opening for such a diversity of possibility.  Democracy is unique to any time or place or the uniqueness of its religious environment.  Although it is not necessary for “Church” and State to be  synonymous, but rather the religious aspirations of the populace are vital to the form of its flowering.    Muslim Indonesia is the largest Islamic country in world, and the most emancipated within ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations).  Succinctly, Stefan declares “There is nothing that can keep countries from having a democracy… Militaristic Turkey is the most secular country within Dar al Islam, but the present government’s dominating party is reversing much of Ataturk’s policies.  Under the traditional modern State’s regulation there, a parliamentarian cannot repeat the word ‘hajib’ while in the legislature, yet 50% of Turkish women wear one!  Still, students with religious training’s application to any of Ankara’s universities will be rejected.”  There are many incorrect assumptions about Islam’s relationship with democracy within the Occident.

Most Islamic nations respect other religions.  There are up to 90 paid religious holidays per annum, depending upon the nation-state within Europe, but not one public holidays is for a non-European religious observance while Indonesia has public religious celebrations for its varied belief fabric.  There is a co-celebration between faith communities on the Archipelago, too. 

A 100% of Christian-majority European countries support Christian religious schools. These institutions are at least partially subsidized by the State.

“In your nation [Tunisia], you have a history… of toleration.”  Tunisia’s modern structure has come from France, and speaks in terms of Parisian democratic forms in the same breath with the nation’s similarities with Sub-Saharan Senegal.

“Any country that develops democracy has to develop toleration!..Democracy has to cultivate a high-level mutual toleration…If Tunis develops democracy, she will realize the possible,” and America will learn about the Maghreb (finally).  “Tunisia has the best chance democratizing than anywhere else within the Arab ‘Spring.’”

On the other hand, “Syria is a difficult [case].”  Ethnic rules, and the fears they engender [has generated] slaughter.  Egypt’s success so far was based on their military to fire on their own countrymen;  thus, they should inherit Mubarak’s régime.  Lebanon is so overshadowed by its battle for the Levant with Israel; therefore, fair elections [there] will be complex.

Whether democracy will envelop or not over the expanse, “things will never be the same.”

Authoritarianism has gone and won’t come back.  Hundreds of millions of persons watched the Tunisian and Egyptian “revolutions” while several decades ago we turned our backs on the then Algerian elections wherein the Islamists won leading up to an unbelievably brutal Civil War.  Yet, the recent two civil insurrections over Northern Africa have changed U.S. impressions.

Democracies are created through elections.  “Parties must trust each other.  If not, there is only a minute possibility for democracy…They will find themselves in non-democratic situations.  The democratic means that a party will hold power only temporarily.  After the initial period, voters will re-evaluate, and the power structure may shift.”

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