Politics & Policy

Democracy in Arabia

An unexpected home.

When Iraq’s opposition leaders gathered last month to discuss the future of their country, one of the few words they agreed on wasn’t even of Arab origin. The word is dimuqratiah (democracy) which was first introduced to the Arabic political lexicon in the mid-19th century as the Nahda (Awakening) movement spread in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire.

The word had entered other Islamic languages, including Persian and Turkish, slightly earlier in the form of demokrasi. It was the magic word that inspired the constitutional movements in the Ottoman Empire and Persia.

By the start of the 20th century the constitutionalists had won in both Constantinople and Tehran, establishing the first Western-style parliaments in the Muslim world. A Martian visiting the Islamic world in the final years of the 19th century would have noticed the almost unanimous support that the democratic ideal enjoyed among Muslim elites.

Muslim writers, scholars, and reformers in British India, the czarist empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Persia tried to understand why it was that Islam, once a global civilization that ruled in three continents, had become what the reformist leader Jamaleddin Afghani described as “an abyss of misery and terror.” By the end of the 19th century only three Muslim nations, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, were independent, and then only nominally.

Muslim thinkers who pondered what had happened concluded that the answer lay in centuries of despotic rule that devastated civil society. “A nation whose government does not depend on its people is bound to become a slave of other nations,” wrote Ismail Agha, a Muslim reformer from the Crimea in the 1880s. His near contemporary Mirza Agha Kermani was more specific: “The rise of the Western powers as masters of the world, and the decline of Muslim nations into abject servitude, are due to one fact only. In Europe, governments fear the people. In Islam people fear the government.”

It now seems incredible that the idea of a people’s government was the central theme of political discourse throughout the Muslim world not such a long time ago.

By the 1920, however, the idea of democracy was under attack in the Muslim world from two opposite, but ultimately complementary, directions: the Marxists and the Islamic revivalists. The Bolshevik coup d’etat in Russia had split the Muslim intellectual elite of the czarist empire into two camps. Those who converted to Bolshevism survived and attained power and glory. Others who remained faithful to democratic ideals were killed or driven into exile.

The Bolsheviks “exported” their revolution with zeal, including through terrorism and military intervention in Turkey and Iran. The Ottoman Caliph and the Shah of Persia, in the name of resisting the onslaught of “heathen Bolshevism,” encouraged the Islamic revivalists. By the end of World War II and the advent of the Cold War, Muslim democrats were on the defensive. Their nations, often newly independent, were caught in a global game in which they could not develop their own strategies.

The 1950s witnessed a string of military coups that brought to power a new generation of army officers inspired by a cocktail of Marxist and Islamist ideas, and eventually backed by the Soviet Union.

Until then, such Arab countries as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria had been more or less open societies governed by parliaments that, although dominated by the wealthy, were not totally unresponsive to the masses. Elsewhere in the Muslim world, notably in Iran, Marxists, and Islamists formed united fronts to oppose authoritarian but pro-West regimes.

“The real threat to Islam does not come from the Shah,” Ayatollah Khomeini wrote in 1977. “The real threat comes from the idea of imposing on Muslim lands the Western system of democracy, which is a form of prostitution.”

The Grand Mufti of Palestine, Haj Amin al-Husseini, an adventurer who traveled to Berlin in 1938 to promote an anti-Jewish pact, had said it slightly differently in 1952: “We fight Israel not because it is Jewish. We fight it because it has a government in which the law of man replaces the law of God in the name of democracy.”

Between the mid-1950s and the mid-1990s democracy suffered what the late Persian poet Nader Naderpour called its “great occultation” in the Muslim world. This meant that democratic ideas were pushed into the background while Fascist, Marxist and Islamist themes dominated political discourse.

Now, however, democracy is back with a vengeance. It was the catchword in the Iranian presidential and parliamentary elections of 1997 and 2000. It has been written into half a dozen constitutions, from Indonesia to Algeria and passing by Bangladesh and Kuwait. Last year it was the flag around which the Afghan factions rallied to create a united front against the Taliban. Rebel students in Iran chant it with passion, and oppressed women in Pakistan and Morocco have adopted it as their battle cry.

Hashem Aghajari, the Iranian history professor sentenced to death for “blasphemy” merely for questioning the clerics’ right to rule, says: “Silence belongs to cemeteries. In a living society people talk, and the louder they talk the stronger they become.”

Rawyiah Shawi, a leader of the anti-Arafat faction in the Palestinian National Council, says: “We shall never achieve freedom until we adopt democracy.” And Kenan Makiyah, one of Iraq’s leading intellectuals, adds: “Without democracy we shall have many more Saddam Husseins in the future.” Saadeddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian intellectual who went to jail for having exposed the fraudulent nature of elections in his country, insists that “the only way for the Arabs out of their historic impasse is to adopt a democratic system.”

A generation ago, with two or three exceptions, virtually no elections were held in the Muslim world. Now, however 50 of the 53 predominantly Muslim nations hold regular elections. In the vast majority of cases the elections, held by often autocratic and corrupt regimes, are far from free and fair. But they represent the compliment that vice pays virtue.

Those familiar with the current debate within the Muslim world know that the democratic voice is being heard once again — often in the most unexpected places.

The reason is that the various ideologies of the left have almost disappeared while the different brands of Islamism have been discredited by the catastrophic experiences of Iran, the Sudan, and, more recently, Osama bin Laden’s terrorist enterprise.

Some fundamentalists have tried to confuse the debate by speaking of “Islamic democracy.” But few are deceived. “Islamic democracy is an oxymoron,” a student leader in Tehran told me. “Democracy cannot be modified by prefixes and suffixes.”

Today, the Islamists cannot field a single serious thinker or creative artist. There are no Islamist novelists, poets, filmmakers, architects, and, more obviously, no Islamist composers, painters, and sculptors. All the Islamists produce are suicide bombers and street thugs. They are fast losing the support they once had in sections of society that produce culture and sustain the economy. Political books with Islamist themes no longer sell in any significant numbers.

In every Muslim country, including the still hermetic Saudi Arabia, the democratic discourse is finding growing audiences. The West, understandably focusing on monsters such as Khomeini, Saddam, and bin Laden, has persuaded itself that democracy is a lost cause in the Muslim world.

But it is not. The West would do well to get to know “the other Muslims,” those who are trying to revive the democratic tradition within Islam, often at the risk of their lives. The world of Islam is certainly the last area of despotic darkness in the contemporary world. But some light is penetrating.

— Iranian-born Amir Taheri is author of The Cauldron: The Middle East behind the headlines. Taheri is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com. This article was originally published in the Wall Street Journal Europe on January 20, 2003.


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