Wednesday, February 9, 2011

How Democracy Became Halal

IN the Western study of medieval Islamic history, the institution of iqta — land grants from the sovereign to his soldiers — once loomed large, because scholars searched for reasons behind the Muslim failure to develop feudalism, and with it the contractual relationships that eventually led to constitutional government. But looking for parallels between the West and Islam — especially the classical Islamic heartland from North Africa to Iran — has always been politically a sad endeavor, since the region seemed so resistant to the ideas and institutions that made representative government possible.
President George W. Bush’s decision to build democracy in Iraq seemed so lame to many people because it appeared, at best, to be another example of American idealism run amok — the forceful implantation of a complex Western idea into infertile authoritarian soil. But Mr. Bush, whose faith in self-government mirrors that of a frontiersman in Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” saw truths that more worldly men missed: the idea of democracy had become a potent force among Muslims, and authoritarianism had become the midwife to Islamic extremism.
One of the great under-reported stories of the end of the 20th century was the enormous penetration of the West’s better political ideas — democracy and individual liberty — into the Muslim consciousness. For those of us who speak and read Persian, the startling evolution was easier to see. Theocracy-versus-democracy has been a defining theme of the Islamic Republic of Iran since the revolution, which harnessed both Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s religious charisma and the secular intelligentsia’s democratic aspirations. Over the last three decades, clerical Iran has nurtured an intense intellectual discourse about the duties that man owes to God.
When the legitimacy of theocracy started to unravel amid the regime’s corruption and brutality in the late 1980s, democratic ideas, including powerful democratic interpretations of the Islamic faith, roared forth. The explosion on the streets after the fraudulent presidential elections of June 2009 was just the most visible eruption of the enormous democratic pressures that had built up underneath the republic’s autocracy. More regime-threatening moments are surely coming.
Today’s Arab societies — less intellectually vibrant than Iran, in great part because their regimes have been more effective in shutting down internal debate — have become increasingly schizophrenic. Long before the tumult in Tunisia and Egypt, Arab liberal secular intellectuals had divided. Except for the fearless, who went to prison, liberals who didn’t flee their homelands usually became “court liberals,” whose views never seriously challenged the rulers.
Aware of the dismal fates of their kind in Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini, they faithfully echoed the anti-Islamist, après-moi-le-déluge fears that the region’s autocrats used in Washington whenever American officials objected to tyranny. Democracy remained for them a cherished ideal, attainable at some future date when the Islamists had lost their appeal and the despots their power.
The secular intellectuals in exile, however, more forcefully embraced the democratic cause — their newspapers, books, magazines, Web sites and, increasingly, appearances on Al Jazeera — delivered their views back home. Intellectuals of such diverse viewpoints as Kanan Makiya, Edward Said, Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Burhan Ghalioun opened up an ever-increasing liberal, democratic space in foreign and Arabic publications. Yes, some mixed their message of liberty with other “Arab” priorities: anti-Zionism, anti-Americanism and anti-imperialism. But their support of democracy was clear, and became more acute after the 9/11 attacks.

Courtesy By: The Opinion Page

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