Author’s Note: This article was previously written in 2011 without a title during the height of the Arab Spring. At that time, Hosni Mubarak has not yet stepped down and the Syrian civil war has not broke out yet.
So much that many, if not majority, of the countries in the world want to establish a secular state, the influence of a dominant culture—in this case, Islamic culture—should not be ignored. Democracy is not yet possible this time in the Arab World; revolts during the so-called Arab Spring are just plain and simple outrage over its leaders. While there might have been change in the regimes in the Middle East, these may not reflect that those who will take over—like the NTC of Libya (or will rule in the case of Egypt)—will actually commit to democracy, as the practice of some Arab rulers to change statements that can deceive the West may still continue. As a saying goes, the slaves of today may be the tyrants of tomorrow.
This may have been the reason why the West was caught off guard on the Egyptian revolution against Mubarak and reluctantly supported other revolutions in the Middle East just because Arab leaders have promised everything—from not running again, welcoming reforms, or to getting all the “rebels” and prosecute them. And if democracy should succeed there, the people of the Arab world should open themselves to this kind of change. A lot of countries—Russia for one—who have democratize have the tendency to revert back to authoritarian practices within the rules of democracy, especially when the people have tolerated such kind of practices. Democracy is—and should be—a gradual process and shall not be “imposed” in an instant.
Having democratic institutions and practices may been seen as signs of an emerging democracy, but these can also be used, exploited, utilized or employed by rulers just to maintain order, peace, and their regime as well. A lot of instances similar to this have happened in the political history of the Arab World, and current developments—if you call those as such—are not exception. The success (or would-be triumph) of some reformers in the Middle East is, in a way, a road to a desired democracy in the region, but it should provide consistent actions for it to prosper and take the right path.
An ideal democratic system for the Middle East cannot be presented by the West, as they themselves may have promoted democracy there, particularly the US in Iraq, but it reinforced historical divisions within the Muslims. In order to create such kind of system, they have to try to overcome historical events that may have prevented them to pursue democracy. People have been cautious to “love” democracy because of their history—Gaddafi’s case could be a good example. If we equate democracy to granting basic human rights, especially women’s rights, and openness in politics, then this may be the ideal type of democracy for the Arab World. Besides, the community is a basic principle of Islam; they may utilize it for democracy’s advantage.
As to ruler-ruled relationship, Muslims may utilize the invocation of the shari’a to limit the extent of power of their rulers, and possibly pave the way to a more democratic selection of who to rule, no matter how will the citizens shall call him (or her, probably). Basic Islamic principles that can be included in democracy can be welcomed in establishing a democracy for the region, and various interest groups and even political parties which can moderate the ideals of Islam—done by other Muslim-dominated countries, Indonesia for one, outside the Arab World—can be also practiced in the Middle East. Muslims may find it hard to separate religion from the practice of politics, and current events may not be able to present a system acceptable not only just for the Arabs but also for West, but an idea is not created overnight. This may sound pessimistic, but only time can tell.
Image source: Religious Freedom Coalition