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Democracy in the Middle East


Democracy in the Middle East, says the conventional American wisdom, will promote peace and freedom. Despite failures in Iraq and elsewhere, this policy seems to still have quite a following and is still the basis of officially declared American policy.

President George Bush said:

We must confront the moral relativism that views all forms of government as equally acceptable and thereby consigns whole societies to slavery.

Implementing this lofty sentiment is easier said than done however.

If we are to truly rely on moral absolutism, then we must admit that lack of free elections in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, and lack of civil rights there, and similarly lack of civil rights in the Israeli occupied West Bank and the Hamas ruled Gaza, are equally as wrong as lack of free elections and civil liberties in Iran or Syria. American policy doesn't seem to be implementing the principles. Make no mistake. I am not claiming that the Iranian regime that persecutes Bahai and Assyrian Christians and Alevi and other religious and ethnic minorities is comparable to the Israeli or Lebanese governments, but the reason for preferring Israeli democracy or Lebanese democracy to the Iranian system is precisely due to moral relativism, rather than moral absolutism. Moral relativism doesn't imply that all forms of government are equally acceptable. Moral absolutism must imply that all forms of government are undemocratic and therefore all are equally unacceptable. In an absolute moral system, evil is evil, and that's the end of discussion. Moral relativism makes the judgment as to what is more democratic in each instance, a matter for the people to decide through their democratic institutions.

The advocates of democracy and moral absolutism must also face the probability that free elections in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria would not result in election of democratic and peace loving governments in the Western sense, but rather would bring advocates of radical Islamism to power, as they did in the Palestinian National Authority and as they did previously in Algeria, though the results were "undemocratically" suppressed. Clearly, the rise of Al-Qaeda or Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, for example would not produce more civil rights or liberty for its people,

Democracy has many meanings, but a democratic society must reflect the will of the people in some way. It must be self-rule. We cannot say that in America, the definition of democracy is exercise of the will of the American people, and in Iran or Lebanon, democracy must also be exercise of the will of the American people. That won't do at all!

What is to be done if the will of the people in a given country is to have a political system and laws that westerners consider "undemocratic?" In America, one does not have the freedom to have several wives. Laws that enforce polygamy can be viewed as arbitrary moral legislation. There is nothing inherently undemocratic about one woman having several husbands or one man having several wives. but that is how Americans made their laws. In America the law limits funding of stem cell and cloning research in an arbitrary way, because of admitted religious considerations. In Iran, there is a different religion, so such research is permitted. What is more "democratic?" What provides more "liberty?"

In Turkey we have a genuine concrete dilemma. The founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was the first to bring a measure of democracy, in the Western sense, to a modern Muslim majority state. He did it by severely limiting the religious rights and prerogatives of the Muslim religion in Turkey, and admittedly, by abridging the national aspirations of Kurds, Armenians and others included in the new Turkish state. Turkey is truly a dilemma for the moral absolutist. The political system that has evolved there is, in my opinion, much better than the Ottoman Empire it replaced, and generally provide more political and personal liberty than most other Muslim states in the Middle East. By their own processes, the Turkish people chose a constitution and government and a court system. Those processes were not always totally democratic, but they might compare favorably with the way in which the Americans created a constitution that gave the vote only to propertied white males, and allowed that Africans could be considered property and counted as 3/5 of a person for voting purposes. In America, the Communist party and the Nazi party are illegal political organizations. In Germany, equally democratic today, the Nazi party is also outlawed and it is forbidden to teach that the Holocaust did not take place. These laws express the will of the people of those countries, and there are good reasons for them according to the understanding of their peoples, in the context of their societies.

Under the Turkish constitution, it may be illegal for a party to propose or enact certain laws because it was considered by the founder of the Turkish Republic, that those laws would lead to a return of undemocratic Muslim law. Now there is a proposal to allow the Hijab in Turkish universities. The advocates of the law are the AKP party, democratically elected, on behalf of young ladies who seem to believe that Islam is right about the place of women in society. They want the freedom to wear the Hijab. With the Hijab, must come Sha'aria law, and that would probably include polygamy and other practices that are certainly unacceptable in the West. The Turkish High Court is due to rule on whether or not the party that made this law is illegal. It would appear to be the affair of the Turks, to be decided by Turks, one way or the other. Isn't that how democracy works?

If in the United States, a party were to propose a law declaring nationalization of the means of production or a racist regime, the Supreme Court would be obliged to rule according to the constitution, regardless of whether or not the majority of the people wanted such a law. It would be unthinkable that, for example, the Chinese government would interfere and advise American judges that the Communist party cannot be banned. It would be ludicrous for Mr. Ahmadinejad in Iran to demand that Holocaust denial must be allowed in Germany or Austria, because the laws against it limit democracy. To be sure, there are those who take this view as well. But that is the business of the Austrians and the Germans. Yet regarding Turkey, we are witness to a very similar phenomena, since the Europeans, and now Americans, are attempting to influence the Turkish court. The Europeans and Americans want to bend the Turkish judicial system to their point of view, in order provide for "democracy" for the Turkish people! To be fair, the American official observed, after expressing his government's views:

It's up to Turkey to work that out. It's not appropriate for the US to set any ultimatum or threats.

The Europeans were not so circumspect. Democracy, in Europe is apparently not the expression of the will of the people of each state, but the will of the European Union, and this will can also be extended to states seeking eventual accession to the EU. But not all states are created equal. The French are allowed to ban the Hijab, but the Turks must not touch parties that propose to allow it.

In Germany, the Nazi party is illegal because legalizing it would create a greater danger to democracy and freedom. In Turkey, parties that propose legislation of Islamic laws may be illegal because they violate the principle of separation of church and state, a very western and very democratic principle, that the Turks decided they must implement in the way that they did it. It seems that democracy is a matter of prioritizing and compromising and balancing various evils - moral relativism - rather than imposition of moral absolutes. In each society, the compromise reflects the solution that the people of that country find to be optimal for their culture and society and political realities at any given time.

Anyone who wants to bring about democracy in the states of the Middle East must deal with each of the difficult problems that we have discussed and many more. But this is an issue and an occupation for reformists in the Middle East, one that everyone in each country needs to solve by democratic debate and a democratic political process. There is no room for imposition of foreign edicts in the name of "democracy."

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000704.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 1 Comment

I wonder why we pro-democracy advocates don't think of certain situations in the Middle East as proto-democracies? Iran has local elections (I know that not all candidates can run, but still) that result in the election of non-government candidates and embarrass the government. Egypt has relatively free elections for boards of directors, but no freedom for parliamentary elections. The structures of full democracy are there in embryonic form, but Western might can't make them come into their own. Even England took a thousand years to evolve from a monarchical dictatorship to a parliament-run representative state.

Posted by Zeno @ 06/30/2008 04:51 AM CST

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