Are Arab Countries Ready for Democracy?

In a previous post, I wrote about the Arab Spring's effect on women and and whether it may actually be a setback for human rights. It so happens that in the letters section of the latest Columbia magazine, there was an exchange over this issue:

In Egypt, which Khalidi holds up as a prime example of a secular, democratic movement in action, 74 percent of citizens in 2007 favored the strict application of Shariah, 91 percent favored keeping Western values out of Islamic nations, and 67 percent supported unifying all Islamic nations under a single caliphate... Egyptians' idea of democracy bears no resemblance to ours, with its separation of church and state; tolerance; freedoms of conscience, religion, and speech; and the like.

One of the social scientists who conducted this poll, Steven Kull, weighs in with a response. He says that, in Egypt as in other Arab countries, there's both "strong support for these [democratic] values as well as a desire to preserve a central role for Islam and sharia", and calls it "an inner clash of civilizations that has not been fully sorted out".

Kull cites this survey from 2009 and this one from 2007 of attitudes in mostly Islamic countries toward democracy, Islam, al-Qaeda, and the U.S. According to the 2009 survey, it's true, as the letter-writer argues, that around 70% of Egyptians say they favor the establishment of a new caliphate, and about 80% favor the application of sharia law [p.23]. But the 2007 survey, which has different questions, paints a somewhat different picture: it found that 92% of Egyptians endorsed greater global openness and communication, 82% endorsed democracy, and 88% agreed that "people of any religion should be free to worship according to their own beliefs" [p.25].

These are contradictory responses, but I doubt that Egypt is unique in this regard. I strongly suspect that, if you asked Americans whether this country should be governed by the principles of the Bible, large majorities would answer yes, but if you asked whether Americans should have freedom to practice the religion of their choice, large majorities would also say yes, even though those two answers are utterly incompatible with each other. What we have, in both cases, is most likely an example of emotionally loaded phrases that reflexively evoke a positive response. (Arab citizens in particular may associate the idea of the caliphate with Islam's golden age.)

That doesn't mean that we have nothing to be concerned about, but I do think that the democratic revolutions in the Arab world are the best chance we'll have for a long time to bring about a new Enlightenment within Islam. We have no right to expect that people will ever become more ethical, more enlightened, or more secular under the clutch of tyranny. As imperfect as it is, as noisy and lurching as it is, democracy is the means by which people can argue, debate and persuade each other, and therefore the only real means by which moral progress can be made. And the fact that they came about by people rising up and taking to the streets, seizing power back from dictators, may give those people a sense of ownership, of interest in the fate of their own country, that they didn't have when they had no say in how it was governed.

Voter infatuation with sharia and political Islamism is alarming, but democracy may diminish its appeal as well. As long as Islamist parties remained shut out of governance, they could wear the mantle of martyrdom and proclaim that an Islamic state would have solved everyone's problems. But if they're elected to power, they'll have to deliver on those promises, and risk voter disenchantment if they can't. What's more, the necessity of actually participating in government - forming coalitions, making agreements - is often a moderating force on religious parties.

This is a best-case scenario, of course. Democracy may yet lead to sectarian fighting and instability, or the rise of new theocratic regimes. But even if we fear that, what could we possibly do to intervene? I see no options other than forcibly invading these countries and reinstalling a government more to our liking, which obviously isn't going to happen. The Arab nations have decisively taken their destiny into their own hands, and at the very least, they deserve a chance to show the world that they can make the best use of their new freedom.

Image: Egyptian women wait in line to vote during the March 2011 constitutional referendum. Credit: monasosh, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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