Amongst the great jubilation and rejoicing at the ousting of a dictator should lie great trepidation and caution. The rising up of a peoples is not necessarily a first step towards democracy. Lest the Arab world forgets, it was not so long ago that it cast off the chains of colonialism only to don the straitjacket of socialist tyrannies, some opting for the vanilla option of dictatorship, not even attempting to dress it with a fanciful ideology. The Arab world has a long distance yet before it stops to pat itself on the back, this much hailed ‘first step’ is a step into the dark and thus must be both cautious and adventurous.
There are many questions left in this narrative of the revolution of the Arab world, such as what direction will it take? Is the fate of nationalist secular democracy a universal one, will the Arab nations become like Britain, where our democratic right is to decide whether the purchasing of toilet rolls on expenses is legitimate or not. There is no reason, outside of certain circles of Western scholarship, as to why we should expect the Arabs to follow the trend of Western Democracy, the leaders of which have long supported the Arab dictators whilst encouraging democracy; the classic technique of the bully who tells his victim he’s free to go, and then steps in front of him at every turn he takes.
There have been those quick to downplay any sign of Islamic elements to the revolts, assuming Islam to only manifest itself as a movement with a massive banner with Islam written on in large lettering. Interestingly BBC Newsnight’s coverage of the fleeing of Ben Ali included words from the head of the Tunisian Communist party hailing the revolution. This is no Communist revolution, the ills of dictatorship are often magnified under this system, indeed one would not be surprised if Ben Ali himself was caught amongst the protesters wielding a placard for the Communist revolution.
This is a revolt against tyranny and corruption, and no other ideology is a greater opponent to the two than Islam. Too often is corruption found in Western Democracy, whilst tyranny is somehow arm in arm with democracy in other countries. Humans are not automatically disposed against the sovereignty of the state and in favour of the sovereign populace, it is when too much sovereignty lies with a corrupt state that the people try to wrestle it back from it.
Democracy and Islam are too often assumed to be at odds with each other, when in truth it makes no sense to compare the two. Democracy is simply the label given to a broad set of values and principles, they are not by definition exclusive to it, but have in recent times been best applied through system calling themselves democratic.
Whilst the left gives too much weight to a state too easily made the weapon of the dictator, and the right gives too little weight to it as a protection of the individual against the dictator; Western democracies have generally flourished due to society providing a sufficient counterweight to state power. However, whilst these democracies can reach great highs of human organisation, they can also reach terrible lows. Western democracy is only as good as the corresponding society permits it to be, hence why American society once permitted openly racist policies and has at times triumphed over it, but fluctuations between the two have been something of an inevitability. What is thus needed are values and rights which transcend the whims of human society, truly universal human rights and equality which man cannot so easily make exclusive to one set of peoples.
The final point to be raised about the so called revolution in the Arab world is that, as yet, it has only occurred in one country, and worryingly the relative wealth of the majority in the likes of Saudi Arabia has lured their populace into becoming apolitical. Hence there seems little sign of revolt in the clique of financially rich, yet morally bankrupt, Middle Eastern countries. Contentment with general prosperity has led to a population which provides no checks on the application of an Islamic ideology so distorted and contradictory it scarcely warrants the name. How, for instance, does the reportedly ‘Islamic’ Saudi leadership legitimise providing a safe haven for Ben Ali, when the corrupt and oppressive have no place in Islam.
The Pharaohs of Saudi Arabia and other Arab kingdoms still sit comfortably, falsely assured of their own fragile sovereignty and bereft of Islamic humility and equality to which they provide the very antithesis. Must we wait for some kind of disagreement between the oil rich and the oil needy for these leaders to be deposed by external forces once again? There must be a re-think of the moral discourse of political leadership in this region. We cannot let the the conversation be dominated by the utopian talk of Islamic superstates and caliphates. We need to provide better, more plausible solutions within the Islamic framework which are in line with the spirit and teachings of Islam, rather than simply its history.
For now at least the sleeping giant remains in his deep slumber, the prodding of one adventurous individual alone is not sufficient. Unity and consistency in opposition to corrupt, despotic leadership is required, but is still in its infancy. At the same time we must have some ultimate goal or direction which we can head towards, we cannot define a movement by what it opposes alone, we must also stand for something.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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