Pluralism is considered a vital part of any civilized society. The values of liberal democracy are firmly rooted in that belief. Protection from majority oppression and minority tyranny is a hard balance to achieve in any context and every nation-state is prone to fluctuations and systematic erosion of that balance. That is why attainment of democracy is not even half the battle and as Bangladeshis we are no strangers to that realization. That is why when we hear assertions of ‘democracy in bloom’ in the Middle East, we get a little hopeful and a little uneasy.
Democracy (or the proclamation of it) is by and large considered to be a positive step toward progress. Why? Well mostly because everything else we have tried, failed quite miserably. Yet upon closer inspection at democratic progress we might find that, as more and more countries became ‘democratic’, progress toward liberalism has stalled in many states.
One of the more influential trends within democracy has been the rise of the illiberal democracies in the last few decades. While there are some disagreements among scholars like Fareed Zakaria and Levitsky (who coined the term “competitive authoritarianism) about how democratic these illiberal democracies are, what is not disputed is that these states exist.
Looking at the composition of Middle Eastern values, history and above all the reactionary nature of the politics, it is fair to say that despite the optimism of a new dawn in Middle East, the newly found democratic states will resemble illiberal democracies like Israel, and Iran, as opposed to liberal democracies that have dominated European and American understanding of what democracies should look like.
It is a contentious move to put Arab states in the same category as Israel. But the fact of the matter is that the Israeli democracy despite its initial promise of being a liberal democracy has become more or less an illiberal democracy where suffrage and equal rights are not extended to minority groups like the Israeli Arabs. And this phenomenon of limiting the rights of the minority is quite prominent with Iran as well. So the two somewhat functional democracies in Middle East are democracies that have been under siege from outside forces (Iran being under pressure from the West, Israel being under pressure from the rest). And this is unlikely to change in the near future.
So the countries that have newly elected governments or are in transition, will inevitably replicate some of the ills and woes of what is inherent within a specific cultural/ political climate. Egypt, Libya and Tunisia are already going through a process of de-liberalization based on religious expectation/attachment. A gradual erosion of co-habitation with Israel is inevitable, as it will be impossible for any leader to get any political traction without anti-Israeli views. Along with a more illiberal foreign policy, the domestic policies have also started to exude a sense of cultural attachment at the expense of secular attachment. The latter being one of the more prominent component of all liberal democracies, it is no surprise that Middle Eastern democracies will be viewed as illiberal.
The issue with minority groups has always been a point of contention within liberal democracies. To fully comprehend how this issue plays out within societies that prescribe to multiculturalism, we have to first focus on the theoretical aspect of the issue. Multiculturalism is considered one of the basic markers of a liberal democracy. The promotion of diversity as a primary component of liberty has existed since conception of the U.S. constitution. Liberalism as it is understood, within the framework of liberal democracies, has evolved and can be assessed as having nuanced and differing definitions. However, the general trend within scholarly circles concerning the definition and the principles of liberalism can be divided into two groups. The first school of thought understands liberalism as a dyad of political and moral philosophy. This idea while having roots in ancient Greek thinkers is explicitly addressed in the works of John Rawls’s seminal work called “Political Liberalism” which addressed some of the flaws of his initial theory of justice. Rawls’s understanding of liberalism within the framework of the state can be assessed as “thin liberalism”, which came under scrutiny from Michael Sandel and Susan Okin, who posited the idea of a more comprehensive liberalism, or “thick liberalism”. Martha Nassbaum who advocated a “thin liberal” position argued that in the case of conflicting values, the political liberals should promote a fair balance in each particular case, as opposed to having individual or gender equality be an outright determinant of justice within a liberal framework of state. So as we can see there are some legitimate disagreements among scholars in how to address this friction of group rights, vs individual rights and what should take precedence, just within the liberal camps. And the introduction of multiculturalists like Will Kymlicka who viewed this specific issue in his studies of multicultural societies like Canada and Switzerland, added another dimension to this debate. Kymlicka agrees on principle that there needs to be more scrutiny into intra-cultural rights of groups that live under the umbrella of liberal democracies, but use that protection to propagate illiberal customs to its own members. But Kymlicka departs from the notion that individual right trumps all groups rights (as suggested by the comprehensive liberal camps), and proposes a notion of differentiating and dissecting group rights and providing a framework for them to exist within liberal democracies that will indeed help create a more inclusive conception of justice.
If we consider these theoretical and eventually practical aspect of liberalization and democratic values, we will see that none of the countries in middle east are equipped to progress sufficiently in a manner that would incorporate minority rights as one of the primary foundations of their states. We send thousands of Bangladeshis to these countries to build their minarets and sky scrappers, raise their children and serve them food, yet the rights they enjoy there are not only limited but also open to dissolution. So the understanding of protection of rights of the minority (or the most vulnerable) has not permeated the collective psyche of these states.
The most prominent democracy in the Middle East, is unquestionably Israel, and it has a rather dodgy record of protecting its minorities. The second on the list is Iran (though some scholars would frown at the idea of considering Iran to be a democracy, but the bar is set pretty low for illiberal democracies, and thus Iran qualifies as one), which has a consistent record of suppression of dissent along with subjugating its minority groups. So Middle East has the template for illiberal democracies and nothing else. And due to the cultural precepts that will dictate policy in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, we are seeing a steady rise in democratic hostility toward another illiberal nation-state of Israel and vice versa. The by-product of this new found wiggle room is also the reason we are seeing a solidified effort from these countries to challenge pre-existing US foreign policy in the form of removing themselves from the sphere of U.S. influence when it comes to issues concerning Israel and Saudi Arabia. The popularity of various conservative Muslim political parties is making it impossible for a leader to provide a basis for stable peace in the Middle East (along with Israel’s unwillingness to expand it’s settlement), as that would mean political suicide. The secular values, which had a rather uneasy existence under rulers like Gaddafi, Saddam and Mubarak, have already been discarded as they are viewed with disdain and incompatibility in a more religious, more conservative domestic sphere. And whether or not that is a good thing or a bad thing for the country is up for a rather intense debate.
The lessons that we are learning from the Arab spring is that you can’t suddenly become a transparent, just society and democracy.
Democracy is a progressive march toward those qualities as a society and to superimpose them is not only risky but can be quite divisive (in the case of Iraq, outright bloody). And the cheerleading of democracy for democracy’s sake only raises expectation while the condition on the ground gets bleaker by the moment. We should be relieved that the regimes of Saddam and Gaddafi are gone with their rape chambers and torture gulags, but that is no excuse for being irrational and/or punch-drunk giddy over the coming of democracy to the Middle East.
Jyoti Omi Chowdhury is a War Theorist and a Visiting Researcher at Center for Sustainable Development.