Democracy: A Universal Human Right

Article Summary
Many Western commentators have criticized the Arab Spring for reasons that Abed al-Hussein Shaaban finds tinged with double-standards. He here outlines two of the more common arguments against Arab democracy, and critiques them with reference to Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism. The late Palestinian-American philologist Edward Said (1935-2003) has been highly influential in Western and Middle Eastern academic circles since the appearance of his book Orientalism in 1978. He objected to the way Arab and Islamic civilization have been “essentialized” in Europe and North America, and claimed that stereotyped portrayals of the Arabs helped justify colonialism and, later, Western military intervention in Arab and Islamic countries.

Such ideas and claims have played a major role in prolonging the duration of some regimes, negatively impacting the thinking of some intellectuals and political elites and paralyzing [their agency]. This has resulted in a sense of despair among the people - whether relating to the domestic sphere or foreign affairs; whether theoretically or in practice, adding to the citizens’ misery and their longing for democratic change and transformation.

Some political forces and figures took these theories almost for granted, while they were promoted by the ruling regimes and backed by ideologues and intellectuals, including those calling for change, but sometimes in an abstract way and in reference to others - not to rulers who explain their ongoing presence by the absence of alternatives. [These rulers] claim that the time is not yet ripe for change [to justify their rule]. They resort to implementing [limited] reforms and invoking foreign conspiracy theories, to which they link everything.

[Arab political actors] were not the only ones to adopt such theories. In fact, some foreign powers - especially influential ones - resorted to them as well. This has formed an intellectual and practical barrier to the longed-for democratic change, making democracy seem like an impossible goal - especially in the Arab world.

Ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring, researchers have cited Orientalist theories that criticized change [in the Arab world]. These theories resonated with developments on the ground - especially following the outbreak of violence and chaos [in some of the countries witnessing uprisings] - giving some parties cause for concern and spreading a mood of pessimism about the straightforward victories of the Islamists in elections in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries.

[In this article], we will try to focus on two basic theories, the first of which says that Arabs do not need democracy, whereas the second critiques Islam as a religion of violence with no room for democratic change.

According to the first theory, Arabs do not need democracy as much as they need development. If we look at this theory from a different perspective, we find that it may involve a racist justification [for withholding] democracy and human rights from the Arabs, as opposed to other peoples and nations. But [these rights] belong to all humans, especially considering that the overwhelmingly majority [of these rights] are universal. Every nation [i.e. national group / society]has a way of absorbing these human concepts, which result from humanity’s [universal impulses, or] thought.

It is true that Arab citizens need food, medicine, employment, health, education and housing; but who said that man can live by bread alone?  Who said that economic, social and cultural rights can be secured in the absence of civil and political rights; the equality of men and women before the law; the right to citizenship; to periodic elections; to [the peaceful transfer of power]; to  accountability under the rule of law, i.e.  to the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary? To be protected from torture; to have a nationality, a legal personality and other elements of the democratic and peaceful devolution of [powers] - especially as regards assuming senior positions - as well as enjoying the freedom of [democratic] participation, expression, belief, political organization and association?

In this regard, human rights activists were outraged by [the statement of former] French President Jacques Chirac, made in 2003 while he was visiting Tunisia. He attempted to bolster the image of Ben Ali’s regime in the field of human rights by saying that it provided its citizens with food, employment and housing. [Chirac] missed the fact that many rights and freedoms had been eliminated under this regime, which offended human dignity. The Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan revolutions, along with the widespread protest movements in Yemen, Syria, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Iraq and other countries, rose up to demand freedoms, rights and dignity as well as to fight corruption. [These movements] have managed to refute the theory that [Arabs] do not need democracy. In fact, [this theory] undermines [Arabs], for it emanates from Orientalists and is based on an unwarranted assumption of superiority. President Sarkozy tried to reassure its ally, the Ben Ali regime, and even attempted to support him in eradicating the protest movement; but [these efforts] were soon overtaken by events, amid widespread media criticism of [Sarkozy’s] opportunist behavior - which was subsequently behind his call for NATO military intervention in Libya.

The second theory states that Islam is an intolerant religion which preaches violence and terrorism and whose teachings contradict democracy and the International Bill of Human Rights. Therefore, logically speaking, Arabs and Muslims are not eligible for democracy, the rule of law or respect of [their] human rights. Such a theory may also be based on racism, which underestimates the civilizations, cultures and religions of [different] nations and peoples. Despite the fact that Islam is the religion of the majority of the Arab region, it is the religion of non-Arab peoples as well. The current number of Muslims across the world nearly totals 1.5 billion people - so can we cancel this huge number from the lists of democratic countries?

If a lot of Westerners are currently talking about Turkey as a secular country with an Islamic background, or about [its] moderate and open form of Islam, are Turkey or other countries [to be viewed] as separate from the religion of the majority of Muslims? Despite the fact that the teachings of democracy and human rights are comprehensive, universal and global, they may contain peculiarities dependent on the cultures, civilizations and history of each nation or people. These general and mandatory principles can be nurtured equally by different civilizations and cultures, including Islamic cultures. If each civilization is a branch, then Arabs and Muslims are proud of their Arab and Islamic branch of [human] civilization, which embraces the entire world - including Orientalists.

Any intellectual or cultural interactions and interpretations can be discussed and debated within our Arab societies and [in dialogue with] the West, just like many rights and freedoms are controversial in the West itself. The only difference between us is that the West has well-established institutions to protect democracy, which are improving with the passage of time. [These institutions] have witnessed gradual developments [the culmination which] lie still in the future. In fact, we [as Arabs] still lack institutions - especially regulatory ones - that hold [leaders and governments] to account according to the rule of law and the principle of transparency.

Such institutions do not emanate from religion. In fact, they exist in proportion to the extent to which a society is developed. [They may emanate from] its determination to achieve comprehensive development, which extends to political, economic, social and legal development. This also includes the contribution of civil society and the establishment of principles for [democratic] participation. Such a country is India, which - despite the fact that it embraces multiculturalism and national and ethnic plurality, with different religions and different languages - has, as a developing country, chosen democracy, and [in this] it has largely succeeded. Moreover, despite inequality and the social problems that plague it, [India] has managed to establish a sound legal and human rights system for the development of democracy and the respect of human rights. Islamic Turkey is another example. Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, has established a form of a democratic rule based on the devolution of power and the rule of law, without allowing religion to become an obstacle.

Terrorism has no religion, no nationality, no sense of nationalism, no country and no language - just like democracy, which is a system of government that every [country] can benefit from. In fact, every [country] can employ its mechanisms, taking into account [that country’s] degree of development and the peculiarities of its [culture and society]. Democracy can be nurtured in every [country], while taking into consideration the culture, history and values ​​of its traditional civilization, in tandem with the global civilization currently [emerging].

Democracy’s wave reached Europe gradually, and it has taken more than 200 years to achieve for this advanced [continent] to attain its present condition. It is important to keep in mind that [democratization in Europe] was only  completed by the elimination of the dictatorship of Salazar in Portugal, the death of Franco in Spain and the liberation from the rule of the generals in Greece. Moreover, Eastern Europe entered the stage of democratic change in the late 1980s, like many countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

The Arab world may now be ready for this long-awaited and historic change, whether or not it is criticized by Orientalism. This is the reality of the Arab Spring, which will ensure the establishment of new equations, thus leading the Arab world to evolve and defy all of the historical attempts aimed at curbing or affecting [its evolution towards democracy].

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