Thursday, September 14, 2006

Liberals And The Chances For Democracy In The Middle East - By EHSANI2

Liberals And The Chances For Democracy In The Middle East – Third In line?
September 14, 2006

It has often been suggested that the Arab world is not ready for western style liberal democracy. One often hears that there is something unique or intrinsic about the Arab culture that inhibits democratic governance. Such sentiments have made it possible for the region’s dictators to widely suppress all basic principals of individual freedom, civil liberties, accountability and free elections.

While a culture of tribalism is often sited as a reason, other traditional interpretations of authoritarianism in the region point the blame at its colonial past. One can argue that just like the French and British before them, American foreign policy has invested and promoted military-security institutions at the expense of civil-legal ones in order to maintain control over the region’s restive societies and its vast energy resources.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, young army officers used military coups to reach power at the expense of a number of the regimes that were affiliated with the British and French colonialists. Regrettably, the new Arab leaders over promised and under achieved.

The old colonial rule simply gave way to a traditional brand of authoritarian tyranny. Almost without exception, the new military regimes have had little respect for human rights and have come to use whatever means necessary to silence political opponents.

The above course of events is not dissimilar to the experience of Latin America. Just like the Arabs, the Hispanic world was thought to be naturally more authoritarian and hierarchical than western Anglo-Saxon cultures. It was long argued, therefore, that the continent would never be ready to part with its own brand of authoritarianism that has followed its own colonial past. Indeed, during the second half of the twentieth century, a number of countries in the region became hostage to authoritarian regimes that were unparalleled in their brutality and suppression of civil society and political movements.

U.S foreign policy did not help. By favoring dictators like Pinochet over the democratic (Socialist) government of Salvador Allende in Chile, the U.S. government put its weight behind dictators that promised stability, anticommunism, and economic trade and investment opportunities. In “Thank God they’re on our side: The U.S. and right wing-Dictatorships”, David Schmitz, notes how this policy conflicted with a theoretical embrace of the principles of liberal democracy and human rights. U.S. officials viewed Latin Americans as racially inferior and strong authoritarian leadership as necessary for economic modernization.

Just like all others in history, the Latin American Authoritarian regimes performed poorly in terms of economic development, and together with extensive human rights violations, they ultimately lost legitimacy internally. Democracy soon emerged. Economic growth soon followed. Note how this took place in spite of, rather than because of, U.S. policies.

But if democracy emerged in Latin America in spite of U.S. policies, should one therefore be optimistic about the prospects of a similar scenario in our own region?

As I will explain below, I think that the Islamists of our region will prove a major obstacle in this endeavor. Latin American liberals benefited from the fact that they did not have to compete with their own religious fundamentalists for power as the vacuum emerged. We do.

Enter Islam and the Middle East:

As the Latin American dictators fell from power, it was that region’s liberals that filled the vacuum. Regrettably, the liberals of our region come a distant third behind their current dictators and the Islamists who are waiting second in line. Unless something is done, if and when our dictators are removed (military regimes rarely leave power unilaterally), it is most likely going to be the Islamists rather than the Arab liberals who will be the next winners in our region. This should not come as a surprise.

With most other political and social groups decimated by the state, Islamists have had the exclusive benefit of building large constituencies, thanks to the social and economic services they provide to a suffering population (Hamas and Hezbollah are perfect examples). The secular Arab rulers have in the meantime masterfully used the fear of Islamism to perpetuate their absolute control.

Arab liberals, in the meantime face a catch 22 situation. Were their dictators to fall from power, the Islamists who aim to abolish secular, social and political order and replace it with an Islamic one will be their new masters. Otherwise, were their current dictators to remain at the helm, one can only expect more human rights abuses, arbitrary arrest and detention, fundamentally unfair trials in security courts, infringements on privacy rights, police corruption, restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly and association.

Some hopeful commentators and scholars have argued that mainstream Islamists have changed. They point to signs that these Islamists have now come to conclude that democracy is the most effective mechanism to guard dictatorships and protect the human rights of the Muslim populace. This writer is hardly as optimistic.

The liberals of our region face a massive uphill battle because their third position in line renders them a target from both the dictators and the Islamists. In the minds of many Muslims, liberal democracy is synonymous with western political hegemony and domination. As the scholar Fawaz Gerges argues, democracy tends to be seen as a manipulative tool wielded by Western powers to intervene in Arab/Muslim internal affairs and to divide and conquer.

Some Islamic movements have tried to reengineer the traditional western liberal democratic values to give them a more Islamic look. This effort is unlikely to succeed.
Islamicizing liberal democracy does not work. Indeed, Islam and western liberal democratic principals are incompatible.

Our dictators in the meantime have masterfully exploited the parties that lie behind them in the pecking order.

In the case of Syria, the risks of the Islamists have been more than hypothetical. The only serious challenge to the country’s authoritarian rule arose in the late 1970’s from the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood who rejects the basic value of the secular Baath and object to rule by the Alawis, whom they consider heretical. In response to the uprising, the government crushed the insurgency of course. Syria’s liberals have paid the price since then. All calls for democracy and civil rights have been implicitly and explicitly rejected as the regime presented itself both internally and externally as the sole political force that can rescue the country from the threat of “dangerous ideologies”. This is a form of threat construction. In Latin America, the threat of communism or capitalism. In Syria and other parts of the Middle East, the desire to oppose Israel and later Islamic fundamentalism proved an important motivating factor.

Had it not been for the Islamic fundamentalists, one can argue that the Syrian regime and others in the region will sooner or later lose their legitimacy in a world dominated by the reemergence of democratic governments throughout the world. It is the opinion of this writer that the inability of our liberal voices to occupy the second spot constitutes a major hurdle that has dramatically slowed democracy in our region. The Islamists need to give way. The notion that our present dictators are our only choice against “dangerous ideologies” is a card that needs to be taken away from them.

In the meantime, those that condone the actions of our region’s dictators and make excuses for their horrendous track record should be exposed and put to shame. On the other hand, the liberals amongst us who risk their lives as they oppose the current status quo deserve our utmost respect. Progressive forces in our region are regrettably a small minority. The international community ought to identify them and support them at the expense of the autocratic regimes that have crushed the aspirations of their citizens and drove them into poverty and despair. In the meantime, Islamists need to be constantly reminded that they have no room in politics and civil society. Rather than holding banners proclaiming that “Islam is the solution”, they have to be reminded that they have been one of the main obstacles that have slowed our region’s march from authoritarianism towards liberal democracy.


At 9/14/2006 06:45:00 PM, Blogger why-discuss said...

I agree with you that the chances of liberals to take over countries after a dictatorship is rather slim. It seems to me that islamization is unavoidable because the islamic groups are organized socially while the liberals are divided about the conflicting views of democracy, western influences and are usually intellectuals with very little access to the mass. If Ataturk was not a 'liberal' dictator, Turkey would not have a democracy now
Religion have a direct access to the mass and therefore it is the most effective way of passing messages in the absence of any appealling other option.
I think Islamization is unavoidable , but it could be a necessary step to a certain form of democracy, re invented for the moslem countries.
I consider that Iran is gradually, with ups and down, moving to a democracy. We are seeing, despite some excesses too, the formation of political parties, opposition, dialogs and I think Iran will give an example of a country that have tasted Islam as a model of society and that is adapting it to the modern world. No where in the middle east, 60% of the University students are women, nowwhere in the middle east women plays soccer etc.. It is true that Iran is Shia and the Shia have always been progressive. It is not sure Sunni countries may do the same.

At 9/14/2006 08:57:00 PM, Blogger Abu Kareem said...


Why are the only alternatives to a dictatorship an Islamic theocracy or a liberal Western democracy? The majority of muslims, I would argue, don't want to live in an Islamic theocracy. Yet they are still muslims and Arab and do not necessarily identify with what you are calling liberal Western democratic values. So the worst thing Arab lberals can do is treat all Islamists like untcouchables. This is the best way to guarantee the liberals irrelevance in the future of the region. There has to be an ongoing and frank exchange between the liberals and the Islamists. There has to be a third way; a way of establishing representative governments, the rule of law and individual rights that take into account the majority's religious sensibilities while preserving the rights of religious minorities.

At 9/14/2006 09:31:00 PM, Blogger majedkhaldoon said...

between 1954-1958 ,in Syria, we lived democrasy, infact that was what led to union,the fact that Islamist are NOW,supporting the Asad family,if regime changes,democrasy is the only way,also Islam is not against democrasy,(wa amruhom shoora baynahom),the system in Syria, where every mosque is headed by Imam,who make speechs friday,gives tremendous power to the islamist,this is not going to change,in democrasy there are other way to listen to speeches,this is a long discussion.

At 9/14/2006 09:51:00 PM, Blogger majedkhaldoon said...

Asef Shawkat is on his way out.

At 9/14/2006 10:19:00 PM, Blogger ugarit said...

Too bad that this article did not mention that syria had the first free multi-party elections in the arab world in the 1950's. It would have also been appropriate to mention that syria then had a democratic government for several years. In other words, this is not new to Syria.

At 9/14/2006 10:22:00 PM, Blogger ugarit said...

The union with Nasser's Egypt brought about the end of democratic syria, since Nasser apposed a multi-party system. What a shame.

At 9/14/2006 11:40:00 PM, Blogger Philip I said...

abu kareem said: "Why are the only alternatives to a dictatorship an Islamic theocracy or a liberal Western democracy? The majority of muslims, I would argue, don't want to live in an Islamic theocracy."

I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. The silent majority is neither organised nor extremist. But oppression tends to radicalise people's inner feelings. As soon as the source of oppression is removed, people, especially in Syria, will tend towards moderation, compromise and pluralismm because these values are deeply rooted in their psyche.

The challenge for liberals is to convince religious and ethnically-organised groups that a democratic and secular political system is the best framework for social harmony and economic development. However, such a system needs to be protected by a strong, uncorrupted and secular army. Otherwise, it will be too tempting and too easy for exremists and groups seeking vengence to sieze power.

At 9/15/2006 12:11:00 AM, Blogger kachumbali said...

@phillip i

As soon as the opression is removed, will people in Syria tend towards moderation in the same way people did after the Iranian revolution?

I am sorry to be this sceptic, but in my opinion you neglect the part of 'removing the opression'...

Who will? As everyone stated before in the article and the posts, liberals in general have too little 'mass' to induce the necessary momentum all by themselves in societies with strong islamist (which is not necessarily the same as Muslim!) factions. So, who then would 'remove the opression'? One characteristic of opression is, well, that it is opressing and doesn't really allow other power blocks to emerge, at least not willingly. Attaturk, and maybe even Franco in Spain, are exceptions.

Sorry to be even more sceptic: as long as there still is enough pressure from the top religious and other faultlines in Syria will not emerge, but as soon as there is change looming this will change. I think a Lebanonisation (in the worst sense) of Syria would then be inevitable...

At 9/15/2006 12:23:00 AM, Blogger kachumbali said...

And just another general thought:

What do you define as 'Western Democracy'? The so-called West has at least 2 epicenters right now. The history of Europe has been dominated by Anti-westernism. For instance, Germany's reaction at the beginning of the 19th century to French and Napoleonic rule over Europe was characterized by a romanticism (Authors like Fichte, Herder, who inspired Ba'athism and Pan-Arabism) and a deeply Anti-Western feeling; The French were seen as being modern and soulless, with their efficiency, their culture was characterized as rootless, the French were seen as blood- and soulless technocrats setting out to rule and opress the world, denying Germany and other states their true nature....

Anyway, point is: Anti-Westernism, Occidentalism, didn't just come up in the 20th century with the decolonisation, but is something which has emerged from the West itself.

You could interpret the recent rifts betwee the 'European' and 'American' approach to world politics in that way; the popularity of such slogans as 'Americans are from MArs, Europeans are from Venus' only illustrates that there is a deep divide in the heart of the so-called 'West'.

Using categories like 'Western Democracies' is not very precise, same way as throwing all Middle Eastern countries into one pot, or speaking of one 'Africa' or even seeing China as one cultural and political entity.

Often its the differences which are harder to see which hint at unsolved conflicts and also let new ideas emerge, and which serve as the engine of history's dynamicism...

Beware of 'big categories'!

I will stop my rant now and go back to work...

At 9/15/2006 01:03:00 AM, Blogger SimoHurtta said...

Ehsani2 the Christian legacy or burden is very present in the so called Western liberal democracies even today. And thanks to US political development and tactical moves the influence and visibility of Christianity is in politics growing especially in USA but also here in Europe. Also we in Finland have had before and have now those who are trying to mix politics and religion, or better said use religion in their political games. So far their influence and possibilities are rather small but when tensions begin to grow they came out of their caves.

Who can honestly say that religion (=Christianity) has no influence in USA politics? Certainly “Good Bless America” president would not say that. USA has also very strong extreme religious movements who are trying and succeeding in getting political influence. The difference between these “Pat Robertson” movements and Islamic movements in Middle East is actually very small. Both get their support and “fuel” from the present situation and political climate and use religion without shame in politics.

The sad truth is that the aggressive secular and religious Jews, who built their nation on religion and racial differences and USA with its “sick” dominance seeking policy, have given all political weapons to those who see Islam as the only solution. What have the local Liberals to offer or to show? Islamists can show at least modest success in resent years but what have the so called liberal democrats to show in Middle East. Is there a single country in Middle East were the liberals are in power or even have had modest political success?

The so called Western Liberal Democracy has been built on Christian tradition and has been “developed” by Christians. Can we seriously believe that it can be simply exported to Far East and Middle East or is it more probable that the local people develop an own Middle Eastern democracy model based on their needs and traditions? Iran was already on the route to be transformed to a more practical Islamic “democracy” but then George W. Bush came and turned the clock back. Before CIA took care of turning the democracy clock back in Middle East, like in Latin America and South East Asia. Always when a nationalistic movement emerged which wanted a fair price for their nation’s raw materials and workforce “the Western Liberal Democracy” came to “help”. So no wonder, that Western Liberal Democracy has some public relation “problems” in those countries.

An interesting point is how liberal and democratic is actually USA, which pretends to be the forerunner of democracy, with its two party system, where the winner takes all and where the registration of voters is mildly said questionable. From a European viewpoint as democratic as China if the would be with the options of a moderate and conservative communist party. I personally see it amusing that the religious and in many ways undemocratic USA (and its Arab supporters) demand the Middle East to secular and liberal.

At 9/15/2006 01:54:00 AM, Blogger kachumbali said...

to my finnish co-european:

I would like to question some of your points:

Western Liberal Democracy has been built on the base of more or less Christian societies, true, but the biggest archievement, the rule of law, is based upon division of Church and State, and also the division of secular powers (the famous trias...). It cannot be the question of exporting democracy, since some core values common to Western-European and North American tradition resulted in very different ways of organizing a state. Normally 2 major types are discerned: Presidential, parliamentary democracy. Nowadays the so-called semi-presidential modell seems to be spreading, but I digress.

Can it be 'exported', can democratic rule be extended to other regions than Europe and NA? I believe so, but only when certain pre-conditions are met. The main problem about democracy was and always is the demos, the people. Who is allowed to rule, to participate? Which is the smallest entity recognized & valued by a society?

Only when the individual and its unalienable rights are properly recognized and respected can a democratic system survive. So far the declaration of Human rights by some 30+ Islamic states trying to bring together human rights and Islamic tradition does by far not suffice to support true democratic rule with the full respect of the individual and its freedoms to do and believe whatever she or he thinks is right, or just feels like in that moment.

This respect for the individual and its unalienable rights is the basis of true democracy, it's the brick with which the society constructs its state, its 'house'. If you fail to agree upon the shape of the brick and the building material, it is futile to debate the colour of the wallpaint and the decoration for each room in the house still to be built.

The USA is a liberal system, and if you spare the time to study its so-called 2-party system you won't fail to be suprised by the plurality it includes. Political party in the US describes something very different from the form parties take in Europe. I would not call the US the forerunner in democracy, since it has been too busy tainting that image, but it used to be, for decades, centuries even, and its politics will hopefully (and apparently already are) swing back from the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo street leading nowhere...but I trust in the American public and energy to renew itself and to remember its democratic and liberal origins and dreams, whereas too many people in Europe and elsewhere are busy bashing Bush and blaming the lack of bubbles in their Coke on a misguided US foreign policy...

At 9/15/2006 02:49:00 AM, Blogger Joe M said...

I find it pretty hard to believe that you consider yourself a liberal and talk about "democracy", and then have the audacity to conclude your article with a statement like, "Islamists need to be constantly reminded that they have no room in politics and civil society." Either your hatred for Islam is too strong for you to have rational thoughts on the matter, or you are too delusional to know what it is that our Middle East looks like today.

The truth of the matter is that the Islamist movements are the democratic movements in the Middle East these days. You may hate that fact, but it is simply true. It may or may not be that all the supporters of groups like Hamas, Hizbullah, the Akhwan, the IAF (in Jordan), the Sadrists or other factions in other countries are true Islamists, but obviously the majority of the people in the Arab world support and trust in the Islamic organizations to a greater degree then any other faction. Further, these organizations simply are the most democratic movements. They interact daily with the average people, they represent their desires, they provide for their needs... they do everything that you would expect in a democracy. They are doing all the things that the secular movements, save maybe the Mustafa Barghouthi and PFLP in Palestine, are not doing. I don't know what you think democracy is, but even if the ideology of the liberals is correct, that does not make them democratic. And you can't simply install them in power and claim that it is liberal or democratic (as you seem to imply). Basically, I am sympathetic to these sectors of society, but you are all wrong.

Let me further emphasize that these Islamist movements have done amazing work trying to transform their societies into ones that respect law and justice. I disagree with their views of religion, but I have great respect for the Arab Islamic movements (almost across the board). You know, it has been the secular/"liberal" forces that have destroyed respect for law or the individual. A perfect example that you should review is this article about the Egyptian Akhwan from the MERIP. I assume that you know that these types of actions are the norm, not the exception:

The last thing I would add is that the Islamists are actually very close to you economically. They, of course, were violently against the leftist’s forces back in the days when the leftists were trying to nationalize their massive religious endowments.

At 9/15/2006 03:43:00 AM, Blogger Joe M said...

actually, after i read it a few more times, i might have been wrong about what you were trying to say in the sentence:
"Islamists need to be constantly reminded that they have no room in politics and civil society."

I originally read it to mean that you think there is no room for them in politics and civil society. you could also be meaning that they have to be more open to outside influence. if you mean the second, i retract my insults (though still maintain the points about the Islamists being the democratic movements).

At 9/15/2006 07:15:00 AM, Blogger t_desco said...

Very nice discussion. I agree with most of your comments, but first I have to respond to Muhammad Ali:

Unfortunately you have misunderstood me. I am not against democracy, I am just against an US invasion of Syria. That's a huge difference...
Secondly, regarding the danger of civil war in Syria, I think that it is real and pretending that it doesn't exist will not make it go away. Don't forget that under certain conditions (and I do think that such conditions exist in Syria) even a small group of extremists can "engineer" a civil war. Just look at Iraq: early on, al-Zarqawi wrote in a strategy paper that he would try to incite a civil war in Iraq, and now it seems that, posthumously, he was successful.

Ehsani, I agree with most of what you said, particularly with your criticism of shortsighted American foreign policy. I'm convinced that it is in the long-term interest of the U.S. to promote democracy (full stop). Not to tell people who they should vote for (Nicaragua) or to topple democratically elected governments (Venezuela, Bolivia?), but to promote democracy because if people are unhappy with Chavez, Morales or Ortega (etc) they will be voted out of office. That is the great advantage of democracy.
I have three minor criticisms. You write:

"Just like all others in history, the Latin American Authoritarian regimes performed poorly in terms of economic development".

Unfortunately this is not true. For example, the authoritarian government of General Park Chun Hee in South Korea was quite successful in economic terms.

Democracy doesn't seem to be a precondition for economic development, but Amartya Sen argues that its democratic tradition will give India the edge over China. It's an interesting debate. We will see...

"military regimes rarely leave power unilaterally"

Fortunately this is also not true. In fact, there are many examples of peaceful transitions, for example all the Latin American countries you mentioned.

"Islamists need to be constantly reminded that they have no room in politics and civil society".

You should indeed clarify this sentence. Do you want to exclude them from the political process? By force?
In this context the "Algeria 1992 dilemma" automatically comes to mind. There are no easy answers, I'm afraid.

What do you think of the idea that democracy needs a large middle class in order to be "sustainable"? Again South Korea would be the "classic" example: economic growth which leads to prosperity which in turn leads to democratization.

Arab liberals often belong to a much smaller middle class (please correct me if I am wrong) which may look at the "masses" with some suspicion, but perhaps liberals should learn from and even start competing with Islamists in building "social and economic services they provide to a suffering population".
While reading Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh's book on Hizbullah, I was surprised to find many similarities to "classic" Social Democracy (there are also many differences, of course). Liberals (not neo-liberals) could learn from that and they could add to it the lessons of modern development economics, thus being able to offer superior practical solutions to many problems of economic development.

At 9/15/2006 10:13:00 AM, Blogger Alex said...

Ehsani you proved many times so far that the best way to get an interesting discussion going is to make a very contoversial statements.

THis time, it seems this one is everyone's favorite:

"Islamists need to be constantly reminded that they have no room in politics and civil society."

I assume you meant to exclude only those who favor "one man one vote, once" ... winning elections democratically and then getting rid of democracy in favor of "an Islamic state".

Otherwise, there is no easy way to define "Islamists" ... at some point you get into the area of regular belivers.

But since we are here, can I ask everyone's opinion of the Pope's motivations behind his comments on Islam this week?

1) He decided that we need more open and frank discussion of what is worrying the westerners about "the Islamists"? He is going to Turkey next month and he could be asking for a challenging discussion with Muslims during his visit.

2) The Vatican finally was convinced that Islam is potentially dangerous to civilization and the Pope was announcing the Vatican's new public position on participating in the western campaign to discredit and "fight" Islam?

At 9/15/2006 11:04:00 AM, Blogger why-discuss said...

This pope is either stupid or malevolent. In either case he should be reminded of the horrors the catholics did in the Spanish Inquisition, the killings and forced conversion in latin america and the anti-jew seeds they have spread in all christian europe...
In any case he should be kicked out of this job and join the American Enterprise team!

At 9/15/2006 11:24:00 AM, Blogger majedkhaldoon said...

the pope spoke out of fear of Islam and misinformations, jihad in Islam is equal exactly to self defence,NOT offence,through out history,it is christians who resort to violence based on religion.

At 9/15/2006 12:17:00 PM, Blogger kachumbali said...

Guys, guys...please read what the pope said exactly, look at the context, read the whole lecture. Unfortunately, the...unfortunate...unecessary...quote is embedded in a theological lecture given at the Universität Regensburg, and few people and commentators have the necessary stamina to read the whole thing. I do not know what he thought by including the statement, as it does not really serve a purpose in his lecture, and as it can easily be misinterpreted.

Well, I do not mean to just defend the pope (I would never have thought that I would wright this sentence anywhere...), but I would like to put forth a question:

Is it possible that the Muslim world (whatever that means exactly, but at least everyone speaking out against the lecture) is willingly misunderstanding and misinterpreting the statement? Currently it looks like that to me, like a welcome excuse to profile oneself and utilize Anti-Western sentiment to expand one's popular support...

At 9/15/2006 02:18:00 PM, Blogger t_desco said...

For those with "the necessary stamina to read the whole thing", here is the complete lecture in German and the English translation.

I think that it was a terrible mistake, probably not intentional, but there are probably some deeper reasons for this mistake, Orientalism being one of them.

BTW, is his characterization/interpretation of Ibn Hazm correct?

At 9/15/2006 02:52:00 PM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...

I would like to thank everyone who took the time to participate in the discussion. Without exception, the quality of the commentary has been outstanding.

Alex is right, and as I expected at the time, my most controversial quote was towards the end when I said, “Islamists need to be constantly reminded that they have no room in politics and civil society”.

To be sure, the comment is too harsh and direct. My friend Joe M hoped that it meant something else than what it apparently did at first sight. I am afraid that I am going to disappoint you. I am going to really get myself in trouble now:

I am a firm believer in the separation of religion and governance. Before I talk about Islam and its role in our society, let me address the recent remarks by Pope Benedict first.

In a speech that seemed to reflect the Vatican’s struggle over how to confront Islam and terrorism, he said that violence embodied in the Muslim idea of jihad is contrary to reason and God’s plan, while the west was so beholden to reason that Islam could not understand it. He begun his speech by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who was supposedly conversing with a “learned Persian” by saying: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as command to spread the sword by the faith he preached”. The Pope went on to say that violent conversation to Islam was contrary to reason and thus contrary to God’s nature. According to the New York Times, the section on Islam made up just three paragraphs of his speech, and he devoted the rest to a long examination of how Western science and philosophy had divorced themselves from faith – leading to the secularization of European society that is at the heart of Benedict’s worries. This, he said, has closed off the west from a full understanding of reality, making it also impossible to talk with cultures for which faith is fundamental.

A leading professor of religion in Italy said that he was struck by the suggestion of Islam as distant from reason.

My Oxford English Dictionary (sorry Alex) defines reason as follows: “to hold argument, discussion, discourse or talk with another”. To reason with one is to “argue, discourse converse, talk”.

The Vatican spokesman’s response was that the Pope’s comments were not meant as any statement Islam, but that his argument centered on the dangers of the separation of reason and religion. The spokesman goes on to say, “I believe that everyone understands, even inside Islam, there are many different positions, and there are many positions that aren’t violent. In the case of violent interpretation of religion, we are in a contradiction with the nature of God and the nature of the soul”.

Also according to the NYT, once he became a Pope, he met with Muslim leaders in Cologne, Germany, and politely but clearly told them they had the responsibility to teach their children against terrorism, which he called “the darkness of a new barbarism”.

In a nutshell, this Pope seems to have a deep mistrust regarding the aggressive side of Islam. He perhaps took literally the following difference in the two religions:
The bible says to “love your enemies and do good to those that hate you” whereas the Qur’an says to “fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you.”

I had no intention of turning this post into a religious discussion but it is now clearly impossible not to do so. What I found most telling in the Pope’s speech was when he seemed to imply that only through religion one could reason. This is actually contrary to my own life experience. Indeed, I found very religious people the hardest to “argue, discourse, converse and talk” with. Since politics and governing is all about holding “arguments, discussions, discourse and talking to one another”, this is precisely why the separation of religion and state is so critical.

But can Islam play a role in governing? As my dreaded quote above implies, I think not.

Islam is everything to Muslims. It is the complete and final religion. It is more powerful than any constitution they would inherit. Precious few of the followers of this religion are willing to question the authority of the clergy or the inviolability of Islamic law. According to Muslims the Qur’an contains the words of God and it is to be read as if God himself had spoken these words in it. The text is quite literally the voice of God. The Qur’an’s main overriding theme is complete submission to the word and the will of God.

A believer’s concept of success in Islam is to “hear and obey”.

I do not pretend to be a religious scholar or an expert on the subject, but I am led to believe that it is very hard for strict followers of Islam to accept the universal concepts of liberalism when they can point to a verse in the Qur’an as a proof that the words of God are in conflict with such a value system.

As we discuss, Outside of the Middle East and Islamic world, I know of very few other continents where powerful religious elements are anxiously waiting in the wing ahead of their weaker and powerless liberal counterparts. I think this is regrettable. My comments are sure to upset some people. I look forward to continuing the superb discussion nonetheless.

At 9/15/2006 03:11:00 PM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...

Incidentally, it is likely for this Pope controversy to soon become the new Danish Cartoon equivalent. There will surely be enough elements that will make sure that this happens. The Pope’s intended trip to Turkey already looks to be in jeopardy. As one of the commentators opined, Benedict was already unpopular in turkey for his previous comments questioning the place for a mostly Muslim country like Turkey to join the EU. Now, it may be Benedict himself who finds himself not welcome in Turkey anytime soon, it was suggested.

From my perspectives, I did not see the rationale of quoting the 14th Century Byzantine emperor. I wish the Pope restricted his speech to a dialogue about jihad and violence.

At 9/15/2006 03:35:00 PM, Blogger Joshua Landis said...

Ehsani, A very well written and forcefully argued piece, as usual. I think you are correct in arguing that the liberals are third in line, if not forth or fifth.

Like some other readers here, however, I am not sure that it is wise or useful to lump all Islamists together in one camp. The line that everyone has jumped on as an offence - "Islamists need to be constantly reminded that they have no room in politics and civil society" - is too sweeping. Islamists groups too wide a spectrum of political movements under on umbrella, as Alex argues.

The vast majority of Syrians are probably Islamists of one stripe or another - some who undoubtedly are willing to play within the rules of democracy and parliamentary politics.

If one will only allow complete secularists to compete for political office, it will be many moons before Syria becomes democratic.

Most countries that have transitioned toward democracy have done so well before everyone accepted it as the best system of government.

To achieve a change in regime, secularists are going to have to accept a degree of Islamization in Syria. That seemed to be the message of the Damascus Declaration last year, which inserted a line explaining that Syria is a majority Muslim country, etc.

It is necessary that Syria's minority communities and secularists continue to insist to the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists of every stripe that they need clear statements on tolerance and universal acceptance of a broad range of religious views before they will take the leap of faith toward democracy.

The debate that this site has tried to push forward on Alawites is just one example of how this can help clarify issues.

A year ago, Bayanouni, the leader or the Muslim Brothers, would not say that Alawites were Muslims or an accepted religion as are the people of the book.

Recently Kudr, the author of an article on Alawites and regime change, wrote this to me:

"Whereas in a past interview once he referred to them as Muslims if they follow the Islam etc, this time he said something in the line of: "they are citizens of Syria... have equal rights and responsibilities regardless of what they believe in ..". He and Khaddam were the only ones to issue two weeks ago, a very strong condemnation of Ghadry's articles.

I like to make-believe that our article had some little effect on that."

Kudr's article was translated and posted on the Akhbar al-Sharq here, the main news organ of the Muslim Brotherhood based in London. Who knows if it was one of the things that may have provoked this new formulation from Bayanouni?

But it is important that Bayanouni is subtly changing his line on Alawites. It will help everyone build confidence in the possibility of risking all for democracy.

Rather than suggesting that Islamists must step out of long line of people who are waiting to take power in Syria, it would be wiser to press them on the subject of tolerance and to nail down commitments to accept all other groups as equals under the law and not merely as protected minorities. If enough Islamist political leaders begin to take up the line of religious equality and repeat it ad nauseum, people may actually begin to internalize it and believe it. I think that is the most effective strategy for Syria's minority communities and secularists to follow. Asking them to get out of line is not an effective strategy to moving toward democracy.

At 9/15/2006 04:19:00 PM, Blogger t_desco said...

"In a speech that seemed to reflect the Vatican’s struggle over how to confront Islam and terrorism,"

No, not at all.

"he said that violence embodied in the Muslim idea of jihad is contrary to reason and God’s plan,"

No, he didn't say this.

"while the west was so beholden to reason that Islam could not understand it."

And he didn't say that either.

"The Pope went on to say that violent conversation to Islam was contrary to reason and thus contrary to God’s nature."

Yes, actually it's the Emperor who says this and the Pope seems to agree:

„Gott hat kein Gefallen am Blut”, sagt er, „und nicht vernunftgemäß, nicht „σὺν λόγω” zu handeln, ist dem Wesen Gottes zuwider.

"God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably ("σὺν λόγω") is contrary to God's nature.

I think that this was the only part of the quote the Pope was really interested in (the "σὺν λόγω") because, according to the Pope, it shows the "Zusammentreffen der biblischen Botschaft und des griechischen Denkens", the "encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought", the actual theme of this rather technical theological lecture (not the "struggle over how to confront Islam and terrorism"...), and one of he central themes of his work as theologian.
Of course, he should have realized that in his new role as Pope it is simply impossible for him to hold "merely technical" lectures; his words travel far beyond the small circle of fellow theologians and academians and in the process they can acquire a completely different meaning. Suddenly, instead of commenting on the wonderful meaning of the Greek word "logos" he is making statements on "how to confront Islam and terrorism"...

At 9/15/2006 06:37:00 PM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...


I hope that I made clear that I got my information from the New York Times. You clearly are taking them (and me) to task with your comment. I hope you are right.

Dr. Landis,

You made some fine points but you stuck to a politically correct road map. Clearly, I did not.

First, I want to reiterate that our first and primary problem continues to be the authoritarian and corrupt military regimes that control us. They have inflicted tremendous damage on our societies. It is baffling and frustrating how the status quo is allowed to continue. The excuses that we hear are common to all other dictators in history. Current times are always critical and unique they convince us. I cannot understand how educated and intelligent people continue to rationalize the type of regimes that have destroyed the hopes of our people while endlessly enriching themselves. Once we agree that we could and must do better, the next question is what comes next?

You seem to agree that it certainly is not the liberals. Your fear of the Islamists though is not as much as mine. Presumably, this should make it easier for you to support a faster transition from the present dictatorship. Of course I agree that the vast majority of Syrians are Islamists of one stripe or another and one cannot ought not make sweeping generalization as such. But, one can still make a judgment call as to which of these elements will rise to the top. You imply that those who are willing to play within the rules of democracy and parliamentary politics may have a chance. You also implied that we could relax and satisfy ourselves with a promise from the MB and others that they will be tolerant of other minorities, liberals and other Sunnis who do not share their strict interpretations. You seem to think that Bayanouni changed his tone when he read the article that you referred to. I am significantly more cynical than you are here. Bayanouni can sound nice and dandy now. To assume that he will not change his tune once he is at the helm is at best a huge leap of faith.

I stick to my politically incorrect statement. Rather than ”hope” that the Islamists would stick to their promise of tolerance and commitments to accept free elections and democratic governance rather than Sharia law, I would suggest educating our society that religion has no room in governance. Asking proponents of religion in politics to get out of line is not asking them to drop their religious beliefs. Asking them to get out of the line is to allow society to function based on the universal pursuit of individual rights, freedom of thought, limitations on the power of government and religion, rule of law, free exchange of ideas, a market economy that supports free enterprise and a transparent system of government in which the rights of all citizens are protected.

I do not believe that Islamic rule is compatible with my wish list. Should we take a leap of faith, appease them, believe their promises and entertain their stated dream to govern us?

I will give this suggestion a pass. I hope that the rest of our society as well as the international community instead work on spreading the message of the liberals amongst us instead. The authoritarian regimes of the Arab world must start to disappear. Let us all hope that we are ready for what comes next.

At 9/15/2006 07:10:00 PM, Blogger majedkhaldoon said...

Ehsani ;
you are taking a very hard position.

At 9/15/2006 08:13:00 PM, Blogger Joe M said...

What you are saying about Islamists is both hypocritical and absurd. It is hypocritical in the sense that you are saying that you want a society that is democratic and representative, but in the next breath you want to divorce the vast majority of the population from their vision of democracy and representation. At least you would be internally coherent if you stopped claiming that you are liberal and admitted that you wanted an authoritarian state (though, I guess you have done that with your praise for Ataturk). Considering this, it seems to me that Mubarak and Abdullah of Jordan are your ideal contemporary leaders. They are doing exactly what you want to do with Syria. The only small exception is that i assume you are against the corruption in Egypt (but i am sure Mubarak says he is too).

That said, your points are simply absurd. You are making these grandious statements, reducing the vast majority of society to their belief in Islam, and then claiming that that belief is intolerant and (basically) violent. Putting aside that I disagree with you analysis of Islamists, how on earth do you expect to accomplish your great wish to remind the Islamists that "they have no room in politics and civil society?" you are, basically, calling for a total revolution by a tiny minority of people against the vast ocean of the majority. As t_desco said, you are basically calling for Syria to repeat of the Algerian civil war. It is nuts.

Here is the thing, as i said before, you have to accept that the Islamist movements ARE the democratic movements. There are only a few liberal democratic movements in the Middle East, and they are mostly insignificant politically. The major Islamist organizations are doing Yeoman's work. They are fighting corruption, they are fighting for political independence, building consititutent services networks, they are defening national interests, feeding the poor, treating the sick.... I can only think of a tiny number of secular forces in the ME that are doing the same. No wonder they are largely irrelevant. like you, the liberals generally seem to think they deserve power, rather then have to earn it. again, no wonder no one listens to them.

And here is what you have to understand, Dr. Landis in not simply being "politically correct" and thus deserves to be written off because he it to scared to say the same things you believe. He simply is right. You don't seem to believe that Islamists are human beings, but you are wrong. As Landis says, even the ones who take differing views on some religious and political issues can be convinced and they do learn and they do respect human rights and individual liberties and such... It is personally and intellectually lazy to simply ignore that.

You are making a big mistake in how you view the Arab world. You are looking at it with an Israeli mentality that you have to eliminate people you disagree with. maybe you think i am naive, but why on earth would you expect anyone to work with you if you so obviously don't want to work with them?

It just amazes me that you claim to be tolerant and respect individuals while arguing that some people have no right to be involved in political or civil society.

At 9/15/2006 08:50:00 PM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...

Joe M,

I repeat. We are in agreement that liberals like me are irrelevant are powerless in our region. We also agree that religious based establishments are significantly more organized and ready to govern. I actually do not have a single issue with the religion or the people that practice and are totally devoted to it. What I am questioning is its role in government. I am very wary of religious people getting involved in politics. This view covers other religions too and Islam. Does my advocacy of freedom and democracy stand in direct contrast with my wish to have religion excluded from government? You could well be right. Indeed, my original piece admits that this is inevitable in our region. It is precisely why also I think we will always lag the rest of the world when it comes to the wish list of values that I had stated earlier.

As usual, I enjoy the exchange and feel sorry that you find my rationale “absurd”

At 9/16/2006 02:53:00 AM, Blogger SimoHurtta said...

Ehsani2 says “I would suggest educating our society that religion has no room in governance.” Still I can’t understand how it is possible. Religion is a part of all societies. We in the western liberal democracies say that religion and governance are separated. But if we look closer are they really separated or have they ever been separated? Christian religion and moral are represented and deeply penetrated in our laws so they are in many ways our “Sharia laws”. So is our schooling and governmental systems. In many European Nordic protestant countries the majority religion is / was the state religion. For example the Finnish President approves the nominations of Bishops and the Church is allowed to collect taxes like the earthly government. Only during the last years the religion and government are here being more separated. On the other hand the religious leaders have used and use their influence to governments. Germany’s leading party is Christian Democrat party. George Bush (and his party) doesn’t allow finding stem cell research with federal money. That decision is a religious decision, not a rationale secular decision. ETC. Europe and USA are full of examples that religion and governance in reality are in reality very mixed. We are only blind to see how much they are mixed.

So the claim that religion has no part governance in western liberal democracies is a complete fiction. Actually, only in the East European Communist dictatorships the religion and governance can be said to be also in reality have been separated.

In Muslim countries the people are much more religious than the people in the west so it is natural that religion has also today huge influence in governance and peoples’ movements. If movements and parties, which have strong religious views, can operate “democratically” in the West so can they do the same in Middle East. In the end people living in Middle East decide what is democracy for them, not the tiny exile elite living in the Christian democratic liberal West.

At 9/16/2006 10:15:00 AM, Blogger Abu Kareem said...


Agree with you fully as my first comment suggests. We (tiny exile...)cannot dictate what democracy should look like in the Middle East. In the end every Arab country will need to come up with its own formulation influenced by its own religious and ethnic mix. Liberal democracies do not come ready made -just pop in the oven et voila! The US considers itself a 200+ year old liberal democracy but segregration was not abolished until recently. Establishing a liberal deomcracy is an evolutionary process. Moreover, the shape it takes is very much influenced by the cultural and relgious context of a particular country. Arab liberals should shed their Eurocentric view on this issue. Are Arabs ready for democracy? Absolutely. Are they ready for a "Western style liberal democracy"? No they are not; and why should they be? They need an "Eastern style liberal democracy". Many would say that this is an oxymoron but it is only for lack of imagination. Arab liberals should work out a formulation of liberal democracy that is relevant to their people; otherwise they will continue to wallow in their own irrelevance.

At 9/16/2006 11:06:00 AM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...

Abu Kareem,

It sounds good. Would you care to spell out what this Eastern style liberal democracy ought to contain and look like?


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