Thursday, June 2, 2011

Winter Chill of the Arab Spring

Like many lawns here in Texas, the lush Arab Spring of revolution has begun to wither in June's summer heat.

But unlike the rapidly-browning grass in the Lone Star State, it might be a good thing that democracy has hit a brick wall in the Middle East.  At least, the type of democracy some activists were advocating.

Not that I'm a proponent of dictatorships and a reviler of civic freedoms. I'm proud to be an American and I consider our representative form of government, despite its problems, to be a model for maintaining human rights and economic vitality.

Nor do I doubt that the monarchies and oligarchies being targeted for overthrow by young social-media-fueled idealists are repressive and corrupt.

But the democracy for which many Muslims have been fighting this spring in the Middle East isn't the same type of democracy we have in the West. Our democracy flourishes with freedoms many Muslims have no intention of bestowing on their countrymen. Or, more accurately, their country's women.

It Depends on Your Definition

Actually, some activists in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, and Bahrain have made little effort to conceal their true desire: an even more totalitarian religious state based on the strictest interpretations of their bizarre Sharia Law. It's just harder to sell a war or uprising to Western media outlets when you're promising even stricter religious intolerance than currently exists.  Instead, these hard-line Muslim demonstrators, protesters, and agitators have marketed their struggles as campaigns for freedom and democracy, virtues that resonate strongly in North America and Europe. Yet the ultimate goals they're branding freedom and democracy will in fact not ensure the types of freedoms and democratic principles we enjoy outside of Islam.

After all, if the Arab Spring flourishes into an Arab Summer, and open elections usher in new governments across the Middle East, these new power structures won't look anything like our Congress or England's Parliament.  Sure, people who willingly vote oppressive governments into power can still say they're abiding by democratic principles, even though they're voting their liberty away. People who freely elect representatives who will construct an Islamic state based on Sharia Law can still say they've chosen this course of action, even though the result will be catastrophic to everything Americans have enshrined in our Bill of Rights. These new Arab "voters" will have perverted the concepts of freedom and democracy you and I see as liberating and equalizing, but technically, the terminology will still be accurate.

Some Republicans won't like me saying this, but it all started with George W. Bush's attempt to democratize Iraq.  As it has turned out, Christians and Catholics in Iraq enjoyed far more freedoms and safety than they do today, and many are fleeing their homeland.  He was certainly no saint, but Saddam Hussein managed to suppress the murderous squabbling between Islamic factions in his country, women could get a decent education, a moderate form of religious diversity was tolerated, and the nation's infrastructure reliability ratings were uncommonly high for being a dictatorship. 

I'm not qualified to evaluate whether Iraqis enjoy a freer lifestyle without Hussein, or whether the sacrifice by thousands of American soldiers has been worth the road we've traveled there this past decade.  But the very fact that an average observer like me can't reach a valid conclusion exclusive of political hyperbole speaks volumes regarding the amount of progress which remains before democracy can claim any semblance of success in Iraq.

Qualifying the Qualities

Look, too, at Egypt, which this past February experienced a significant upheaval in its political landscape with the populist overthrow of its longtime autocrat, Hosni Mubarak.  We in the West have been told that Mubarak's defeat promises a new era of peace and justice in this ancient country.  But a renewed drumbeat of civil rights abuses has begun to put a more accurate face on the type of change Egypt's "reformers" had in mind.  For example, at least 12 ethnic Christians have been murdered there by Muslims since Mubarak's overthrow, and two churches have been torched.

One of the key organizations leading the revolt against Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood, has made a name for itself under the guise of promoting democratic principles.  Which sounds admirable, until you scratch the surface.  Actually, the BBC reports, "one of their stated aims is to create a state ruled by Islamic law, or Sharia. Their most famous slogan, used worldwide, is 'Islam is the solution.'"

Which begs the question:  could pillars of Islamic law be democratically voted out of Egypt's constitution?

In 2007, the Muslim Brotherhood drafted a political manifesto which, according to the BBC, "called for a council of religious scholars to be set up to approve all laws passed by Egypt's civilian institutions. The platform also stated that Christians or women could not become president or prime minister."

Issam al-Aryan, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been quoted as saying, "We want a civil state, based on Islamic principles. A democratic state, with a parliamentary system, with freedom to form parties, press freedom, and an independent and fair judiciary."

It all sounds well and good, with the exception of four words: "based on Islamic principles." That is an extraordinarily vague clarification, which in turn impacts the working definitions of every other word in al-Aryan's statement. What does he consider to be a "civil state?" What does he think a democratically-elected parliament looks like? Or political parties? How does he define freedom of the press? How "independent" and "fair" would their judicial system be?

If it's all "based on Islamic principles?"

Here in America, thanks in no small part to the Christianized underpinnings of our government and society, we have a pretty good idea about what all of these terms mean. We know what a democratic society looks like, and how political parties function (for better or worse!). We believe freedom of the press means just about anybody can evaluate and critique our government with impunity. We may argue over semantics regarding our judiciary, but for the most part, we know that there's no government tribunal enforcing a set of laws we the people haven't voted into existence.

From what I know about Islam and Sharia Law, I'm deeply skeptical that my definition of freedom can come anywhere close to matching that of the Muslim Brotherhood and the other revolutionary organizations pushing their agenda for the Arab Spring.

Granted, what the people of the Middle East currently have, living under stubborn monarchies, repressive despots, and in the case of Libya, outright lunatics, isn't what you and I call freedom.

But neither is what Muslim extremists envision.

So if democracy is, at least for now, deferred in the Arab Summer, perhaps that's for everyone's best. Not only ourselves, those of us in genuine democracies, but also for those Middle Easterners who don't realize how comparatively good they have it right now.

Because in this case, the grass is not greener.

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