Islamic Civilisation — 06 July 2006

An unusual conundrum now faces the West; stay loyal to the founding constructs of democracy or embrace realpolitik and discard any delusions of an enlightened and democratic Middle East. The stunning election victories of Hamas, the surprisingly good showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the sweeping into power of Ahmadinejad in Iran and last but not least the stranglehold of the religious parties in all of Iraq’s recent elections; all show a worrying trend for exporters of the democratic ideal. A situation brought about not by design but fashioned in the hearts and minds of the people of the region, where their aspirations and their voices have been heard; a “democratic” upheaval is under way.

But surely even the first fledgling steps of the democratic process must be considered an incredible feat, right? The people of the region have seen the democratic process in its messy, yet true form. Surely, to witness democracy in operation with all its muddled and chaotic workings is just the advertisement needed in a region that has been starved of it for so long. The theory goes that people will witness the fair and objective appeal of this widespread concept; of the right to rule and legislate through the wishes of the people, they will see voices being heard and represented, however disagreeable. This theory also states that accepting the conclusions of the democratic process, however unpalatable they may seem, is just the thing that is needed to build credibility in this process, a perfect ‘billboard’ no less.

Yet the immediate concern for the policy wonks in the Bush administration is how to deal with the far-reaching implications of something like a Hamas election victory, and all the questions this brings? If Bush recognises Hamas, he denies his war on terror. But if he doesn’t recognise Hamas he contradicts his democracy drive. He either, by his own logic, legitimates terror, or he admits that he is offering only a Henry Ford kind of democracy: you can have whatever colour car you like – so long as it’s black.

Is it a case of simply refining this same drive for democracy, or is it a case of completely overhauling the policy in reaction to the surprising results it has brought so far? A policy, which was much vaunted for its grandeur and moral appeal, has floundered. Instead of making the region hasten to a state of progress and stabilisation, it has generated tough dilemmas for the American administration. Can the true democratic doctrine hold up in the ever-changing political dynamic of the Middle East? Has its implementation inadvertently and irreversibly brought in a shift of the opposite kind to what was intended?

So just how did we arrive here? After 9-11, commentators, policy makers and politicians alike in their frenzy to find explanations for the catastrophic events of that day dwelled upon a theme that turned out to be a rallying call for the objectives of the War on Terror: “disenfranchisement of Muslims needs to be tackled through democratic reform of Muslim lands.” If people were given a chance to raise their voices and given an opportunity to determine their own government, they would indeed bring forces of “good” to the region. The ballot box was going to be the catalyst that would revolutionise people’s modes of behaviour and thinking. Democracy was the foundation for all the other much-vaunted ideas that needed to be exported.

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