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National Interest: After Egypt,who could still argue that Muslim societies don’t deserve democracy?

Written by Shekhar Gupta |
February 5, 2011 2:30:53 am

As a confused world tries to understand the tremors of Tunisia and Egypt,as they shake up much of the Arab world,old questions and fears re-emerge. Will this upsurge on the Arab street lead to democracy? Will it open the doors for Islamists? Finally,and most unfortunately,but inevitably,whether Muslim societies can handle,or even deserve,democracy.

It is on this last argument that Western powers have traditionally backed “modern” dictators in Muslim countries over almost 100 years,since the political

re-modelling of the oil-rich Middle East began. The West’s early allies were the ruling families of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Post the Six-Day War (1967) they were used to secure Israel and keep some kind of peace,with a combination of incentives and straightforward bribery and,most importantly,backing against any democratic challenge. The Shah of Iran,the junta in Turkey,Pakistan’s Field Marshal Ayub and later (though with some qualifications) even Saddam Hussein joined this category of friendly dictators. Sheikhs of the emirates followed into this loyalist club. With these,the West,particularly America,felt secure from the vagaries of democracy in such a volatile and vital Islamic region.

Even when the West promoted democracy in the Communist Bloc,it happily perpetuated the contradiction of backing dictators through the entire Muslim world,Pakistan included. The subtext,the innate belief on which this policy was based,was simply a lack of faith in Muslim states being able to handle or,I repeat,deserving democracy. Read with the stereotype of Islam being “fundamentally” undemocratic as it mixes “religion with politics” and national loyalties with the concept of the Ummah,this became a persuasive argument. How else can you explain the West being so proud of the democracy in Israel,while helping their friends deny it to Muslims in the neighbourhood? It is often said that the only Arabs with a free vote are the Arab minority native to the Israeli mainland.

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This is now unravelling. How hollow do the Americans and the Britons sound asking Hosni Mubarak to respect his people’s democratic impulses? How irritating — and humiliating — would they have sounded to the Egyptians and other Arab nations when they “imposed” democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan with free elections,while their own traditional allies continued to deny all of that to their own people? The times when hypocrisy as state policy could be perpetuated for ever are now over,particularly with technology making it impossible for dictators to keep their populations unexposed to global winds of change. In fact,the only regime that is still

managing to do this is North Korea; even the Burmese generals are shaky.

But this arrangement was still considered the “best,under the circumstances” for the Muslim world where dictators were mostly treated as “stalwart allies”. The anger you see on the Arab street right now is not merely against corruption and domestic authoritarianism,some of it is also directed at these decades-old,unexplained,non-negotiated,non-debated policies.

The traditional Western notion that Muslims can’t “handle”

and therefore do not “deserve” democracy has been a widespread one,shared by many among our Hindu Right as well. The history of military takeovers and coups in Pakistan,and subsequently also Bangladesh,was always a telling comparison.

It is a pity these people never heard or understood Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Hum Dekhenge”,the finest,sharpest and shrewdest call to a society’s democratic impulse from any modern poet. They should even now hear it in the voice of the late Iqbal Bano (at when she rendered it in a Lahore stadium at the peak of Zia’s dictatorship,arguably Pakistan’s toughest,and the most “Islamic” so far. Listen then to the audience come alive,cheer,sing along and scream in joy and democratic defiance with the lines “jab raj karegi khalq-e-khuda,jo main bhi hun or tum bhi ho” (when power shall

return to God’s people,like you and I) or,“jab takht giraye jayenge,jab taj uchhale jayenge” (when thrones are tilted,when crowns are tossed) — knowing exactly who all this was referring to. Almost every member of the audience was a Muslim — and had the same democratic impulse that any other human being anywhere in the world,and believing in any religion,would have.

Faiz’s poetry to make such a serious argument,challenge such an old,ossified notion? How facetious can you get? So look at other evidence. Over the past five years,Indonesia,Pakistan,Bangladesh and India — which account for

almost half of the world’s

Muslim population — have been democratising. Indonesia and Bangladesh are today model,almost secular,Muslim democracies,where even the armies fully back liberal governments. Pakistan is a work in progress,but the direction is right. Its people backed the judiciary’s fight against an entrenched dictator and won their democracy back,howsoever flawed. This in a country where every coup has succeeded,and without a shot having to be fired. There is a much stronger judiciary,a media so loud and nonchalant it would make our screechiest TV channels sound like staid BBC,and the first stirrings of a civil society. In fact,Pakistan’s democratic impulse is its — and the rest of the world’s — best and last defence against its religious fundamentalists. The highest vote-share the religious parties have gathered in a free Pakistani election is a mere 6 per cent. The largest majority won by a Pakistani in decades was when Nawaz Sharif took two-thirds of the seats in 1997 — and he never mentioned Islam or even

Kashmir in his campaign. True to form though,the Americans always saw him,and his popular support,as a threat,and

continue to do so.

And finally,in India,the large Muslim minority is breaking out of the trap of bloc voting rooted in an anger-fear-resentment-grievance victim complex,to embrace the rising wave of aspiration in the national mainstream. A new Muslim middle class has begun to emerge. No Congress,no Mulayam (and wait for Bengal,not even the Left) can take their vote for granted. How else could the BJP win 91 seats out of 102 contested (the highest strike rate for any party in a real election in India,ever) in Bihar,a state in which 17 to 18 per cent of the electorate is Muslim? And watch the rise of a modern-educated head at Deoband,one of Islam’s most conservative seminaries worldwide,stirring things up by suggesting Indian Muslims move on from Gujarat of 2002.

The same democratic yearning of this “Muslim” street is now spreading to the Arab world. Muslims around the world are fighting for their democratic rights and shattering the worst stereotype to bedevil their faith,that Islam is somehow fundamentally anti-democratic. You want to understand all this better? Go listen to that immortal Iqbal Bano rendering of Faiz again,and the crowd’s response.

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