The limits of democratization in Muslim countries

There are so many aspects of the West’s war on Islam that it is difficult to credit them all. One little-noticed one is the drive for ‘democracy’ in the Muslim world. The call for democracy has become a staple of self-justifying Western rhetoric. Why do Muslim hate America? Americans ask. The usual answer: because America is democratic and free, and Muslims envy it. Why do Muslim countries produce fanatics and extremists? Because they are dictatorships without political freedoms. Why does America rule the world? Because it is the leading and biggest democracy in the world, and committed to promoting democracy elsewhere.

The true nature of Western democracy is clear for those willing to see it. It has been exposed by dissident intellectuals and activists time and time again, both in terms of the domestic oppression of the vast majority of people by a tiny capitalist elite capable of manipulating political systems and public opinion to their will, and in terms of the West’s hegemonic, exploitative and, if necessary, extremely violent foreign policies against foreign enemies.

However, at a time when the US is claiming to be planning democracy in Iraq, and to be attacking Islamic Iran for the lack of democracy, it is instructive to consider what democratization means to the West in the Middle Eastern context. Academically, it is used shorn of all normative value purely to describe an institutional arrangement. Academics also point out, in studying political systems, that apparently similar political institutions can serve very different functions in different political systems. Thus elections and parliaments in countries like Egypt, Algeria and Jordan are very different to the understanding we have of them in Western contexts. Rather than being mechanisms through which people and parties contend for political power, they are mechanisms through which elites that are established in power permit people a limited amount of political participation to absorb their political energies.

This is by no means an unrecognised phenomenon. Academics such as Eberhardt Kienle and Mary Kassem, looking at the Egyptian experience, and Quentin Wiktorowizc, whose book is actually called The Management of Islamic Activism, have described the strategy in detail. Western theorists usually argue that such a gradual increase in popular participation is a slow process which will ultimately lead to ‘genuine democracy’ (whatever that is taken to mean) is due course. There is, however, little evidence to support that theory. On the contrary, there numerous examples of the West and its local agents intervening forcefully whenever democratization begins to threaten their interests, often by violently suppressing popular political institutions and movements. Islamic movements would do well to realize that really meaningful change can come only by replacing existing systems, not by working through them.