It has to be said: The international media too quickly characterize mob action in North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East as an expression of democracy. Gatherings of large numbers of people demanding that autocratic leadership be changed does not constitute a willingness to pay the continuing social price of responsibility and compromise that is the basic element of democracy in any form.
The existence of post-colonial, military-created and/or maintained government is a given in the Middle East. The Saudi and Jordanian monarchies were an outgrowth of military action. The Islamic revolution in Iran originally drew its strength from the paramilitary overthrow of Shah Reza Pahlevi whose father had declared himself monarch after rising from the officer ranks of the Persian army. His was originally termed a “democratic revolution” by the military against the then existing Shah. Indeed Islam itself was originally introduced through military force.
Even today after the hundreds of thousands dominated Tahrir Square in Cairo, the nation of Egypt is held together by its military. The army in Tunisia guaranteed the removal of the autocratic Zine el Abidine ben Ali. The question exists as to what militaristic force eventually will dominate tribalized Libya that only gained its independence from the monarchy of King Idris in 1969 by the action of the young officers under Moammar Gaddafi.
There is no cultural tradition of democracy in the Arab and Persian Middle East, perhaps with the exception of Israel and the European-fabricated and religiously divided Lebanon. Islam as the principal religion and culture of the region does not necessarily welcome such a form of governance.
It is true that there is continued debate even though a 2007 University of Maryland poll in Egypt and Morocco indicated 71% of respondents would require “strict application of Sharia law in every Islamic country.” While some Koranic scholars hold that Islam actually necessitates democracy, this view is effectively countered in practical application by the strong contemporary political role of clerics in both Sunni and Shia contexts.
The famed historian Bernard Lewis has written, “The emergence of a priestly hierarchy and its assumption of ultimate authority in the state is a modern innovation and is a unique contribution of the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran to Islamic thought and practice.” Yet long before the Shia leader Khomeini came on the scene, Islam in countries with Sharia as its law demanded its ascendancy in both civil and criminal matters. So it has been in strictly Sunni Saudi Arabia.
This leads one to speculate that any Islamic nation, by definition, must recognize the primacy of Islamic law over any so-called democratic principles. And here is where the Islamic world has divided in practice. The work of Toni Johnson and Lauren Vriens for the Council on Foreign Relations conveniently divides the application of Islamic law in conjunction with secular law into three general categories: (1) The dual system exists where believers can choose to bring familial and financial legal issues to Sharia courts. (2) Islam as the officially recognized constitutional religion of a country and “sharia is declared to be a source, or the source, of the laws.” (3) Secular Islamic countries often have Sharia influencing local customs but civil and criminal matters are adjudicated strictly under secular laws.
On reflection all three of these categories inhibit directly or, as in the third category, indirectly the consistent application of what the non-Islamic world would call “democratic principles.” The most telling argument for the predominance of Islamic legal concepts is made repeatedly by both Sunni and Shia scholars arguing “moral degeneracy and consequent weakness of Western civilization,” i.e. democracy.
A nation, predominantly Islamic in culture and religion yet democratic in aspiration, presents an inbred conflict that has tended repeatedly toward the solution of military or civilian autocracy. Western democracy in the modern sense may not be compatible with Islam except as a convenient device to provide a structure for governance rather than a philosophical commitment to the equality of its citizens. Following that same logic, to judge any Islamic nation along Western democratic criteria would be an exercise in non sequitur.
It may well be asked exactly for what were the hundreds of thousands in Cairo and elsewhere protesting. Certainly there appears to be a consensus on a desire for “a better life.” This apparently has had more to do with economic life and political reform than a deeper commitment to the equities of democracy as the West knows it.
All of which introduces the question as to whether it is the arrogance rather than altruism of the non-Islamic West that is the real stimulus for European and American involvement in the Middle East and North Africa’s current political explosion. Or is the prime minister of Turkey correct when he charges that intervention by the West is motivated simply by the region’s oil reserves and access to them?
Vladimir Putin said he considers Western intervention in the region akin to the specious justification of the Crusades. His “partner” Dmitry Medvedev sharply disagreed and suggested such a statement was historically incorrect and “absolutely wrong.” In an odd way they both may be right. The question, however, really remains whether secular democracy and Islamic theocracy can be successfully melded or they represent irrevocably conflicting ideological choices. The battle will continue long after this round of fighting ends.