It is unfortunate that the Arab world’s belated awakening to the benefits of democracy has not been without serious misunderstanding of the nature of democracy itself. Absent from all the hoopla over ballot boxes and ink-stained fingers has been recognition of an element at the very core of democracy, at least insofar as it is practiced in the West. Democracy is not just about holding elections, it must include a sacrosanct set of human rights laws to which the winning party is by law required to adhere. Otherwise, citizens’ rights can be manipulated, even outright usurped, every time a transfer of power occurs.
This condition is hardly based on idle speculation. Look around the Middle East and you’ll see that democratic elections in several countries have led to the success of avowedly Islamic parties whose social and political views differ markedly from those of their predecessors. Yet most Arab societies remain ill-prepared for this phenomenon.
Because nobody in the Palestinian territories anticipated a Hamas victory in elections last January, they didn't bother to clarify what parameters, if any, the winning party should observe. Now nobody is sure to what extent Hamas is obliged to respect anything undertaken by the Palestinian Authority (PA) towards its citizens, and by the Palestine Liberation Organization toward Israel.
Exacerbating this already muddled situation is the deliberately vague and imprecise role of Islam as specified by Palestinian law. The Palestinian Basic Law—currently the highest legal authority in the land—declares that Islam is the official religion of the state. It quickly affirms that “other heavenly religions” shall be respected, but goes on to add that the principles of Islamic sharia law are the main source of legislation. (A constitutional draft which proposes softening its language and officially recognizing Christianity has yet to be passed into law.) Presumably, then, it should be no problem—legally or otherwise—to embark on a process of Islamization, as long as this is done with due sensitivity and the appropriate measure of respect for “others.”
Though this may be frightening, we shouldn’t be tempted into thinking that the solution lies in supporting tyrannical regimes whose only redeeming virtue is their secularism. Apart from being fundamentally unjust, such a recourse almost guarantees future disaster. Without a mechanism for the regular and orderly transfer of power, in which multiple parties are permitted to contest leading executive positions in return for abiding by an immutable code of human rights laws, the stage is set for chaos. Power will eventually change hands, but without any legally defined framework for its transference, it may very well be seized by people who feel unconstrained by modern interpretations of human rights. When the shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979, this led to the emergence of an Islamic revolutionary regime that set off a reign of terror targeting groups too numerous to list. Of particular note are the Bahais. Bahaism was declared “illegal” overnight, and members of the community were hunted down and murdered for nothing more than openly professing their faith.
So, what’s the solution? Promulgating foundational laws that are not subject to electoral whims and public referendums would be a start. Democracy must never become a means of impinging upon basic human rights and freedoms. The majority of a society’s population is not the automatic repository of all wisdom, and should not be treated as such.
You would think that the American administration would understand this, given that its own democracy is fettered by no small number of iron-clad shackles, scrupulously fastened around the majority to prevent it from running amuck and oppressing minorities. Ask religious Christians in the United States, and they will tell you that official prayer sessions at public schools are strictly prohibited, even if every last student demands them. And equal rights for women and African-Americans are inviolable, no matter what the latest opinion poll indicates.
Too often, however, the sort of democracy promoted by U.S. foreign-policy makers for the greater Middle East conforms to the simplistic “majority rules” mantra, potentially harmful to the multi-religious, multi-sectarian, or multi-ethnic countries of the region. If left untrammeled by any constraints, the majority can easily behave tyrannically, and democracy can and will transmogrify into despotism.
So the problem remains. How do we ensure that democracy in Middle Eastern countries does not come at the expense of secularism, personal freedoms, and equal rights for women and minorities? How do we enshrine in Palestine, Iraq, and elsewhere those rights Americans call inalienable? If both U.S. foreign-policy makers, as well as most Arabs themselves, hold to the reductionist view that democracy translates into majority rule, who is left to insert nuance into the equation?
The answer is that true Arab democrats must do so. There is no one else with more at stake in this affair. It is incumbent upon those Arabs who truly care about human rights and freedoms, gender equality, minority rights, and secularism to fight for these values, and to wed them to democracy in an indissoluble marriage. Nothing could be more terrifying than for the fate of a particular group of citizens to be intertwined with that of a specific regime, so that its fall could herald their oppression. That is why it is imperative, not only to introduce democracy, but to ensure that the latter is of the sort that enjoins the ruling party to abide by fundamental human rights laws.
Similarly, it is absolutely unconscionable when the rights of women and Christians in our part of the world are deemed to be derived from Islam. Nobody should be made to feel that his/her basic human rights depend on the latest interpretation of this or that religion. In countries like the U.S., there is no shortage of fiery anti-Muslim, anti-atheist, and anti-homosexual Christian preachers, but their invective does not translate into legal restrictions on these groups, because Western nations have eviscerated religion of any legal force. If Arab countries cannot yet completely secularize, then they should at least clearly define those boundaries religion is not allowed to transgress. Instead of stipulating that the state shall accord women and non-Muslims all rights that do not contravene Islamic law, the formula should be reversed. Islamic law can be accorded a place in society as long as it does not violate the rights of women, Christians, atheists, gays and lesbians, and other historically marginalized groups.
If Arab countries enshrine as immutable law a code of citizens’ rights that guarantees individual freedoms, gender equality, and minority rights, along with clearly defining and limiting the role of religion, they will have succeeded in crafting fair and tolerant democratic systems. These same countries can then allow Islamists and others to play the political game, but only according to the above rules, to which all parties must commit if they wish to participate. In such a situation, a political victory for Islamic or any other parties would not signal any change in the fundamental rights of citizens, and we can all breathe easy.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer in Beirut, Lebanon. A slightly different version of this article appeared in the April 29, 2006 edition of the Beirut-based Daily Star.
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