The Bigger Picture
Published on October 1st 2011 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
I closed my last column by expressing my concern is that with no judicial institutions to protect the rights of minorities, the flowers of freedom that have bloomed in countries like Egypt and Tunisia during the ‘Arab Spring’ will be trampled by the ‘tyranny of the majority’. But I am also concerned that many of us in the Western news media who have grown up in liberal democratic societies do not fully appreciate the important role that strong electoral and judicial institutions play in protecting the rights of minorities from the ‘tyranny of the majority’.
So today I will discuss some of the more specific concerns that both I and many other citizens living in the nations of North Africa and Middle East have about what might happen in their countries if and or when protesters succeed in toppling their authoritarian regimes. But I want to begin by first noting that India is the only nation with a significant Muslim population that also has a long history of liberal democracy experience. Furthermore, according to Freedom Watch, Indonesia and Mali (I would also include Malaysia) are the only majority Muslim countries that currently enjoy the political freedoms we associate with liberal democracies.
However, even though liberal democratic political governance is a rarity in majority Muslim nations, I disagree with those Islamosceptics who argue that Islam is somehow incompatible with the citizen equality principles of liberal democracy. The arguments I hear most often in America and Europe are that most Muslims either harbor a desire to live in a society based on the Sharīʿah religious law of Islam or wish to be governed by a religious political authority al-Qaeda refers to as the ‘grand caliphate’ that will enforce Sharīʿah.
I have no doubt that the pseudo-religious political extremists in al-Qaeda and Hizb ut-Tahrir (the Party of Liberation), as well as many of the less extreme Muslims who support the Muslim Brotherhood, have a desire to be governed according to Islamic law. But I also know there are Jewish extremists who wish their societies were governed by the Halakha laws of the Torah and Christian extremists who believe Biblical laws should hold sway. In other words every religion has at least some adherents who believe their holy texts should be taken literally rather than interpreted within the context of the time when they were originally written.
No. I argue that the majority of modern Muslims are actually no different than the majority of modern Christians and Jews in that they believe their democratic societies’ civil and criminal laws should be drafted by their elected officials in accord with their national constitutions instead of the ancient texts of their respective religious faiths. In fact, if our modern laws were actually based on these ancient religious texts, then those of us who curse God or any children who curse their parents would all be condemned to death for these criminal ‘offences’.
This is why, in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ upheavals that have already toppled the authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and threaten to do so in Syria, I believe most middle class Muslims in these nations share my concerns about the ethnic, political and societal instability that will result from attempting to establish liberal democracies in nations that do not have the institutional foundations or experience needed for effective democratic governance.
Middle class Muslims are afraid because they know Islamist groups will probably win the first democratic elections since they are better organized than the secular young activists who led and promoted the ‘Arab Spring’ protests. But despite assurances from Islamist groups that they will draft constitutions that promote an open-minded and peaceful version of Islam that does not discriminate against ethnic and religious minority groups, many Muslims seriously doubt this.
Middle class Muslims are afraid because they have seen the sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq after Hussein was toppled and the burning of Coptic Churches after Mubarak was driven from power in Egypt by Salafists who espouse the intolerant Wahhabist version of Islam. I hope I’m wrong, but based on what has happened thus far, I simply don’t believe that the kind of democracies that will emerge in the Arab world in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ will bear much resemblance to the liberal democracy that the ‘Arab Spring’ protesters were hoping for.