VIEW: Democracy’s gates open in Iraq and beyond —Jonathan Power
Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Afghanistan pursued the cause of broadening the fundamental freedoms to include the right to political independence, self determination and democracy. The US State Department disparagingly called it ‘the Muslim resolution’. Yet it is the resulting covenant that the US is now lobbying so hard for China to ratify
Credit should always be given where credit is due: Bush and Blair have come to terms with the Shiite ascendancy in Iraq. This was never on their agenda. At the outset of their war they naively believed that the secular émigrés would grab the reins. Gracefully, they are bowing before the results of democracy.
The Shiites of Iraq, too, are now facing the consequences of democracy. Unlike in Shiite Iran where democracy plays second fiddle to the religious authorities, the Shiite religious leaders of Iraq, in particular Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, seem ready to take a back seat. Like Bush and Blair the Shiites are being compelled by the Iraqi voters to come to conclusions they may not at first have contemplated. They have won at the polls, but they have to deal with their rivals if it is to mean anything for the long run.
Islamic democracy gets a bad press in the West yet the democratic impulse runs deep in the Muslim world. Although the democracy cause cannot point to any precise words of Islam’s founder, Mohammed came close to defining the concept when he gave the injunction to Muslim believers to consult among themselves, which led to the Islamic tradition of shura. Christ, in as much as he addressed the subject at all, baldly told Christians to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”, at a time when his country was ruled by the Roman dictatorship. Democracy and human rights in the West owe more to the evolution of natural law than they do to Christianity, albeit it was medieval Catholic theologians who pioneered the thinking on this.
The idea of justice and the restraining of tyranny lie deep in Islamic thought. New York University professor, Noah Feldman, a theorist of Islamic democracy, observes in his book, After Jihad, “that the caliphs never had absolute authority... the historical roots [for democracy] are there for modern Muslims who want to draw on the historical narrative”.
Already we can see these ideas being lived out in democratic practice in Muslim states as varied as Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Mali, Albania, and Palestine and, to a more controlled extent, in Iran, Morocco, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan. Saudi Arabia has just held its first local election.
Sometimes we are in danger both of overlooking how recent is the blooming of democracy in the Western world and how far back its roots go in the Islamic. In 1942, despite the electrifying developments of 1789 — the American Constitution and The Declaration of the Rights of Man — there were still only four democracies in Europe — Britain, Switzerland, Sweden and Ireland.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Islamic scholars grappled with the significance, implications and meaning of democracy for the Islamic world. These days we read so much about the militant anti-Western teaching of the Egyptian thinker, Sayyid Qutb, supposedly the intellectual godfather of Osama bin Laden, and so little of the writings of his fellow Egyptian, Mohammed Abdo, who sought to reconcile Islam’s compatibility with reason and progress.
Overlooked, too, is the important role that Muslims played in the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although in the December, 1948, UN vote that adopted it Saudi Arabia, along with South Africa and the Soviet Union, abstained, most Muslim states voted for it. The Pakistani delegate speaking on its importance said that he had an “intellectual conviction that freedom [is] indivisible”.
In the following years the opinion that fundamental freedoms must be widened to include the right to political independence, self determination and democracy was central to the debate on the writing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a document meant to give binding force to the Declaration. Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Afghanistan pursued this cause in the face of some Western hostility — the US State Department disparagingly called it “the Muslim resolution”. Yet it is this covenant that the US is now lobbying so hard for China to ratify.
In 1993, at the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, 171 governments, including all the Muslim ones, voted in favour of a new declaration that incorporated the most important commitments of the original.
Bush and Blair made a profound mistake in assuming that the path to democracy in the Middle East could only be cleared by war. It was an unnecessary step. It could have come about without the bloodshed, by forceful evolution. Nevertheless, at the onset of 2005, we stand before the gates of Islamic democracy and human rights observance. They are opening.
The writer is a leading columnist on international affairs, human rights and peace issues. He syndicates his columns with some 50 papers around the world