From time to time, calls are made in the West for spreading democracy, human rights and freedom in Muslim countries. These calls are sometimes later withdrawn and replaced by support for tyranny. Why is that the case?
How can these calls go in harmony with the way the West deals with the whole human family, exploiting it economically and dominating it militarily and by other means? In light of this, can the advocates of liberty in Arab and Muslim countries, from an Islamic or any other perspective, truly rely on the West, expect their support, or establish sound relationships with western decision-makers?
These questions seem difficult to answer, but with little reflection on today`s reality and its historic and contemporary backgrounds, it will become clear that these questions are not that hard to answer. They are only difficult questions when we ignore the realities and contexts, both historic and contemporary.
Roots of Co-existence between the Two Opposites: Democracy and Liberalism
In a nutshell, it seems that the repeated Western reference to the Greek age and its philosophers as the birthplace of democracy, and their talk about the "democracy of Athens" is not merely an attempt to link their reality to old historic roots going beyond the era of the Middle Ages and the then prevailing feudal and church autocracy, but it is also an intellectual expression of the type of the contemporary democracy whose practice has really attested to its link to the Greek age.
The democracy of Athens was "the democracy of the dominant masters", whereas the riffraff, the common people in the terms of that age, were slaves in the true meaning of the word. They did not have the right to merely participate in dialogue about any of the issues related to political power. One of numerous examples of this is the issuance of a death sentence against Socrates for calling on the "riffraff" to discuss the state and their affairs, through his philosophy known as the "generative philosophy". He would pose questions to the common people coming his way, urging them to think and subsequently "generate" the answers on their tongues. He was the first Greek philosopher to adopt that call which we can categorize today under "freedom of expression" and which was magnified into a call for democracy. This call was one of the reasons Socrates was regarded one of "the seven wise men" in the Greek age, according to a Western modern classification of the philosophers of that era.
The first one to use the very term "democracy" was the greatest of Greek philosophers, Aristotle. He, however, did not use the term to call for democracy, but to deride the very idea that the riffraff can have a voice that could be listened to. This resembles statements by current tyrants or their associates which claim that "the people have not yet reached such adequate awareness for their say to be heard."
The rebellion of Plato against Aristotle, his teacher, remained the maximum limit reached by Greek philosophers and was deemed the primary source of thought for Western democracy. This was in his book "The Utopia", in which the right of "democracy" – consultation in decision-making within a sole authority, not three – was established for the ruling class only. Thus, Plato`s Utopia was truly a city of racist discrimination, where the second class was that of fighters, who were honored by the task of defending the state. The third class in the city was that of workers, who belonged to various social categories. This third class, according to Plato, only existed to work and serve the two other classes, and they had no right to speak or object, let alone take part in elections, share power, or see the separation between the three powers and any of the other elements in a democratic system as we have in modern times.
In the modern age, democratic regimes were established in Western nationalist countries emerging out of the Age of Enlightenment. Soon afterward, liberalism appeared, giving priority to the personal, individual freedom, particularly in the financial sphere. Liberalism is the other financial side of the medal of capitalism. With the evolution of both democracy and liberalism, they ended up in deep split between a) slogans that speak about human rights and freedoms and codify them partially, while adopting democracy as the tool for applying these slogans (This is implemented…but) and b) economic, financial, and material realities created by liberalism, which made the balance of power – headed by the power of money – the most capable of decision-making, imposing decisions on the political bodies, or exercising influence, by varying degrees, on the political powers to make the decisions willed by them. This undermined democracy, as expressed most diplomatically by modern western intellectuals. Put differently, this stripped democracy of its significance and meaning, according to the remaining leftist current after the liberal and capitalist globalization led to its decline to such a great extent that it became only leftist capitalism.
What applies to the conduct of liberal democrats toward their western democratic countries also applies to their conduct toward the surrounding human reality. Despite the numerous calls for the spread of democracy and human rights and freedoms in accordance with the western vision, there was always greater focus on maintaining the balance of power as created by the financial hegemony through liberal capitalism. If there is a perceived danger to this hegemony, those calls are calmly withdrawn and replaced by support for any autocratic regime that ensures the continuity of hegemony ties.
As a clear and recent example of this, there were Western calls for democracy coinciding with the latest global destructive US wars during the era of former American President George W. Bush.
Governance, Decision-Making, & Human Beings
The system of democracy, human rights and freedom – as followed by western nations, and which other nations, Muslim and others, seek to adopt – constitutes a mechanism for governance and principles for human conduct. This system, however, was closely associated with other mechanisms and principles, revolving around the supremacy of money, not people, and the dominance of economic growth represented in budgets and profits for the owners of financial and business institutions. Totally absent is the dominance of human dignity, and even human life itself, represented in the individual`s everyday life, both at the national and international relations levels.
The main features of the democratic system – as a governance mechanism that rests on firm foundations, at the top of which are the will of people, separation between powers, and judicial sovereignty – were defined by intellectuals. Yet, applying this system on the ground runs into a lot of trouble due to the financial hegemony, locally and worldwide. Hence, it comes as no surprise to see the poverty rates and homelessness among children and adults in the richest western countries reach such inconceivable heights. This runs counter to the published figures on amazing economic growth, enormous wealth, and budgets of major corporations and banks. In pursuit of gains and profits, speculators and gamblers resort to devious plans and schemes at the expense of ordinary people. Moreover, the "elected" governments act in favor of these powerful parties, adding to the heavy burdens carried by the weaker elements in society. Likewise, we should not be surprised to observe the occurrence of large scale human catastrophes which are primarily due to that gap resulting from the financial dominance of decision-makers in the West or the North at the expense of the other human groups in the world.
As for human rights and freedoms – as shaped by the ideas of the early enlightened people during the latter part of the Middle Ages in Europe, and then by the covenants that were born out of the wombs of bloody conflicts, such as the French Revolution and the US independence and civil wars – there was and remains a battle arena to fulfill them. The battle involves unequal rounds fought between large, yet financially weak, groups and small, yet financially dominant, ones; or between rules and foundations that govern human relationships and are rooted in moral principles, ideals, and values, on the one hand, and realities created by a balance of power vying for influence and domination on the other hand, with each party possessing means of power that can be used to achieve decisive victory in every round of this battle.
It is necessary to distinguish between a theory put for these rights and freedoms – regardless of its details – and its practical application within the West, let alone the approach followed by western countries, or the powers influencing decision-making therein, in dealing with various peoples in the world, such as Africans and Muslims, and even the financially weaker people living in the western countries themselves.
Given the above, we can say that it should come as no surprise that some western officials from time to time call for spreading democracy and human rights in Muslim countries, some of which they call Middle Eastern, some others Asian, and some African. They are well aware of what they call for, and they do not – and cannot – separate between the tool of political governance, on the one hand, and decision-making through material, economic, financial, and military dominance, on the other hand. It is surprising, however, that a person from these Arab, Muslim, and developing countries – when he or she has reached an adequate level of knowledge and awareness – links his or her ambition for sound governance and true human dignity to such calls.
When the call for democracy and human rights and freedoms within an Arab or Muslim nation is linked to the West and its policies, there will be no hope for achieving the desired goal, regardless of any difference over its details in the Arab and Muslim arena.
Secular Background for Western Deviations
The joint journey of democracy and liberalism in the West, along with the flawed – and even savage, as described in some western writings – application of democracy and human rights and freedoms, came as a result of embracing secularism in an extreme way heading for atheism. There is no need now to discuss the historic causes of such extremism, as its beginnings and outcomes have become well known since the emergence of empiricism that called for abrogating any role for divine revelation in the creation and guidance of communal values, ending with the major atheist philosophies, such as determinism and existentialism.
Since it is not only secularism and atheism that exist in our world today, and as the greedy goals of liberalism and capitalism do not stop at the boundaries of their countries of origin, it was necessary for the rounds of secular conflict to move to each country where there is any religious vision stemming from divine revelation and so forth. Hence, it is not required to merely spread democracy, human rights and freedom, or even the liberal capitalist system, but to also link their spread – or globalization – with extreme secularism. Some western intellectuals may depart from this pattern, but the vast majority of decision-makers in the West today do not.
Hence, the failure of the journey of secularism in most Muslim nations in particular gives a clear sign of the failure of these western calls and those who adopt them along with secularism. Thus, also surprising is the position of some people who find it strange that westerners withdraw these calls, as if they were truly intended to spread democratic governance mechanisms and human rights and freedoms on sound foundations and principles.
In fact, it was very normal for them to backtrack on these calls following their failure and the unsuccessful attempts to spread them along with their flaws and drawbacks, i.e. their association with merciless capitalism and extreme secularism. It would be a great danger to the dominance of influential powers in the West should it be possible to spread democracy as a sound governance mechanism and human rights and freedoms without a secular background and financial hegemony. It would be enough for such a model to emerge to shake the pillars of the corrupt model currently adopted in the West through which western countries maintain global hegemony up till today.
It is not possible for the circle of the Muslim civilization – which has roots in all divine religions and refers to the revelation as a source for the creation of human values – to spread these calls in their current western forms that are closely tied to secularism, which clearly contradicts with all these religions, not only Islam.
Far from right are the views that this failure resulted from the refusal by people living in the circle of the Muslim civilization of this democratic mechanism per se, or from the rejection of proper human rights and freedoms. Those who reject are the tyrants as well as the supporters and beneficiaries of tyranny, all of whom have close ties to the West, the decision-makers in western nations, and the extreme secularism prevailing there.
The Democratic Path is an Islamic Path
Indeed, if there was a problem in the past between Muslim callers and democracy, it is also no secret that the majority of Muslim callers – intellectuals or movement members – who adopted democracy as a system for governance and called for it are currently at the forefront of the victims of oppressive powers that reject this system. Muslim intellectuals and callers, who followed a renewal approach, found nothing wrong with adopting a system of governance based on shura, in the form of elected parliaments, justice, and in the form of independent powers, or human dignity, in a constitutional and codified form that maintains human rights and freedoms. They accepted the will of the people as judgment over power rotation through ballot boxes, with conviction of the impossibility of imposing rulers who are rejected by their peoples. All these have roots – even more sound and proper – in Islam itself. Yet, most of them called and still call for democracy which is free from secular deviations and liberal capitalist exploitation that seeks the dominance of one human group over another under the guise of democracy. Indeed, this is the heart of the problem in their relationships with the dominant powers in the "secular, liberal, and capitalist" West, whose injustices are prevailing locally and globally.
This Ummah will never go away, as its roots are deep. It will not be ruined by the deviation of the journey of western civilization from its original springs during the Age of Enlightenment; nor will it be shaken by the journey of atheism that brought along its way secularism, democracy, and human rights and freedoms.
This Ummah will never disappear. So, it is absurd to find calls for democracy from an Islamic perspective that aspire for western support in one way or another. Such support – as proven by recent and distant historic events – is nothing but bloody and destructive.
Democracy should be released from its western chains, and human rights and freedoms should also be set free from their liberal, capitalist captor. Thus, the advocates of democracy and human rights in Arab and Muslim countries can achieve positive results on the ground within their own homelands and worldwide as well, for there can be no separation here. Democracy and human rights and freedoms need to be freed. And this cannot be achieved without liberating all the relevant initiatives and calls from any link to a western power or any power allied with the dominant powers in the West.
Moreover, this call should be set free from the mistaken linkage between secularism of the West and its modern progress. The modern renaissance of the West had begun in industry, technology, and production during the Age of Enlightenment, before animosity toward religion grew so greatly, regardless of the autocracy of the church at the time. Initially, the Renaissance did not deviate or lose its human face, despite the ongoing technological accomplishments. This is because the Renaissance was a product of a civilizational, human history covering several eras and places. However, it did not turn to such exploitation and criminality as never before seen in history except after new secular and atheist trends had dominated its journey during a succeeding period.
We should free the call for democracy and human rights from the shackles of erroneous visions. This way it can serve the purpose of liberating people, with their different classes and trends, from all forms of tyranny and exploitation. These forms include what is called democracy, liberalism, capitalism, and progress, which in fact repeat the wrongdoing of colonialism, enslavement, and exploitation of every stripe, old and new.
At that point, we will have no problems with names, for the essence is far more significant. Every rule based on the will of the people, human dignity, just authority, separated powers, judicial sovereignty, equality before law is a rule of shura and justice. Such a rule serves the objectives of Shari`ah and the interests of people and human relationships. This said, it is still better to call it Islamic rule or Islamic solution, if its objectives and aims can be demonstrated in practical and real terms, and if it does not conflict with the people`s aspirations that stem from their free will.
By: Dr. Nabil Shabib