Monday, January 30, 2006

Is there a place for democracy in the Middle East?

Is it possible for democracy to succeed here? And is the struggle to change our backward present and catch up with the modern world a losing one? Are we really ready to change ourselves and replace the old ways of violence and hatred with tolerance and dialogue for a better future? And do we deserve help from the world in our battle?.....

These questions and others are insistently looking for answers especially after seeing the results of the latest elections in more than one spot in the region; these results shown that Islamists have the advantage and it shown the humble achievements of the secular/liberals.

Through this post I’d like to summarize some of the factors that contributed to this situation as well as my expectations for the future as an ordinary middle astern citizen who belongs to the reform camp and tries to figure out what’s going on around him.

If we go back in time to the latest colonial era we’d see that the intellectual environment at that time was far more developed than at the later stages of independence and national governments, we’d see that freedom of press and expression was fairly better than what we had at later times and even religious parties we’re going through a phase of reevaluating their history and ideologies; at that time there were many religious reformists who were calling for rereading our history and were searching for dialogue channels with the western civilization. Even the Muslim Brotherhood-to which most current Islamic parties belong-we’re more ready to talk, discuss and reform than they are now and at that time, this was considered a leap on the road of reforming the religious thinking.

But the independence wave that came later mostly through military coups allowed the pan-Arab nationalists to take over and impose their point of view on the peoples; they took away freedoms of speech and though and oppressed everyone that didn’t follow their ideology. The people found themselves stuck with one leader, one party and one opinion to follow while all kinds of opposition were either eliminated or severely marginalized.

This was at least the case in Iraq for decades and the same applied to the rest of the neighborhood more or less.

In Iraq were not allowed group or meet for any reason outside the approval of the party and it was officially considered a crime for a number of people to gather and talk politics, the charge that I remember too well was that “they are grouping” and that was enough for conviction. That’s why each and every meeting required the approval of the government before it could be held.
However there was one place that the government couldn’t stop people from meeting at, that was the mosque. Although mosques were told to close their doors outside prayer hours, Friday prayers represented a chance for people to meet in hundreds or even thousands to listen to a preacher who scorned this life and promised them a place in heaven if they did as God said. At that time of dictatorship not many could enjoy a decent life, so many of us had to dream of a better life in heaven.

Liberals and seculars couldn’t preach to a crowd but clerics-through prayer times-could.

When Saddam was toppled and pan-Arabism was defeated in Iraq, there were no liberal or secular leaderships or organizations on the scene but religion was there as it was hardly interrupted by the succeeding events.

I recall that when we and other groups were forming our own parties, we would consider it a success if there were 50 of us in any of the earlier meetings. Here I’m talking about parties that were formed inside Iraq by Iraqis who remained inside and were so eager to group and express themselves.

On the other hand were religious parties; those already had their offices (the mosques) and a schedule for meetings (prayer times).
Unlike them, we had to find an office and we didn’t have holy dates and times for our meetings; clerics didn’t have to send invitation cards, hang banners or give every member a phone call as their audience was coming out of fear from God’s punishment. We were scattered trying to put ourselves together while they were highly organized.
A party that could manage to gather 500 of its supporters in a rally was considered lucky and organized while clerics had countless opportunities to order their followers to take to the streets and demonstrate for whatever cause.

We are not the minority but we are the least organized when compared to the religous parties. When people voted for the religious choice that was because religion was in front of them all the time while parties like ours were more like a new face in the neighborhood, interesting but not convincing.

That wasn’t the only factor that influenced the Iraqi elections; there are other factors that are just as important. Lack of security and the feeling of being targeted had led many people to entrench behind their sects. killings or marginalization were guided by the sectarian/ethnic identity to a great extent and this applies to all parties. And that’s why I believe that not all those who gave their votes to the Islamists-whether Sunni or Shia-were really religious people; I know many who voted for 555 or 618 but they do not practice Islam!
Such people voted religious because it gives them a feeling of security; a Shia fears a Sunni interior minister while a Sunni fears a Shia interior minister…it is a lack of trust escalated by the criminal acts that choose targets by sect.

It is difficult to convince the simple segment of the population that democracy will not allow dictators to appear again and that it guarantees pluralism. We simply haven’t absorbed these concepts and it seems rather impossible for our people to trust democracy from the first trial.
Another factor that affected our choices is that part of the middle eastern personality that prefers confrontation, not for the sake of confrontation itself but because of that belief that confronting the present reality can make a change.

Our surrounding environment was rarely nice to us and that’s why we-as parties as well as individuals-used to seek confrontational solutions perhaps they could change our lives for the better; we didn’t have a normal economic, political or social life to worry about and protect so we always thought that confrontation might lead to a change, we didn’t believe that such attitude would necessarily lead to a change for the better.

There’s a saying that we used to say often before the war when we just awaiting the operations to begin; “lo hara lo wara” which roughly means “victory or defeat, let’s just go for it!” which generally means that we are ready to take either outcome because both are better than standing still and dying slowly.
This is one of the factors that push people to vote for a particular faction without being convinced enough or even knowing the platform they’d be supporting.
The tone of confrontation and radical solutions had always been there although the heroes of this strategy brought nothing upon us but disappointment.

This is clearly visible in Iraq and to a similar extent in the Palestinian case.

Some said that it was too early to push the region to do elections because elections would bring fundamentalists…but if we don’t start now, then when?!
The wheel of change has to take its course and delaying it in my opinion won’t do us any good.
What happened was a natural outcome of our war with ourselves; we have to learn from this and develop the way we think and interact with the variables and we will certainly figure out what our mistakes were. This takes time but democracy is still the one and only solution and we need to go through all its stages, even if we make wrong choices, what matters is that these would be our choices, not someone else’s.

When I expressed my disappointment with our election results it wasn’t because I don’t find democracy a good thing but rather because I felt sorry for the sacrifices we’ll have to offer on our way towards the right choice and because I am worried about the newborn democracy from being stolen or buried by the fundamentalists. This is justified fear but I think it’s going to be very difficult for the fundamentalists to perform a coup on democracy as long as the free world stands by our side until we pass the critical phase.

I think the coming four years-with all the intellectual freedom and technological facilities that cannot be contained by the ruler-will allow the liberal and secular powers to grow stronger and become more influential.

Victory may look far away but defeat I can’t see at all and if some consider our sacrifices a defeat, I consider them a price that has to be paid.

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