The following is the first in a series of articles on democracy.
Many western observers of the Arab Spring are surprised that democracy has not taken hold in internet or social media time. It appears that they have forgotten just how long it took to establish democracy in the west. Perhaps it is necessary to explain, that despite our hopes and expectations, the Arab world cannot achieve a Renaissance, a Reformation and democracy at warp speed. That very same transformation took Europeans several hundred years.
To better understand the nature and consequences of the Arab Spring and other events in the Middle East we need to develop a better understanding of the history of democracy in the region and how it compares to what happened in Europe.
Renaissance and Reformation in Europe
The Roman Empire in the west fell at the end of the 5th century and it was another 900 years, a period known as the Dark Ages where religion and superstition prevailed, before the Renaissance brought about a new burst of knowledge in Europe.
That new birth of knowledge and artistic endeavour eventually witnessed the urge for greater freedoms. Henry VIII created a new church because he wanted to divorce his Catholic wife. Even more importantly, Martin Luther launched what became known as the Protestant Reformation. This Reformation was to upend and break the grip of the Catholic Church over much of Europe.
The Catholic Church was never going to adopt a missionary position and take this rebellion lying down. Consequently, intense religious wars erupted in Europe along with periodic and grotesque bouts of religiously inspired torture known as Inquisitions—of which the Spanish Inquisition was the most notorious.
The greatest of these religiously inspired European wars was the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648, during which time it was estimated that as many as 30% of the population of the German Reich, Germany was not then a nation, lost their lives. It was as a result of this mass slaughter that new ideas about how and by whom peoples should be governed started to take shape and people then started to challenge not only religious authority but also the divine right of kings.
The Thirty Years War ended with the Treat of Westphalia and the concept of the nation state firmly established—the idea that a nation of people was entitled to be governed by and within their own sovereign state without interference by outsiders.
The Long Road to Western Democracy
Having established the concept of the nation state from as far back as the middle of the 17th century, it was to take Europeans more than 300 years before democracy was fully established. In the interim many more wars were fought: to define the extent of both the nation and their state; against the capricious rule of kings and dictators, and; to further reduce the influence of religion.
It is interesting to note that both the American and French Revolutions of the late 18th century were driven by the ideals of democracy which by that time included a belief in the separation of church and state.
European conflicts were to culminate in not one but two shocking and apocalyptic world wars in the 20th century. It was only after the end of these wars that democratic nation states emerged as the norm in Western Europe. Even then, Portugal and Spain only began their transition to democracy in the 1970s.
It has taken several hundred years for Western Europeans to establish secular democracy but what have Arabs been doing in the interim?
Why is it that Arabs are only now starting their transition to democracy?
Is there any chance that democracy will be secular?
Is there such a thing as non-secular democracy and would that be good enough?
Arab Democracy: A History of Arrested Development
The absence of a Renaissance and Reformation in the Middle East means that religion continues to endure as the point of reference for any changes that take place in the Arab world.
Why has religion endured and why does it remain the defining factor?
Muslim Empire(s) emerged from the Arabian Desert in the middle of the 7th century. Arab and Muslim armies conquered large swathes of the Middle East, North Africa and even parts of Europe—most notably Spain. These empires were defined by religion from the outset. This was in stark contrast to the kingdoms and empires of Europe which acquired religion as a means of bolstering their legitimacy by way of following in the footsteps of the Romans—the latter having adopted Christianity as the religion of the empire.
Moreover, unlike Western Christianity where the authority of the Pope was for the most part practised independently of kings, in Islam, authority over religion and authority over empire were both invested in the same individual. By the time of the Ottoman Empire that individual became known as the Caliph.
The rule of the Ottoman Caliphs over the Middle East is important for two reasons. The first is that it started in the early 16th century at a time when Europe had already begun in its Renaissance and Reformation. The second is that this imposition of a religious Empire was to last several centuries and was only brought to an end in 1919 by the defeat of the Turks in World War I.
The Ottoman Caliphate thus resulted in a tragic case of arrested development for the Arab world where the ideas of individual freedom and the nation state were simply subsumed and never entertained. Islam was also deemed to be the cause of the backwardness of the Turkish state relative to the European powers by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state. As such, when he took power in Turkey in 1923, he not only abolished the Caliphate but enshrined secular democracy within the constitution of the new state.
The Impact of Western Interference on Arab and Middle Eastern Democracy
However, what was good for Turkey was not considered good enough for the Arab world. Despite Arab assistance to the allies in World War I, Arab lands were colonised by Europeans in the first half of 20th century. The Arab states were made to wait several decades before gaining independence, mainly from the British and the French.
Even after independence western nations still maintained their influence in the Middle East mainly because of oil and the establishment of the state of Israel. So for example, Iran and Iraq both suffered western-backed coups in the postwar era because their leaders were deemed too nationalistic—a common euphemism at that time for any state that wanted to control its own oil.
The long and recent history of external interference in the Middle East gave rise not to democracy but to the idea of the strongman who could stand up to external threats. It is this phenomenon which brought about leaders like the Hafez and Bashar Assad in Syria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
Elsewhere, as with Mubarak in Egypt, the west has in the past actively promoted an undemocratic status quo because it suited their interests—although this was in no way unique to the region.
Why Religion Endures as the Deciding Factor
The reality is that Arabs have had a relatively very short time within which to discuss the ideas of individuality, self-determination, secular society and the role of religion in the nation state. It should therefore be no surprise that they are struggling with these issues.
In states such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya the biggest source of strife is the question of just how much Islam must be included once the transition to democracy is complete. The current stand-off between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army in Egypt exemplifies this struggle.
Yet, these are not the only reasons for the current difficulties in transitioning to democracy. Part of the problem is the very nature of the adherence to Islam itself.
Muslim empires were marked with strife from the very beginning when a schism emerged which split Islam into two main branches—Shiites and Sunnis. Such was the hatred and animosity generated by this schism that in the 11th and 12th centuries Sunnis determined that it was more important to destroy what they viewed as the Shiite heresy than to fight the crusaders.
Thus Saladin, the great Muslim leader, fought and defeated Shiite rule in Egypt even while the crusaders were still camped on Muslim lands. This failure of the two branches of Islam to join together in order to defeat an invader prolonged the agony and the devastation of the crusades.
We should be reminded here that the crusaders committed many atrocities in the Middle East including the wholesale slaughter of the population of Jerusalem and at least one documented act of mass cannibalism.
To this day, the inability to overcome this schism between Shiites and Sunnis plays a very major role in the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and most notably in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon. In these states, the pursuit of a democratic nation state is being destroyed by centuries of religious enmity which at times seems almost impossible to overcome.
Finally, there are the al Qaeda affiliates, radical Islamists, who do not believe in democracy at al. They are therefore hell bent on spreading as much wanton destruction as they possibly can in order to frustrate and completely derail any and all attempts at achieving democracy.
The Road Ahead
Many argue that the very nature of Islam as a religion makes it incompatible with democracy. In my opinion that is a futile and irrelevant argument. The truth is that no religion is compatible with democracy. This incompatibility is after all the very reason why the Christian West has opted for a separation of church and state.
The success of the Arab Spring and the region’s transition to democracy will ultimately be dependent on whether or not its people realise that as long as the branch of the religion to which they belong or the extent of their religious observation defines their relationship with the nation state, then democracy will be difficult to achieve.
In the Middle East, they are trying to accomplish a Renaissance, a Reformation and a transition to democracy all at the same time. We know from several hundred years of grim and bloody European history just how difficult it is to make that transition. We can only hope for the best. The only thing we can be sure of is that such a transition will not and cannot happen overnight.
Yet, we should remain optimistic and honour the bravery of those who have taken to the streets to defy guns and bullets. We should be optimistic because social media has greatly accelerated the debate about secular or as some would call it civil democracy. What we should not do is listen to those commentators who tell us that all is lost because democracy did not happen yesterday.
Jonathan Ledwidge is the author of the book Clearing The Bull, The Financial Crisis And Why Banks Need A Human Transformation (iUniverse).