Democracy and the Muslim world

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The United Nations, democratic countries, and democracy organizations and supporters around the world have celebrated September 15 as Democracy Day. It is designed to illuminate and promote awareness of democracy and monitor its quality, condition, practice and prospectus in various countries around the world. Both the concept and the prototype revolve around Athenian models of democracy, which originated in the fifth century BCE and only survived for two centuries. Yet its prescient ancestor, Cleisthenes, who first introduced it as a reformed system of governance by the people, is still honored as the father of democracy throughout the democratic world. This system, however, was quite different; it required the participation of all adults and even branded non-participants with flashy paint to highlight their failure. But even then, this precursor is considered a great Greek heritage and a contribution to the modern world.

The system, in its various emerging forms, has now spread to more than 110 countries comprising the most advanced Western nations in human rights, welfare and future in industry, science, business and future. Even China, with the largest human population and the second most industrialized and wealthiest state on the planet, also claims to be a working class democracy. However, based on the stipulated ideals of its signature standards, quality and practice, 23 countries were classified as fully democratic in 2021, while 52 had somewhat flawed formats and 35 used a hybrid system. The system being an apotheosis of the will, rights, power of the people and the process of electing, installing and replacing their leaders through a smooth and peaceful process. Yet despite such ideals, the prolific attributes and effects of democracy have also shown a rather paradoxical aspect of being much less popular, pervasive, or pursued in Muslim countries than in most other parts of the world.

The fact becomes even more intriguing because democracy reincarnates and helps to fulfill many percepts and ideals that have been so passionately worshiped and displayed by Muslims. For example, it is simply an evolved or extended form of the traditional Bayet system or the ties of allegiance of the chiefs or potentates of various tribes and regions. It stipulates a specific length of time for the officer to perform his duties as well as a process for holding the incumbent accountable. Freedom of religion, of expression, of assembly, of association, to acquire property rights, to seek justice against wrongful action or persecution, and the sanctity of life as enshrined in the Islam, are also guaranteed by democracy. In retrospect, one might also think that if Muslims had embraced the essentials of democracy at earlier stages, there would certainly have been much less carnage and bloodshed in Muslim history.

Despite such strikingly similar ideals, democracy has not simply eluded Muslims, but has even been repeatedly derailed, rejected or suspended in countries that have ventured to embrace it. Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, for example, inherited it from their British rulers who initiated and exploited it in the last phase of their occupation. But unlike India, known for its continuous and robust democratic system, Pakistan has suffered four coups and occupations by military dictators, each lasting more than a decade. The process in Bangladesh led to the even more terrible death of its Prime Minister and his family members. Turkey became the first Muslim state to embrace it, granting women the right to vote even before many Western countries. Yet its roughly century-long span is also marred by four coups by military juntas and the execution of one of its most prominent prime ministers and two of its cabinet colleagues. Even more tragic and traumatic were the trails of struggles, sacrifices and setbacks of the democracy movement, known as the Arab Spring, which swept through some Arab countries like Tunis, Egypt and Libya. Far more pathetic has been his plight in Sudan where he was snuffed out just two years after gaining independence in 1956. A powerful popular uprising in 2019 forced the dictator generals to retreat after their 60-year-old ravages . However, last October, they managed to regain control.

Scholars and researchers around the world have endeavored to analyze the reasons and factors behind the failure, failures, lack of growth and stronger roots of democracy in Muslim countries. They analyzed it in the context of poverty, lack of education, concepts of caste, tribal and community taboos, traditions, quarrels and rivalries. Democracy, however, has also proven to be an effective remedy against these factors. An aversion to democracy, which has also emerged in some regions with the windfall of oil wealth, has also helped to entrench more power and monopolistic controls. The inefficiency, corruption, inequalities reinforced by the absence of accountability, encountered at the embryonic stages of democracy, also fuel disillusionment with this system in certain countries. Some terrorist groups have further undermined democratic systems by drowning out the diversity, inclusion and pluralism that are the foundations of any democratic system.

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