A R C H I V E S
Madinat al-Muslimeen Islamic Message Board
|The democracy deficit|
|07/24/02 at 00:09:44|
|The democracy deficit |
Or why the Muslim world is backward
- Mushirul Hasan
He is efficient and dynamic, but meticulously ruthless. That is the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, one of the many dictators who preside over the destiny of the over 1.3 billion Muslims across the globe. He does not dwell on the absence of democracy in Muslim countries, but bemoans their educational and economic backwardness.
Last week, he told a group of Islamic scholars that ‘‘the Muslim world of today is hopelessly weak and backward.’’
This is an important comment, though Mahathir is not alone in drawing attention to the deep-seated malaise afflicting his co-religionists worldwide. Recently, the ‘Arab Human Development Report 2002’ documented the poor record of the Arab states, who have barely utilised their vast oil and gas resources to create a modern, welfare state.
One in five Arabs still lives on less than $2 a day; per capita income growth, at an annual rate of 0.5 per cent, is the lowest in the world, except for sub-Saharan Africa. Almost half the Arab women are illiterate, and their participation in political and economic life is the lowest in the world.
Muslim nations in the African continent, too, fit into the paradigm of soft states proportionate to their level of institutional slump and governance crises. Closer to home, Pakistan’s economic decline is apparent. Literacy levels are low, and the status of women abysmally poor. In 1997, female real GDP per capita (PPP$) was 701 as against 901 in India. Female adult literacy rate was 25.4 per cent against 39.4 per cent in India. The indicators of human development are pathetically low in Bangladesh, the country with the second largest Muslim population.
Given the heterogeneity amongst Muslim states, it is best to eschew sweeping generalisations. Yet, Muslim societies the world over experience, in varying degrees, certain common problems and issues.
They are, in some ways, unique to them and must be recognised as such. They relate to the conflict between cultural traditionalism and globalised modernity, the survival of autocracies, and the rigidity of patriarchal structures.
Indeed, the Arab Human Development Report points to three key ‘deficits’: freedom, knowledge and womanpower.
It is all very well to seek refuge in the old and somewhat simplistic explanations, i.e. the impact of colonial rule and the debilitating effect of the West’s political and economy hegemony. What is noteworthy is that Muslim governments — from Cairo to Jakarta — have had the time and the opportunities to alleviate the sufferings of the poor, and yet they squandered the chances. The oil wealth has widened rather than narrowed the gulf between the rich and the poor.
Often, the absence of democracy is attributed to either the rigid and doctrinaire tenets of Islam or to Western interests in bolstering the feudal, dynastic rule in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Although Western intervention hindered the growth of democracy, as in Iran, and it continues to mould government policies in other areas, the continuance of feudal and authoritarian regimes cannot take place without the acquiescence of the expanding ruling elites and their allies. Democratic aspirations, as the Indian case illustrates, cannot be stifled easily. They need to be articulated, in order to gain legitimacy, through organised structures.
Such structures are hardly visible on the Arab landscape. Even at this juncture a democratic movement can develop in the 22 members of the Arab League with or without Western support, but there are no signs of this happening. The 280 million people, ranging from 68 million in Egypt to 565,000 in Qatar, remain quiescent. Turkey, waiting for a nod from Brussels to join the European Commission, has to be slotted in a different category, but Indonesia and Malaysia in south-east Asia are unlikely to join the democracies of the world in the near future.
The slogan — in Islam religion and politics are inseparable — is employed to dupe the common man into accepting that, instead of politics or the state serving the long-term objectives of Islam, Islam should come to serve their immediate and myopic objectives.
In reality, the issue whether Islam is antithetical to democracy or not would have made sense only if the Quranic diktat mattered to the Muslim rulers. Ask a theologian and he will tell you that almost every state policy flouts the injunctions of the Book.
Further, the same issue would have been worth debating had any Muslim statesman tried introducing democratic reforms. Only then would we have known the extent of the people’s receptivity to democracy. Many Muslim countries, Pakistan included, have had years of half-baked or controlled democracy, followed by full-fledged military dictatorship.
Mercifully, we live in a democratic country. Though demonised and wilfully persecuted by the likes of Narendra Modi, the constitution has guaranteed to us, as to the other religious minorities, equal rights of citizenship. Fundamental rights, the essence of democracy, must be safeguarded through the existing democratic structures. At the same time, their real benefits would accrue only if the Muslim traditional and secular leadership pays more attention to its constituency’s intellectual regeneration.
They can render no greater service to their followers and religion than the removal of rigid formalism, which, to their discredit, is always associated with Islam. It would be futile to stifle free discussion in religious matters, because discussion and debate will take place — protest as much as the theologians may. We must accept the situation and make the most of it.
The Muslims have already neglected secular education enough, and it is time that the secular leaders recognise the need for reform and innovation, leaving the theologians to quibble, to wrangle, and to dissipate their energy over religious squabbles. They can, then, say to Mahathir Mohammad that the ‘Muslim world’ is not at its lowest ebb.
Madinat al-Muslimeen Islamic Message Board