OF BURKHAS AND BALLOTS: The Future of Democracy in the Arab World

Monday, November 17, 2003

The spread of democracy around the world was one of the most significant developments of the twentieth century. At the beginning of the last century, democracy was limited to a handful of Western nations, while today perhaps 120 nations have some form of democratic government. Yet among Muslim countries, democracy is rare, and among Arab states, essentially nonexistent. Why? Is the Islamic faith compatible with the essential features of a democratic society—separation of church and state, freedom of expression, and women's rights, to name a few—or not? Just what is the future of democracy in the Arab world?

Recorded on Monday, November 17, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: Will the Arab states ever vote to join the modern world?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: does democracy have a future in the Arab world? The spread of democracy represented one of the most significant developments of the 20th century. When the century began, only a handful of Western nations enjoyed democracy but by the time the century ended, some 120 nations around the world practiced at least some form of democratic government. Yet in Muslim countries, democracy even today, is still rare, while in Arab states, democracy is virtually non-existent. Why? Is Islamic culture compatible with the essential features of a democratic society, freedom of expression, separation of church or rather of mosque and state, equal rights for women, to name just a few or is it not?

Joining us today, three guests. Azim Nanji is director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. Seyyed Vali Nasr is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. And John Esposito is a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown and the author of What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam.

Title: Rock the (Casbah) Vote

Peter Robinson: President George W. Bush, speaking on November 6th, 2003: "Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of democracy? I, for one, do not believe it." Is the President correct, John?

John Esposito: Peoples in the Middle East, majority want democracy, whether or not the regimes will move in that direction is a big question mark.

Peter Robinson: Vali?

Vali Nasr: Well, the people do want democracy. The problem is with the regimes and also it's with the international support for those regimes, which hasn't changed.

Peter Robinson: Azim?

Azim Nanji: I think so but I think it will have to take place over time, taking into account the complexities of today.

Peter Robinson: The speech from which I just quoted was one that President Bush delivered on the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. Talked about the spread of freedom in the 20th century from about 40 democracies in the 1970s to 120 as the century ended. And of course, talked about the particular importance of democracy at the heart of the Islamic world in the Arab states. What I'd like to do is take the President's speech as the text for our discussion and give you quotations from the President's speech and have you tell me fundamentally whether the President is right or wrong, whether he's dreaming or realistic. The most fundamental aspect of democracy, representative government. President Bush, "Some skeptics assert that the traditions of Islam are inhospitable to representative government. This is cultural condescension." Cultural condescension. But in the Western world we have democratic assemblies dating back to Greece in the 5th century B.C. In Islam, it's unclear. Muhammad himself sets up a theocratic state and at present, only one nation in five where the Muslim majority is a democracy while in the 22 countries of the Arab world, representative democracy is limited to only a couple of tiny states, Bahrain, Oman and even there in very limited form. Why? Is there something in the nature of that culture?

Azim Nanji: I think we should recognize that there are serious problems with democracy in many parts of the Muslim world. But I think we can't afford to pick and choose what we say about the West. And so I think it's very well to say that democracy goes back to Athens but remember Athens also had slaves. Athens did not allow women to vote. And I think we can't idealize examples in the past. Then we're falling into the same trap that Muslims do.

John Esposito: And the West lived under divine right kingdoms for centuries.

Peter Robinson: Well now hold on, because yes, Athens had slaves but all citizens did attend representative assemblies. Yes, there were divine right kings in Europe but particularly in Northern Europe in the Scandinavian region and in England, we get representative assemblies. They're tribal assemblies but they're representative assemblies dating back at least a thousand years. So you can look back in Western culture, Western European culture and see democracy here and democracy here and democracy here. And you can draw a line to present day practice of democracy and in Islam you can't do that, can you, John?

John Esposito: I think one thing you can certainly talk about if you're going to talk about tribal assemblies…

Peter Robinson: Right.

John Esposito: …you can talk about the way in which you had tribal assemblies within a variety of Muslim cultures.

Peter Robinson: That's true.

John Esposito: But if we're talking about the broader issue, you know, of why don't we see democracy flourishing in the Arab and Muslim world, keep in mind that most Muslim countries existed under colonial rule until the 20th century. Many of them gained their independence mid-20th century. So that's the first part of the track record. They gained their independence and then what do you wind up with? You wind up with authoritarian regimes, with kings, military and ex-military in power. These regimes working with elites and often for reasons of the Cold War and other reasons, national interests being supported by outside powers. So I would tend to argue it's less an issue of religion and culture and more a issue often of politics and economics and economic interests.

Vali Nasr: It's problematic in that there is much more obvious reasons why there isn't more democracy in the region. When you

look at the billions of dollars that goes to support dictatorial regimes in the Arab world. If you cut that money, there'll be democracy much faster. When you look at the war on terror right now, giving the free hand to governments to suspend parliaments, persecute democratic forces, put people in prison under any pretext, suspend civil liberties, then, you know, it is a much better explanation than trying to sort of put this on culture.

Peter Robinson: Vali, you're saying it's the Western world's fault.

Azim Nanji: No, I want to go a little beyond that, I think. I think if we look at the recent report that came out on literacy in the Arab world…

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Azim Nanji: And it showed a tremendous backslide in levels of literacy in the last twenty-five years. The exclusion of women particularly from this growth in literacy. And I think those are serious issues because if people do not have the educational capacity and the status within the social development context to be able to participate in democracy, then it will not be a successful democracy.

Peter Robinson: John, can I just…

John Esposito: The point I'm making was that remember I began by saying, I placed it with governments and elites…

Peter Robinson: Right.

John Esposito: …reinforced by outside powers in terms of economic, military support. So it's not denying that, you know, a major part of the problem comes from within the countries...

Peter Robinson: Let's get back to this question of Islam's apparently uneasy relationship with representative government.

Title: Authority Figures

Peter Robinson: The American layman, 21st century, looks at this and says yes, yes, we have divine right of kings and so forth in Europe but you begin to see a struggle first on the part of nobility, then the common man--you see this long struggle toward representative government. It begins very early. It encounters difficulties but it's there. And in the Islam world, you see no analogue. And so the question is, is there something about the religion, the culture, is there something inherent in the culture of Islam, particularly in the Arab world that makes it resistant to democracy because if that's the case, Americans ought to have their eyes open to it. That's the question.

Vali Nasr: But if you talk about 30 years ago, you'd say the same thing about Latin American Catholicism. You'd say it's all about the Pope. It's all about this hierarchy. It's all about this. The problem is that no part of the Third World or the developing world in the recent history has actually democratized with the systematic support of the West. Whether it's in Asia or in Latin America, democracy came when the security question, fear of Communism, fear of terrorism, went away and there was no excuse for regimes to clamp down on their populations. And Washington, under President Reagan, forced them to open up. That kind of consensus--this speech withstanding--doesn't exist.

John Esposito: The late '80s and '90s, you did see governments--because they had major economic problems--holding elections reluctantly. But, in fact, when any kind of viable opposition, not even an opposition come to power, when that opposition emerged and it was an Islamic opposition that was mainstream, governments came down on it, slammed the door to democracy closed and, in general--in general, not always, but in general, did it with the approval, with complicity of outside Western powers.

Peter Robinson: This is a problem of oligarchy, not of culture or civilization. Is that the…

John Esposito: Absolutely. But when you've got that problem, you then wind up with a culture of authoritarianism that people grow up in. And I think that becomes a problem if you don't have a strong civil society.

Peter Robinson: They may be oligarchical bastards but they're ours.

John Esposito: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson; There's a certain loyalty especially if they're seen as in conflict with the West. Is that right?

Azim Nanji: But that's changing too. I think part of it is if this whole exercise in rethinking arrangements with the Arab world is going to succeed, then the issue of civil society has to take front and center because that's what needs to be created.

Vali Nasr: Peter, there's one other issue that's very key that, you know, is coming out of this is that this whole expectation that the Arab world would lead the Muslim world is wrong. I mean, the Arab world is not necessarily doing very well in a lot of indices. I mean, Azim mentioned literacy. Literacy rates or even number of books translated is not the same in Turkey and Iran. Why shouldn't we look in those cases?

Peter Robinson: Because it's the Arab world where the terrorists seem to come from.

Vali Nasr: Well, then we should separate the issues…

Peter Robinson: That's our particular problem…

Vali Nasr: We should separate the issues. We should not talk about Islam then. We should talk about the Arab problem as opposed to the Muslim problem.

Peter Robinson: President Bush has identified several central features of free democratic societies. Let's look at them one at a time in relation to the Arab world.

Title: Speak Now

Peter Robinson: Freedom of speech. President Bush, "Successful societies allow room for healthy civic institutions, for political parties and labor unions and independent newspapers and broadcast media." That's what President Bush said. In other words, freedom of inquiry and expression. Freedom of expression in the Arab world. Virtually every country practices censorship of both political and religious speech and in some countries, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the censorship is extreme. Freedom of inquiry--here's a statistic that simply blew my mind, as people used to say. A report issued last year, the United Nations Development Program estimated that fewer books have been translated into Arabic in the last 1,000 years than are translated into Spanish in a single year. So what you have, this suggests, is an entire Arabic culture with its mind closed, intent on stasis.

John Esposito: Regimes manage information, education, the press for their own purposes. And when you have the kinds of regimes that you have in many parts of the Arab world, you also have in other parts of the Muslim world--they are going to create the conditions that puts a--that put a cap on freedom of inquiry. And that's what affects not just your media, it's what affects the educational system, it's what affects the madrassas system, the seminary system, and then you wind up with the end product in terms of, you know--what does then--not only the average populous but, you know, what are they reading? What are they hearing? What are they being taught when they're in school? What are they being taught when they're in the madrassas? And so I think needing to put a real push on the nature of these regimes and getting them to open up the system to democratize is critical.

Vali Nasr: I mean, here's a--if you want it put in perspective. In that same time period in the past ten years, the number of works of Western philosophy published in Iran is mind boggling. There have been more translations of Immanuel Kant into Persian than into Japanese or, you know, most other European languages. A lot of them are published in Qom. This is under the "theocracy" where you have a flourishing of translation and here you have these secular regimes John is mentioning, where there is censorship. I mean, the best Arab bookstores are not in the Arab world as in Azim's city, London.

Azim Nanji: In London. That's true.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So the intellectual appetite exists, it's when the government, when the regimes finally peel the cover off just a little bit that you can see it.

John Esposito: And the reality of it is you can see it in practical ways. For example, many of my books have been translated into Muslim languages. Okay. But nowhere near the number of translations in Arabic that you find in the other Muslim languages. Indonesia has published most of my books. In the Arab world, countries are very--very careful about, you know, what's out there and how it's published and it's managed far more severely. It's not just a country like Saudi Arabia. It's a country like Egypt, which we often see as among the most, you know, open of societies. But again, that's not a matter of the culture of people, you know, the average person. It's a matter of a regime's agenda in terms of security at the end of the day.

Azim Nanji: The intellectual appetite I think was a good phrase that you used--also now has access to the Internet. Information technology is playing a very, very important role in providing access to the Arab world as other parts of the world.

Peter Robinson: In Cairo?

Azim Nanji: In Cairo.

Peter Robinson: In Jeda? In Damascus?

Azim Nanji: In Jeda, yes because…

Peter Robinson: It's happening everywhere.

Azim Nanji: Where there are available services, people can access material. Whether the local government approves of that kind of access is another issue. But what I'm also saying is that at least the educated people in many of these countries also travel. Now I think the fact that they have access to the Internet doesn't necessarily mean that that information is feeding back to all layers of society. But I think there is a trend at least that I've noticed where the open access to forms of communication that the government cannot completely restrict, is helping build a reservoir of new knowledge.

John Esposito: It's very interesting, you know, in the '70s, you had many governments in the name of development in the Arab and Muslim world, sending their young people here to study. You see that drop-off after and it's not just the economic side as a cause of the drop-off. It was the sense that my God…

Peter Robinson: What they're bringing back.

John Esposito: …we sent some of our best and brightest out. They come back with ideas about political participation, democratization, you know, freedom of speech. What are we going to do with it?

Peter Robinson: On to the next important feature of free societies.

Title: The Burkha Stops Here?

Peter Robinson: Women's rights. President Bush. Again I quote him. "The future of Muslim nations would be better for all with the full participation of women." Now look, let me ask an extremely basic question about is--this is a religious question. The Prophet himself had nine wives. Polygamy is still, it is my impression that it is by no means a dominant practice but it is still widely practiced in the Muslim world and it is condoned as a religious matter. Just on the face of it, doesn't it suggest that there's a fundamental inequality in the way Islamic culture and civilization looks at women as opposed to men? A man is allowed to choose multiple partners. A woman isn't. Isn't that just a kind of embedded stumbling block when it comes to women's rights?

Vali Nasr: Well not necessarily again universally. Again, if you were to look at different Muslim societies, it plays very differently. For instance, in Iran, 60% of university students are women. You see women who are CEOs of companies, who are managers. There's a woman Vice President. They're proliferating in society. That doesn't mean that they have equal rights. But it does not play in the same way that it plays in Saudi Arabia or in Kuwait and the like. I mean, there's a great deal of diversity there in terms of how does the issue of women's rights play itself out.

John Esposito: And these Iranian women are among the major opposition, as it were, to the regime. I mean, many of these Iranian women are the people who vote for Khatami consistently or for alternatives. So there's a tremendous diversity. We tend to look at the status of Muslim women through the images of particular societies. You have to realize there's a tremendous diversity taking place. And the force of patriarchy is very strong and that does continue to affect the status of women. And that force of patriarchy is also there in terms of the interpretation of many religious leaders.

Peter Robinson: But what about this question that you have a really embedded stumbling block and that you can only make progress with regard to women's rights to the extent that you simply ignore it? Not to the extent to which you base your progress on the kind of deep understanding of the faith and of Islam?

Azim Nanji: I think that there are still Muslim leaders and Muslim societies that have interpretations of the Koran that prevent them from giving women access to the kinds of rights and education that they should have. In my view, personal view, that's inexcusable because I don't see a sanction for it in the original dynamic kind of relationships that existed in the time of the Prophet when his first wife was a business woman, somebody who chose him to get married et cetera.

Peter Robinson: Is yours a personal view or…

Azim Nanji: It is a personal view…

Peter Robinson: …is it a rising view?

Azim Nanji: I affirm it on the basis I think of an interpretation that I think allows me to find role models in Muslim history that are shared by many people.

Vali Nasr: No, I think actually Azim's point is very well taken and in the sense that there is a--the Muslim sort of legal interpretation has been stuck, if you would, with a particular interpretation which is patriarchal, which is probably Arab-centered, in Afghanistan, for instance, was very tribal. And it has not been able to get over it. And, you know…

Peter Robinson: But not necessary? Not in…

John Esposito: There are a minority of Muslim voices of women. You see it in Iran. You see it in Malaysia and other places where you actually see women now attempting to empower themselves. And it's not just women's organizations. You have, you know, women who have trained themselves in the Koran, in Islam and attempt to put those arguments out there. But I think what one needs to realize is that Islam, like all other world religions, was a religion that the tradition was defined by men. It was the old boys who did it. Now you bring that down into the modern period and part of the transformation that takes place, for example in Roman Catholicism, just to take that by comparison, is when one attempts to push the envelope and move beyond that situation. And I think that in Islam, that debate is taking place both in terms of women becoming more empowered and realizing the problem of patriarchy.

Peter Robinson: Last topic: the separation of mosque and state.

Title: Faith in the System?

Peter Robinson: President Bush again. "Successful societies guarantee religious liberty, the right to serve and honor God without fear of persecution." Now here he's addressing what I think many in the West would regard as the fundamental question. We have separation of church and state. Is it possible within Islam to erect some similar separation of mosque and state?

Vali Nasr: You see, the problem is that where democracy is absent is not because of religion and state. It's the secular governments which are operating on the basis of secular constitutions that are suppressing democracy. Now with the exception of Iran, the issue is not actually Islam and politics. I mean, you look at Egypt, you look at--well Saudi Arabia's a special case--you look at Egypt, you look at Syria, you look at any Muslim dictatorship today…

John Esposito: Iraq.

Vali Nasr: Iraq--it had nothing to do with…

Peter Robinson: Well, but Iraq is a kind of unnerving example because absent now Saddam Hussein, you have Paul Bremmer is the sort of font of all worldly power but at least as it comes to us across network television, the alternative sources of power is one in imam after another--seem to be political rallying points, no?

John Esposito: But one of the most powerful Ayatollahs, some believe that he is, Sistani, is somebody who is not advocating a theocracy. It's somebody who is talking about yes--that would want to see the role of religion in society but he's not talking about creating a theocracy in Iran.

Vali Nasr: But at least we can look at it this way. I mean, I think all of us would love to live in a sort of a secular society. I as a Muslim would actually want that. But the question is we look at the final product of centuries of development of Europe and then expect that the Muslims can arrive in that immediately. I mean, how long did it take for the West to sort of sort this out? And, you know, Muslims are sort of progressing in Turkey or in Iran and that's why I think those are more important cases than the Arab world. It's not going to happen within a generation.

Peter Robinson: Hang on one second. I quote President Bush for the last time, a relief perhaps to some of you. President Bush, "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global, democratic revolution." Five years from now, will we see a functioning democracy in Iraq? Azim?

Azim Nanji: It looks very doubtful to me.

Peter Robinson: Ten years from now? If you extend the time horizon, do you become more optimistic?

Azim Nanji: No, I become less optimistic because I think now the administration's policies have very recently changed as to how they are going to…

Peter Robinson: They want to get out.

Azim Nanji: …manage that process--they want to get out.

Vali Nasr: I don't see it at all either in the short run or medium run. I don't think the foundational situation for the democracy exists. At best we can establish order which means through some kind of authoritarian regime.

Peter Robinson: So that's why we've been propping up these oligarchs, John, it's because it's the best we could do.

John Esposito: I think that one of the risks we run--you're talking ten year scenarios--unless we deal with the political realities and are willing to have short and long term approaches, that is, America and Europe in our foreign policy. If we just blindly prop up regimes and don't push them towards the development of civil society, we'll be back here doing this show ten years from now and you'll be looking at us saying, there must be something about their culture or their religion.

Peter Robinson: Iraq, five years from now a democracy? Are you as pessimistic as these two?

John Esposito: Unless things change dramatically in terms of U.S. policy, I am very pessimistic.

Peter Robinson: Well I usually like to leave things on a happy note but can't do it this time.

Azim Nanji: Well but we can be more optimistic about Afghanistan.

Peter Robinson: We can?

Azim Nanji: I think so.

Peter Robinson: Hold on. This is worth hearing.

Azim Nanji: No, because I think we've taken…

Peter Robinson: I didn't even ask. I assumed Afghanistan was hopeless.

Azim Nanji: See we've forgotten Afghanistan because we've assumed that Iraq is the flavor of the day.

Peter Robinson: A functioning democracy in Afghanistan. That's a possibility?

Azim Nanji: A democracy which will I think, be derived from the tribal culture that exists. It will not…

Peter Robinson: But a tribal council of some kind?

Azim Nanji: It will not be without its tensions and without its problems but I think if, as John said, if the engagement is sustainable and it involves more countries than America, which it does in the case of Afghanistan, we may see better things there than we would in Iraq.

John Esposito: I'm skeptical about that. I think the first half I agree with. I think in Afghanistan it seems as if we're moving in a much more multilateral approach. The problem is who are the players on the ground?

Peter Robinson: Let me ask you one more last question. But this time it really does have to be the last question. Consider that you're advising President Bush. Do you tell him in Iraq, get out or stay as long as it takes, bearing in mind that as long as it takes may be a decade or longer?

Azim Nanji: Work with the United Nations, other countries, to make sure that you stay there for as long as is necessary.

Peter Robinson: Vali?

Vali Nasr: I think there's a lot can be achieved on Iraq but I think the President's putting the bar too high. I mean, if you…

Peter Robinson: He's dreaming. He's just being unrealistic.

Vali Nasr: What he's saying, we cannot achieve. There are many short, smaller goals that can be achieved in order to sort of wrap it up and have a situation that's better for the Iraqis and the region.

John Esposito: The U.S. has to, it seems to me, work multilaterally to provide the sort of security, to contribute to the economic development but it also has to work in a multilateral fashion to give the Iraqi people the political power that they must have to feel that this is not an occupation.

Peter Robinson: Is he doing the right thing then by saying that we want to turn over power as early as next spring?

John Esposito: As long as it doesn't look as if it's the first stage of cut and run.

Vali Nasr: And also it doesn't lock out the Sunis out of the power structure. Otherwise, they're going to fight…

Peter Robinson: Okay. Azim Nanji, Vali Nasr and John Esposito, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.