From the very beginning of the Arab Spring, political analysts have examined the movement from various perspectives, but the most important issue is the direction and destination of the movement.
Will the Arab Spring currently unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa eventually turn into an Arab Winter, or will the peaceful demonstrations in countries like Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen finally allow the people to establish democracy?
This is the big question.
The compatibility of Islam with democracy is another key issue for the popular uprisings in the Arab world. This issue has been discussed for over three decades, especially since the victory of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Three main viewpoints have emerged over the course of developments over the past year. According to the first, Islam and democracy have different philosophical and historical assumptions and are thus incompatible. The second view is that Islam, as a comprehensive religion, is totally compatible with democracy and there is no contradiction between the two. According to the third view, the two doctrines are different but not totally incompatible.
By clarifying the exact nature of democracy, its historical background in the Middle East, and Muslims’ perception of their rulers, we can get a better picture about the future of the popular uprisings in the region as well as the role of the democratic process in these developments.
So, what is democracy? The question has engaged many intellectuals and writers throughout history, but there has never been a consensus on the exact definition of the concept and its impact on the political and social life of the people.
The most common form of modern democracy is representative democracy, in which citizens vote in elections to choose politicians to represent them in a legislative assembly. However, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus warned that rule by the people, which is the main theme in a democratic system, may lead to mobocracy.
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as: “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” -- which is the most accepted definition of democracy. However, the masses are not capable of ruling the masses, and so-called democratic rule is actually the rule of the elite.
In his 1972 book Democracy, Carl Cohen says that rule over the people in a democratic system should not be regarded as oppression of the masses, but rather, the main function of the elite rulers is guidance of the people.
However, some believe that the current form of the democratic system has only created a battlefield for a handful of political parties that are struggling to get a bigger share of power. In other words, people are not so important in this political struggle and they are sometimes called into action only to serve the interests of the political elite.
This form of democracy has weak points and disadvantages. Politicians have taken advantage of political freedom and manipulated the poor to pave the way for the establishment of oppressive systems. This is what Plato warned about when he spoke of the potential diversion of a democratic system in the early days of the inception of the concept in ancient Greece.
Political development in the 17th century in Britain paved the way for a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary system. Influenced by the works of great philosophers like Montesquieu and Rousseau, political thought underwent huge changes in that period, resulting in new developments such as the independence of the United States and the French Revolution. All this led to the idea that democracy should be based on liberalism, which facilitated the birth of liberal democracy.
Later on, in the twentieth century, governments were expected to be more restricted because the rule of the majority could create a totalitarian system. Thus, representative democracy is currently the most popular system among political theorists and politicians because it represents the will of the people in the best form.
But the people of the Middle East certainly do not want to take the same path. In light of the historical ups and downs of democracy, the masses in the Arab world are looking for a better future and not a situation that creates great public dissatisfaction, like what we have seen in the United States and Europe over the past few months.
In other words, the Western version of democracy cannot meet the needs and satisfy the aspirations of the millions of people in the Middle East and North Africa, who are now seeking freedom and justice after decades of dictatorship and tyranny.
The recent developments in the Arab world are fundamentally different from what happened in the West because the masses are now awakened and they are trying to create major changes in the social, economic, and political situation of their countries. This awakening, which is mostly inspired by Islamic values, guarantees the continuity of the Arab Spring and prevents it from turning into an Arab Winter.
Thus, Islam is playing a major role in this situation, and the people want their new governments to be based on Islamic principles and values. This divine religion opens up a new path for the people of the Arab world and will lead them to prosperity and independence.
Majid Kianinejad is a political analyst and an expert on the Middle East based in Tehran.
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