Social structure of Arab societies, clout of Islamists make true democracy unlikely
by: Dan Calic
With the Arab world boiling in turmoil, Western leaders led by President Obama are throwing their support behind “populist” demonstrations ostensibly calling for “freedom” in the form of democracy, and the overthrow of governments that in all cases are dictatorial.
On the surface, calls for “freedom” and “democracy” get warm reactions from Westerners who live in countries where genuine freedom of expression is allowed and true democratic governments exist. Yet Westerners who are turning their backs on “friendly” dictators and taking up the rallying cries of the protestors do not have a genuine understanding of what the likely outcome will be should the protestors succeed.
The result will not be democracy, and friendly relations with the West will disappear.
The concepts of freedom and democracy, while basic to Western countries, are anything but in the Arab world. In fact, in the entire Middle East not a single true democracy exists among the Arab countries. The region’s only true democracy is Israel.
There are also significant cultural differences between Western countries and the Arab world that present overwhelming obstacles to “freedom” and “democracy.” While obedience to civil law and acceptance of government’s role is fundamental in Western democracies, the social structure in the Arab world is made up of an entirely different order of allegiances, which maker the prospects of implementing true democracy as likely as placing a round peg into a square hole.
In many cases, the most important allegiance in the Arab world is not obedience to civil law and compliance with governmental authority, but rather, to the family unit. Often, a no less important allegiance is to the Imam. Many of these religious leaders ingrain Arab society with adherence to Islam, vilify the enemies of Islam, promote jihad and Sharia law, issue decrees as they see fit and object to Western-style freedom and democracy. Indeed, the very meaning of Islam is “submission.”
A third allegiance is to the tribe or clan. Tribal law and wars between various clans have been ongoing for centuries. A young son is taught to be part of his clan and obey and participate in clan activities, including war against other clans. Disobedience can result in death.
With obedience to one’s father, imam and clan all superseding the law, Western-style freedom and democracy becomes largely impossible.
Moreover, the West should be wary of is who is behind the populist uprisings. Muslims make up 90% of the 22 Arab countries in the region, and while many young people would like to see a change in their government, the fundamentalists exert huge influence in the Arab world. Even if they are not in the majority in raw numbers, they threaten and intimidate non-fundamentalists and hold huge clout.
An excellent example in this respect is the Palestinian theater. In January 2006, elections were held in the PA and fundamentalist terror group Hamas scored a resounding victory over the more secular Fatah. Some 18 months later, after bloody battles with Fatah, Hamas violently took control of the Gaza Strip and has ruled it ever since.
Similarly, elections in other Muslim countries may result in government controlled by hard line Islamists. Once they take over, they are unlikely to give up power.
Hence, President Obama ought to be careful of what he wishes for. He might just discover that his promotion of changes and revolutions in the Arab world may come back to haunt not only him, but all of us.