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On Democracy and Liberalism
Many people suggest that as democracy spreads around the globe, we will see an emergence of liberal societies. The popular media and the White House make this assertion when suggesting that as democracy spreads through the Muslim world, peaceful and liberal governments will emerge in place of belligerent and oppressive tyrants.
To be honest, I believed it all myself until recently. But, as they say, hindsight is 20/20, and so a confluence of recent events have allowed me to see why this is not so. In addition, I’d like to take the opportunity to make the distinction between democracy and liberalism.
Event 1) Two semesters ago, I took an excellent course entitled the Middle East Today, whose focus was Islam. I learnt that “the door to ijtihad was closed” (Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph.D, President, Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc) sometime around the early 1300s. Ijtihad is, in the clear words of Dr. Syed, “individual intellectual effort” used for the “articulation and interpretation of Shariah (Islamic law).” As scholarship in the Muslim worlds predominantly meant the study of Shariah, shutting down ijtihad basically meant putting an end to critical thinking.
Event 2) The Muhammad cartoons published in a Danish newspaper stir up controversy in the Muslim world months after their initial publication. I noticed that the Middle East’s Muslims rioted, while those in the West protested. Note the nuance between rioted, as in trashed and burned things, and protested, as in peacefully voiced their displeasure.
Event 3) Elections in Iraq, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt have shown powerful support for Islamists. Religious groups have won majorities in the former two, while a majority of the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidates were elected in Egypt (not enough to form a government, since it didn’t run candidates everywhere).
From these events I drew the following conclusions.
Firstly, and most importantly, Muslims in the Middle East do not have liberal values; their values are primarily religious. Whereas liberalism advocates the separation of Church and State (Mosque and State as it were), Muslims in the Middle East are looking at drafting laws and constitutions based on Sharia. Like Paul Martin said, you vote for people based on your values. As we in the West are so steeped in the liberal tradition, we inherently associate liberalism with democracy. However, democracy means voting for people who reflect your values, and if your values aren’t liberal, you won’t have a liberal democracy.
Secondly, the liberalism to which Muslims are exposed to here, mainly in the form of freedom of speech and freedom of the press (i.e. an open door to interpretation), has rubbed off. At a Hamas run school, losing a debate (topic: Who’s filthier: pigs, rats or Americans?) could mean losing your head, literally (assuming they have debates). In the West, losing a debate means learning from your mistakes and improving your critical thinking. This exposure to liberal values explains why the reaction to the cartoons here in North America was letter-writing rather than flag-burning.
Adolph Hitler was elected democratically. If we want to encourage liberalism in the Muslim world, promoting literacy (as Dr. Syed suggests), freedom of speech, and exposure to various philosophies is probably the best way to do it. Democracy is not synonymous with liberalism.
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