Idiotic autocrats

by Saad Hafiz


A Turkish government spokesman summarised the reaction to the outcome of the 2007 Turkish parliamentary elections in other Muslim countries as: “What the hell did the Turks do right that we did not do? How come they can manage a predominantly Muslim population, negotiate [for membership] with the EU [European Union], and have a workable democracy while we are stuck with these idiotic autocrats?” The spokesman may have lacked tact but he cut to the heart of the matter and his question continues to weigh on the minds of people elsewhere in the Muslim world. While Turkey, after World War I, is an exception, most of the Muslim world still remains under the clutches of family dynasties, oligarchies, royal families, ruthless clerics and strongmen who outlaw political opposition and greatly restrict individual freedoms. Muslim societies carry on grappling with economic development, effective governance, corruption and democratic mobilisation against dictatorships and entrenched elites.

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The heritage of authoritarianism is a major cause of political and economic underdevelopment in Muslim countries. In a kind of indigenous colonisation, this authoritarianism expresses itself politically through patriarchal monarchies and dictatorships, economically in feudalistic landholding systems, militarily with elitist structures and religiously with the Islamic clergy. The failure of democracy and economic development can be blamed on the persistence of hierarchical structures in national institutions, with power flowing vertically from the top down. For every Ataturk, Jinnah and Mossadegh, there have been many more strutting generals and colonels, despotic kings and sheikhs ruling from Morocco to Brunei, sometimes with a parliamentary facade, sometimes without.

It seems too easy to blame external factors such as colonialism and a fundamentally unfair global political economy prejudiced against peripheral nations for the plight of democracy in Muslim countries. We can ask whether the core Muslim countries’ long-standing political failure, which goes back centuries before the onset of western colonialism, has been merely accidental and attributable to exogenous factors, or whether it can be attributed to some feature or flaw of Islamic tradition itself. There is merit in the thesis that Islam does not have provisions for the kind of western democracies that are still non-existent in most Islamic countries. The power lies with the sovereign of the universe and not with the person chosen by the votes of the people. As the British political philosopher Roger Scruton puts it: “Islam has never incorporated itself as a legal person or a subject institution, a fact that has had enormous political repercussions. Like the Communist Party in its Leninist construction, Islam aims to control the state without being a subject of the state.”

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One explanation offered for the lack of democracy in Muslim counties is that dictators and clerics have ensured non-compliance with the Quranic commandments of shura, or group consensus, and equality, thus holding back the translation of these into viable democratic institutions. These institutions, if allowed to flourish, would place greater emphasis on political vitality and legitimacy. Muslim scholars and intellectuals, some ironically based in the west, harp on about the horrors of western democracy and capitalism, despite all the political and material progress they seem to have brought in their wake. They advocate a resurrection of Islam with an aim to live by the faith. Politically, it would manifest itself through a mythical “Islamic democracy” based on the Islamic concept of egalitarianism and a welfare system. These scholars tell us that Islamic democracy would redistribute the wealth more evenly than capitalist democracy that, even in the richest countries, often creates gross inequalities while giving token equality and freedom to all in the form of the right to vote. While we wait for Islamic democracy to arrive, autocrats (not all idiots!) continue to rule and Muslim citizens desperately try to flee to ‘flawed’ western democracies to escape the tyranny of their states.

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One message from the ‘Arab Spring’ is that the era of autocracies and authoritarianism established by Muslim tyrants in the name of Islam or otherwise is slowly coming to an end. Muslims also want what the rest of the world is moving towards: democracy, humanism, openness, liberty, equality and respect for the people. What does this mean for other, less fortunate Muslim states in comparison to Turkey? If they do not have time machines, not much of practical use, for their history over the past 100 years has been very different. Turkey’s value to them is living proof that economic success, democracy and freedom of religion are all fully compatible in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Other Muslim countries will have to follow different routes to the same destination, even if it takes them longer to get there. One may call it the Islamic concept of egalitarianism and the welfare system or capitalism or socialism or the mix of all these doctrines but undoubtedly it is bound to prevail. These systems are already fruitfully and robustly in vogue in several countries where governments are accountable to the people and where less sleep with empty stomachs or suffer from the haunting fear of brutalisation by the state for speaking the truth.

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