The so-called ‘Arab spring’ posed a bit of a dilemma for people around the world who value both nominal democracy (the right of people to elect their own governments) and as well as true democracy (where fundamental human rights and the rights of minorities and marginalized groups are also protected).
On the one hand, the overthrow of dictators and other authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya, and possibly other countries in the future is surely something to be welcomed and supported, since those countries did not have even nominal democracy.
On the other hand, the democratic forces in those countries are often fragmented and disorganized, coming together momentarily for the purpose of removing the old regime but often unable to channel that unity into a potent unified political force. The most organized forces seem to be those that are aligned with religious groups, often fundamentalist ones that are intolerant of the rights of those outside their in-group.
This is not that surprising. Authoritarian governments are able to repress democratic voices with impunity and prevent such movements from getting organized but cannot do so that easily with religious groups, and so it was under the auspices of clerics and mosques that opponents had the greatest freedom to speak and organize. Hence once the dictators fell, it was these groups that were able to quickly prepare for elections, and thus were more likely to come to power.
It looked like we had to simply grit our teeth and hope that the new governments would not be as bad as we feared and that a second democratization wave would occur that would put truly democratic governments in power. The problem was that that second wave could be a long time coming and in the interim women, religious and ethnic minorities, and other marginalized groups could well suffer repression that might be even worse than what they experienced under the former authoritarian regimes. Regimes that are only interested in preserving their power have a vested interested in maintaining the peace and seek to clamp down on conflicts among groups. Religious governments can and often do exercise power in more sectarian ways because the belief that god wants you to do certain things and is behind you can produce the most extreme behaviors. The destruction by Islamic groups in several countries of important historical landmarks, simply because those were associated with other sects of Islam or other religions, is a sign of this intolerance.
Elections in Egypt produced a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Yemen is in some turmoil with no proper transition to a democratic government, with the remnants of the old regime still exercising considerable influence. Libya too is going through a period of turmoil and instability. In Tunisia, things are a little better. A moderately Islamic party won a plurality in parliamentary elections but has said that it will not impose sharia-based law and a human rights activist was elected president. The recent murder of a leftist opposition leader who was a critic of the Islamic party is a troubling development.
Islamic countries in general seem to be dominated by governments that seek to base at least part of their legitimacy on giving primacy to that religion. But Juan Cole in a post titled Muslim Opposition to the Muslim Religious Right Grows, from Egypt to Bangladesh sees signs that the second wave of reform may already be occurring. This is not taking the form of a full-blown secularism (which is too much to hope for) but a rejection of the more extreme forms of religious domination.
The headlines this week were full of stories from the Muslim world about Muslims attacking the Muslim religious Right, whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Jama’at-i Islami in Bangladesh. The rise of the religious Right in politics is producing a backlash throughout the region. Part of the backlash comes from secularists of Muslim heritage. But a significant part of it comes from believing Muslims, who oppose the sectarian and authoritarian approach of the religious Right parties, or who are uncomfortable with some of their stances toward longstanding Muslim religious practices, such as spiritual visits to the shrines of Muslim saints (a practice condemned by Wahhabism, Salafism, Talibanism, and other religious-right currents).
Secularism, forms of ethnic nationalism, tribalism, and the religious Left and Center all serve as countervailing forces to the religious Right parties in the Muslim world, the politics of which is becoming more polarized along these lines. But the resulting struggles look familiar if compared to those in the most religious of the industrialized democracies, the United States.
I hope he’s right. The question is whether all these diverse non-Islamist groups will be able to coalesce around values of democracy and human rights or whether they will succumb to the temptation to splinter by each trying to gain advantage over the other.