Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Carol Saba on Arab Democracy

Originally published in an-Nahar August 13, 2013. Arabic original available here.

Is There a Coming Arab Renaissance?

"Our wars over heaven have caused us to lose the earth!" This visionary statement attributed to Antoun Saadeh concisely summarizes the Arab scene today, floundering through the erroneous policies that persisted over the course of the twentieth century.

Deadly authoritarian politics have caused Arab societies and their nations-- which are rich in human, civilizational, and natural treasures-- to lose their national awareness, their humanitarian sensibility, societal immunity, and the ability to position themselves as a civilization in the world today. But instead of progressing with modernity towards actualizing Arab strategic potential, following the model of plans for European unity that are constructing a European nationality without eliminating the nations within it, Arab progress since the fall of the Ottoman Empire has gradually been towards a hell of various authoritarianisms.

Instead of building secure societies and strengthening them through national cohesion and democracy,  there were coups, militarization, and "security regimes" that killed off diversity, freedom, and democracy. Some of them claimed secularism, nationalism, progressivism, socialism, republicanism but in the end wound up being ideological fronts for rule by personality cults. There are those that tried to yoke politics to religion, which resulted in stoking sectarian prejudices and attempts to bring back a long-gone past of religious empires, gradually isolating us from the rest of the world.

Instead of cultivating Arab civil societies and supporting them with the concept of citizenship that canonizes positive cooperation among all elements of society with equality of rights and responsibilities, making the Arab intellectual space, capabilities, and gifts into a driving civilizational force for the future, there was a gradual slide into military societies which colonized the present Arab space and weakened it through successive wars against internal and external enemies. Then came states of emergency, ideologies of security, national and nationalistic mystification, the systematic killing off of democracy, elites and the open-minded middle class, the establishment of political personality cults and oligarchies.

All these regimes failed to build firmly-established Arab societies that are aware of the challenges facing them and gather all capabilities. They did not preserve and develop civil peace internally and they did not defend their territory, geographically or existentially, from outside enemies. They were neither capable of waging war effectively or of imposing a just and dignified peace. We will not justify other countries' policies and interests, since they have long been lying in wait to seize our land and resources. But did Arab societies not give their castigator a whip in order to beat them with it? The Arab world was crushed last century and continues to be because of the failures of the "Arab crisis of governance" and its seven myths: republicanism, nationalism, liberationism, socialism, revolutionism, historicalism, and the myth of the regime about which the great Ghassan Tueni lectured at the American University of Beirut in 1967-- and his analysis is still correct.

The crisis is still raging and the Arab scene is in a total state of flux: growing division, structural conflict, persistent fragmentation, anxious vacillation, religiosity devouring religion and destroying the spiritual quality of faith: forgiveness and acceptance of the other.

The Arab Spring has revealed Arab sins and failures, both on the part of the regimes and the oppositions. All do wrong against all. Instead of us having a progressive vision of Arab national security that is intelligent and modern like in Europe, for the common greater good of all nations of the Arab family, we have become sects that fight each other for dominance over a shattered Arab geography, whose strategic scope has become limited to plazas and squares.

The Arab world missed the opportunity to enter into modernity at the beginning of the last century. Political sectarianism and prejudices grew, dismantling the state and national sentiment, turning us into sects that slaughter each other in the name of heaven and causing us to lose the ability to preserve the land, the people, and the nation. The crisis today is not the crisis of a pact for coexistence between religions-- in its essence, it is a crisis over the system of government. The Sheikh al-Azhar stands together, hand in hand, with the Coptic Pope to demand a state where all have equal rights and responsibilities.

It is a crisis of governing culturally and religiously diverse societies in which the government must embrace all, which requires the separation of religion from the state. This is possible in Islam, since al-Azhar says that it is possible to separate religious law from the law of the state; it is necessary in Christianity, which calls for leaving that which belongs to Caesar to Caesar and that which belongs to God to God. The Arab renaissance is possible if informed Arab elites realize that political sectarianism is the illness and that the cure is secularizing the state without secularizing society. It is now impossible for renewed authoritarian regimes to remain in the Middle East in the mold of a modern state, whether religious or radically secular and enimical to religion, whether arising from electoral legitimacy in a purely numerical democracy or from a quasi-military revolutionary legitimacy. The need today in our diverse Arab societies is for a system of governance that intelligently combines numeric democracy and consensual democracy and for building a civil democratic state that practices an open secularism, opening a single public square for all where the person and his rights are respected as a citizen.

The renaissance begins with recognizing that religious and cultural diversity is the constitutive element of Arab societies and that consequently these societies cannot be governed by the logical of numerical majorities, even if they triumph at the ballot-box. Rather, they must be governed with a logic of preserving diversity, protecting civil peace, developing habits of citizenship and the principle of equality of rights and responsibilities for all. Only then will we truly be builders of a sustainable, effective, and pioneering Arab national influence, not for the limited, teetering Arab "authorities" in the squares.

1 comment:

The Anti-Gnostic said...

The Middle East needs property rights and the rule of law; democracy is not a guarantor of either. All the democracy in the world won't help without some change in the culture of Big Man-political economy, clannishness, arrogant machismo, opaque business practices, etc.

Ms. Saba is not striking at the root.