By Nasim Hassan

Delaware, USA

There is a great deal of discussion going on these days about democracy and Islam.  This is a common belief that all people want democracy.  If all people in the Muslim World want democracy then why they do not get it?  After all, the leadership also comes from the same people.  In the Muslim and other third world countries the process goes back and forth.  Even the elected leaders start acting like dictators and soon the power goes to the most powerful group in these countries.

Democracy is a part of human evolution.  The societies go through a process that starts from tribal chiefs to city state rulers, feudalism and moves towards kingdoms.   From kingdoms, it may directly evolve to a democratic society or pass a phase of dictatorship.  Gradually, the transformation takes place and democracy starts to take roots.

The Muslim world is passing through a phase between kingdoms and dictatorships.  Some countries like Afghanistan had a kingdom but went back to tribal fiefdoms.  It is extremely difficult for a democracy to survive if the society is in the tribal or feudal phase.

For a short period, the democracy can be forced from the top in countries like Afghanistan but it will go back as soon as the external force is removed.

Democracy in my opinion requires certain preconditions and basic requirements. As these requirements are fulfilled in a society, the democracy starts to grow in that country.  People in the Muslim World are no different than those living in the western democracies.  People around the World have similar hopes and aspiration at basic human level.  However, the conditions do not exist in Muslim countries that lead towards democracy.  The required conditions are as follows:

Growth of educated Middle Class

I have not seen a single country that has a democracy without a solid middle class.  In all non-democratic countries the rich are very rich while masses are at or below poverty level.  The middle class in Muslim countries is very small as compared to western democracies.  The educated middle class stabilizes the society and acts as a buffer between the rich and poor.

If the middle class is very small then the rich people have all the resources and always rule. The rich people can be tribal chiefs, feudal lords or elite army generals.  Such a rule even with nominal elections cannot be described as democratic at any level.

The development of educated middle class is an arduous process.  It usually starts with the transformation of agricultural economy into industrialization of a country.  As industry develops, it needs skilled labor and educated technocrats.  The labor starts a process of bargaining and demands basic necessities of life like food, clothing and shelter.  The common person in a factory gets exposed to educated people and starts thinking about education of his kids.  In comparison, the agricultural labor normally deals with rich landlords or moneylenders and cannot do any collective bargaining.

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As the middle class emerges it seeks a share in the power and decision making process.  So the country gradually starts the process towards stable democratic political system.

The clear example in South Asia is a comparison of India and Pakistan.  India after independence reduced the power of landlords and started with heavy industry.  The Rajas and Nawabs went to politics or industry.  Gradually the middle class started to grow in India and now it is emerging as a powerful industrial country.

In Pakistan, the landlords, tribal chiefs still control the power and money.  The middle class is emerging at a very slow pace. So with all of the elections, it cannot be termed as a democratic country.

Religious Tolerance

This is perhaps the most important requirement in the Muslim world.  Western democracies have developed secular constitutions and separated religion from the affairs of the state. The freedom of religion is enshrined in the constitution.  Everyone is free to practice religion but the state does not impose any religion. 

In Muslim world the secularism is defined as atheism.  For a brief period in Muslim history the leaders were also head of the religious establishment.  That brief period is known as righteous leadership (Khulfa Rashdeen). Soon afterwards the kings ruled the Muslim world.   Looking back at history of Muslim empires, the religion was separated from temporal power.  The kings practiced their faith but the Islamic scholars were not a part of power structure.

Islamic scholars were accorded respect and worked as judges in the courts to apply Islamic law.  In the Mogul Empire in India, the kings included local people in the administration of Empire. 

This is a challenge that Muslim world must face and provide freedom of religion to all people living in their countries.  The religious tolerance must extend to complete freedom of worship for all people. 

Democracy in any religious country can easily become a tyranny of majority.  It has manifested in various forms of religious sectarianism like, Shia, Sunni, Wahhabi and Brelvi in the Muslim World

Freedom of Press or Mass Media

It seems like you can fool all people all the times if you control the mass communication media.  The free press and freedom of speech go hand in hand.  This is window through which people see the World around them.  If this window is tinted then they see green all around them.

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It can be safely said there is very little freedom of press all across the Muslim world. The radio and television is generally controlled by the state.  The newspapers are kept on leash by controlling paper quota and advertisement revenues.  The writers are fired if they dare to point out the shortcomings.  

The freedom of press is closely linked with democracy.  There democracy cannot be sustained without the freedom of press to check the power of rulers.

Civic Awareness

This closely follows the freedom of press.  By civic awareness, I mean the people who understand their individual and collective responsibilities.  In majority of the Muslim World they want government or Almighty to take care of their problems.  I have seen garbage piling up in the streets in many third world countries.  The people generally blame the government for the lack of cleanliness.  Everyone claims that the government is corrupt and does not take care of the street repairs, water drainage system and street cleaning.  However the same people do not pay taxes. The people do not volunteer to find a solution to their problems.

In the USA, there are a large number of voluntary groups who adopt roads and highways and pick up plastic bags, bottles and soda cans on a regular basis.  This reduces burden on the state and keep the environments clean. 

I have seen big houses built like palaces to last for hundred years in Pakistan.  The rich and educated people own these houses.    The streets in front the same houses collect rain water because the drainage system is unable to take the load.  If you go further down, the roads are in dire need of repairs. 

This problem can be easily resolved if the people living in an area collectively take steps and pool the resources to tackle these simple issues.

This awareness then extends outwards to the preservation of environments, public safety, survival of green areas and endangered species.

Lack of public awareness erodes the foundations of democracy.  The rich and powerful then build housing, hotels, shopping areas in pristine areas and massive deforestation destroys the environments.  The poor people are thus deprived of public places, play grounds and thus paving the way for an autocratic rule.

The public awareness provides a needed check on greed that is ever present in all human beings.

Rule of Law

Rule of law is required under all forms of governing practices.  Common people get much more benefit from protection under the old laws instead of chaos under new democracy.

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In Muslim and many third world countries, the rich and powerful get different treatment as compared to common folks.  This causes resentment at a grass root level and manifests itself in various forms of lawlessness.

The recent case of Martha Stewart getting a jail sentence stands in contrast with many instances of rich people getting away free in Muslim countries.

Most importantly, the system must allow redress to common people.  Monarchy and even dictatorship is better where a certain minimum level of justice is provided to common people instead of a secular democracy where the police watches the killing of innocent civilians in an ethnic violence.

Future Outlook

After saying all that where do we go from here?  How to create conditions for democracy in a Muslim country?  The simple answer to these questions is building and maintaining institutions and stop looking for a savior.  The institutions must operate without interference from politicians or other powerful people.

I remember Lahore in Pakistan of yester years when the city was clean, drinking water was freely available and cheap bus service was accessible to people.  There was very little air pollution at that time.  Even the railway service was very good.  Ask any resident who has seen the past era to make a comparison with the current conditions.

The only difference that I can point out is the remnant of institutions built under the British rule to run the system.  For a brief period, the institutions continued to work and then gradually collapsed.

Democracy is like a great edifice built by human kind over centuries.  The constitution forms the foundation and the institutions are the support structure holding it all together.  If at any time a nation erodes the foundation and does not maintain the institutions, it can go back to dictatorship in a short time

This responsibility rests with the educated elite of the country.  A common person even in the USA is preoccupied with daily struggle for survival.  They simply do not understand details of foreign policy or the administration.  However the big difference is the system of democracy and strong institutions.  The people have a right to throw out non-performing politicians and elect new ones.

Focusing on few basic ideas can make great progress.  The information and experience of countries like Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore is readily available.  By careful study and emulating the path followed by these countries, all Muslim countries can step into the age of democracy and find their rightful place in the comity of nations on our small planet.