It is jarring to hear the words “democracy” and “democratization” twanging on the Texan tongue of President George W. Bush, a leader who came to power through an election of dubious democratic processes. It is even more jarring to realize that American leaders, and perhaps a large percentage of the American public, assume that “democratization” means “Americanization,” or being and doing democracy as it is done in the United States of America.
Is it possible that democracy has different meanings and incarnations in different societies? Must the political culture of democracy be uniform? This, of course, is another way of asking a question that has been asked countless times, in different ways, since the fall of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago: Does “civil society” mean imitating US society? Does democratization automatically entail Westernization?
What such questions touch upon are not simply matters of politics and electoral procedures, but rather, deeper philosophical, moral and cultural issues. Implicit in such “democratization talk” is a theory of human nature, as well as far-reaching — and unexamined — value judgments about American and non-American ways of doing democracy.
Nowadays, “democracy” seems interchangeable with “liberty” in official US speeches and pronouncments. These two resonant words are clearly among President Bush’s favorite terms, along with “war on terror” and “God bless America.” According to the president, a key reason for the US/UK war on Iraq was to bring freedom to the Iraqi people, allowing them to do, vote, administer, and worship however they pleased. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has stated for the record that freedom (read: democracy) is inherently “untidy;” by its very nature, it poses an inevitable risk that individuals and groups might just behave badly and uncivilly as they pursue their own self-interest with abandon now that Saddam and his cruel regime are gone.
Freedom, according to this view, means that an individual has the inviolable right to do whatever he or she pleases. A characteristically American view — particularly for this administration with its cowboy ethos of rugged, in-your-face individualism and go-it-alone derring-do. Who needs the United Nations? Have gun, will travel.
Such a view of freedom is neither valued nor encouraged in most Arab societies. This type of free-for-all liberty is called fitnah (“chaos”), in Arabic, and is considered a social and moral anathema. Indeed, the types of people most likely to act according to this highly individualistic and assertive conception of liberty are known, in Arabic slang, as muslaahjiyeen — selfish and uncaring people who trample on others’ dignity and rights while narrowly pursuing their own crassly individualistic needs and objectives. In the cultural and moral context of most Arab societies, such self-interested people often manage to gain power, and may even come to be feared and obeyed, but they are never respected, nor are they genuinely elected by the popular will.
Saddam and his sons certainly valued and pursued their own freedom and liberty to obscene and criminal extremes of individualism, arrogating to themselves powers and privileges that they were unwilling to share with others. Coercion and cruelty were the bases of their rule; popular will and participation had nothing to do with the Baath regime under Saddam Hussein. Those who felt differently ended up buried in mass graves, as we now know, to our horror.
Democracy in the Arab-Islamic world is a more relational than individualistic conception, more a matter of duties than rights, more about obligations than freedoms. In Arabic, you spell democracy “D-I-G-N-I-T-Y.” One cannot have dignity in isolation, like a rugged cowboy surveying the vast prairies as he walks tall, proud, and alone, revelling in his freedom from all constraints. Dignity (karaameh, in Arabic) implies the existence of others because it is all about proper relationships with others. To treat another with dignity is to accord him or her full humanity, to respect the inviolability of his or her person, will, feelings, rights, and pride. One who has dignity is humane, and to show humanity, one must interact with others properly and sensitively, with care, respect and foresight. This is a conception of freedom to, not freedom from.
Karaameh (“dignity”), was a key, recurring term in Nazareth, the largest Palestinian city in Israel where I conducted anthropological field research a decade ago. Karaameh entailed nobility of spirit, generosity, and compassion. It also required freedom — but with a “relational” twist: Karaameh meant allowing others to exercise their own free choice. Karaameh meant granting others the space, the right, and the freedom to participate and collaborate in public without compulsion or coercion.
As such, karaameh implied agency and empowerment–not of the isolated, agonistic, and calculating individual so prevalent in contemporary American conceptions of democracy and freedom, but rather, the actions of socially contextualized, equal individuals linked together in networks of mutual obligation, concern, nurturance, and support.
The type of political power such networks generated is best described by a 20th century political philosopher who had a lot to say about freedom and totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, who noted in a 1958 book entitled The Human Condition that:
“Power is what keeps the public realm [of political action] in existence..Power is always.a power potential and not an unchangeable, measurable, and reliable entity like force or strength. While strength is the natural quality of an individual seen in isolation, power springs up between people when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.” (page 200.)
The key difference between American and Arab ways of viewing democracy was brought home to me one hot summer day when a young Communist Party activist in Nazareth stopped by my house to urge me to interview some younger Muslim members of the local Communist Party who had grave reservations about a proposed urban renewal project in Nazareth, one that, several years later, foundered on a growing rift bewteen Christian and Muslim voices in and visions of Nazareth, eventually leading to an uncharacteristic outbreak of violence on Nazareth’s streets in the late 1990s.
Decrying the political dynamics of growing intercommunal tensions in Nazareth following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the associated crisis of the local Communist Party, my friend suddenly asserted: “If there were ever to be a true democracy anywhere in the Arab world, it would have happened here first, among the Palestinian citizens inside Israel–but it hasn’t.”
“Why would it have happened here first?,” I asked, “Because of your exposure to the principles and practices of Israel’s parliamentary democracy?”
“No!” he exclaimed, “Because our leaders are not allowed to have weapons and secret police, like Hafez al-Asad and Saddam Hussein. They have to get their power from the people, or not at all!”
My friend’s clarification of the requirements for a democratic political system, viewed from an Arab perspective, emphasized interdependence, not liberty alone; he stressed the need for a mutual give-and-take between leaders and followers based on respect rooted in dignity. His comments implied the necessity of dialogue between representatives and the represented, the indispensability of relationships through which leaders generated support, trust, and legitimacy.
Such relationships could never be realized by force, but only through leaders’ capacities to inspire, speak for, empathize with, and serve their public. His vision implied that leaders obtained political capital only by being other-oriented, not self-interested; by giving, not just making demands. A good leader would be able to attract followers by showing a readiness to sacrifice, care, nurture, assist, and discharge duties, not just a readiness to enjoy privileges and issue decrees.
Although this conception of political leadership implies a hierarchy (leaders have followers, after all; if they possess legitimacy, they have the authority to command attention, support, and action from followers who have freely assented that they have the duty to obey), it also contains echoes of the criteria of proper family relations, particularly the criteria of a caring and compassionate mother-child relationship, which might seem counter-intuitive in a society constantly identified as patriarchal and patrilineal in the popular press.
My friend’s comments on the necessity of generating trust and legitimacy in a democratic system placed more emphasis on building and nurturing constructive relations and subjecting oneself to their demands than claiming individual freedoms and placing liberty above community.
In an important critique of recent American governmental policies and programs to instill civil society and democracy in the former Soviet states, British anthropologist Chris Hann (1996: 5) notes that:
“Both [liberal and Marxist] strands [of political thought] assume the universality of Western notions of the person.the autonomous, free-agent individual. The Marxist tradition merely allows these atoms to aggregate to form ‘social classes.’ None of these accounts leaves room for the exploration of alternative forms of social relationships to those assumed by liberal individualism, of culturally specific ways of generating trust in human communities that are growing ever more crowded and complex.”
Perhaps American spokespersons, official and unofficial, should listen more and lecture less to Arabs about democracy and democratization. Nazareth, as a diverse Palestinian urban community located in an Israeli administrative and political context that categorized Arabs as second- or third-class citizens at best, may provide some insights into the roots and requirements of democratization in the Arab world.
Upon asking people “What does democracy mean to you?” I usually received answers to the effect that “democracy requires considering every opinion, even the minority opinion,” and “democracy is not just rule by the majority, but also respect for the minority.” These statements conveyed a view of democracy not merely as a set of individual rights, but also as a set of mutual responsibilities, as a recognition of the dignity of the individual, whether he or she is part of a majority or not.
In Nazareth, the ideal version of democracy was a system that would include others, that would accord respect and validity to all perspectives by acknowledging differences of opinion and providing metaphorical space for others’ actions, speech, and will.
Considering Palestinians’ experiences of being a marginalized minority in Israel, such sensitivity to alternative viewpoints and minority perspectives is hardly surprising. Yet these emerging narratives about democracy also echoed long-standing local cultural conceptions of the person as embedded in social networks held together by strong ties of mutual obligation and respect and buttressed by the values centering on personal dignity (karaameh). Given Nazareth’s cultural, political, and class diversity as the largest Arab town in Israel, overlapping networks that provided support, solidarity, and nurturance also provided individuals with direct daily experiences of identities, life-styles, and practices different from their own, i.e., plurality and diversity.
Simply to stroll down Nazareth’s main street–a distance of half a kilometer–was to pass through a wide variety of cultural spaces, during which time one could interact with young Muslim women in hijaab; older Communist women from the Democratic Women’s Club, a Coptic priest from Egypt, the Russian wife of a local Palestinian Communist party official, a middle-aged American Baptist couple doing missionary work, a Maronite shopkeeper selling radios to Russian immigrants from a neighboring Jewish community, and Muslim bakers and mechanics singing along to the songs of Umm Kalthoum of Majida Roumi in their ateliers as Japanese and Irish tour groups passed them on the way to the Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth’s chief tourist attraction.
Everyday experience clearly demonstrated that Nazareth was neither socially nor politically uniform nor culturally homogenous. The question of difference in Nazareth was never a simplistic opposition between “Arab” and “Jew,” but rather, implied a complex set of oppositions between several different Christian sects, Muslims who were indigenous to Nazareth as well as Muslim internal refugees, and a variety of class positions, not to mention differences of gender and political ideologies.
Diverse social settings like Nazareth, Beirut, and Baghdad are often maligned by Western commentators as fertile terrain for ethnic conflict and intercommunal violence. It is not, however, the presense of diversity that results in political tensions. Rather, it is how all of these communities are related to one another politically and economically, how they are encapsulated and incorporated into larger political and economic relationships, and whether those relationships are respectful of individual and collective dignity or not, that leads to conflict. Listening to the voices, experiences, and views of people in such diverse settings is crucial for debunking currently popular Western theories claiming that “clashes of civilizations” are inevitable, and for countering those who speak insidiously of an “Arab-Islamic exceptionalism” that inevitably derails democratic systems of governance.
Such ethnocentric observations devoid of cultural contextualization can easily fuel Orientalist perspectives that slight historical and geostrategic considerations, the problematic, external imposition of the nation-state as an administrative framework in this region, and the dynamics of the global political economy, pinning all political failures instead on some “essential cultural predilection” of Arabs and Muslims for tyranny and repression.
For a people to whom dignity — of self and other — is so crucial and valued in everday life, for a people who invented urban and plural social spaces, nothing could be farther from the truth. Perhaps it is time for leaders such as George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld to learn from, rather than lecture to, Arabs and Muslims. Humility and good manners, after all, are key to local as well as global civil societies.
Laurie King-Irani teaches social anthropology in British Columbia. She is a co-founder of Electronic Iraq and former editor of Middle East Report.