(Published in the Newport Daily News on March 14, 2011, as “Democracy is West’s Gift Back to the Arabs”)
As the Arabs for centuries kept alive and eventually passed back to the West the learning of the ancient Greeks, the West has now offered the Arabs the ancient Greek ideals of freedom and democracy, galvanizing and actuating them to overthrow their tyrants.
In the Western tradition, it was the ancient Greeks—especially the Athenians—who raised the ideal of freedom with all its risks to a highest principle. Tired of tyranny, the Athenian people in 508 BCE arose to throw off the yoke of oppression. Under the leadership of Cleisthenes and eventually Pericles, the Athenians established the world’s first democracy.
After the Western Roman Empire declined and fell in the 5th century CE, remarkably and tragically most of the learning of the ancient Greeks was lost to the West. After Muhammad’s death in 632, Arabs–impassioned by Allah’s revelations to Muhammad—launched an expansion which eventually brought them into contact with the wisdom of the ancient Greeks. It was the Arabs—coming across the great works of Ptolemy, Plato, Galen, Hippocrates, Euclid, Archimedes, and especially Aristotle—who kept the lamp of Greek learning alive in those centuries of Western history we have come to consider as dark with brutality, superstition, and intellectual stagnation.
How fitting then that the West has repaid the favor by providing the Arab world with its example of freedom and democracy. Educated and enabled by the gadgets of the technological revolution of the last two decades, the younger Arab generations have been sparked by the self-immolation of one of their own—26-year-old Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, denied the freedom to sell fruits and vegetables. Even as US forces invaded Iraq in 2003 carrying the ideal of freedom in their rucksacks, most of us knew if the “Arab Street” was going to rise up and reject the tyranny of Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, and now Qaddafi in Libya, it would have to be self-initiated and not imposed from without by Western forces wielding guns and missiles.
In recent years the question, much-debated in high academic and policy circles, has been whether Islam and democracy are compatible. Some have argued no; others like Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Institute have argued it is not Islam that is incompatible with democracy. Rather it is Islamism or political-militant Islam a la al-Qaeda or the Taliban. “…the Islamist movement which today dominates Muslim intellectual life pulls in precisely the opposite direction from democracy.”
What will emerge in the Arab world in the next decade will be an Arab synthesis of Western democracy and Arab-Islam. With Arab-Islam’s different views of the place of women, the relationship of mosque and state, and the authority of the tribal leader, this democratizing process will be much more of a challenge than the people of Eastern Europe faced after they toppled their Communist regimes in the revolutions of late 1980s and early 90s. The East Germans, for example, were simply incorporated in October 1990 into the existing democracy of the Western Germans.
Arab tradition and culture is much more rooted in the subordination of women, the integration of religion into the life of the state, and deference and docility to the tribal leader. Therefore, the process now begun in the Arab world will be much bloodier, volatile, fitful, and extended. Plato, one of the ancient Greeks that the Arabs helped to keep alive, suggested democracy’s messiness: “Democracy is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequal alike.” Happily for Western political leaders, they should confront less than they have in the past the dilemma of dealing with ossified autocrats who deny the very rights and freedoms which allowed these leaders to assume power in their own countries.
The ancient Athenians were willing to take the risks which freedom posed. In so taking, they eventually created the political system of direct democracy in which the Athenian citizens actually took turns in running the government of Athens. Three or four times each month all adult, male Athenians assembled to debate and vote on issues as simple as the price of olives and as momentous as a declaration of war. The Arabs (and perhaps the Persians of Iran), who have risen up against their tyrants as the ancient Athenians did, have decided to risk it.
The future complexion of these new regimes is not clear. What is clear is that the long era of acquiescence to the Arab tyrant is over.