Why citizens who want democracy may not demand it: thoughts on Amaney Jamal’s talk at the BCIU Education Center

This talk took place at the BCIU Education Centre in Reading, Pennsylvania, and also discusses the potential reasons why democracy has not gained a stronghold in the Arab world. Amaney Jamal examines the faulty assumptions many theoreticians have about democracy as a construct – namely that those who desire democracy will demand it. Jamal notes the many reasons why citizens who want democracy may not feel equipped to demand it, whether it be because of an oppressively authoritarian support, lack of democratic support nation-wide, or fear that external states on which they rely on for aid or military support will deny them this support. Using data derived from her Arab Barometer Project and her work with the Pew Research Center, she shows the practical effects these fears have on the democratization process.

She also goes into great detail about the various Islamic movements throughout the region, and the relationship these movements have with anti-American sentiment. She argues that the two are not necessarily correlative, using the example of the pro-American Hadas, also called the Islamic Constitutional Movement, in Kuwait.

Of particular value to the ongoing discussion is Jamal’s focus on the citizen’s perspectives and attitudes towards these important topics. As I have discussed before on this blog, the actual views of people living in the region towards democracy is too rarely taken into account in political or academic discussions on the issue, leading to a potentially large disparity between what people in Western nations think, and what is actually apparent in the Arab world. In a powerful moment in the speech, Jamal rails against this way of thinking, noting the self-appointed representatives of Islam that do not represent the way most Muslims think on the issue. Jamal says that by listening to these self-appointed representatives, “we’re only listening to this one segment that’s coming out of the most radical, violent, horrific circles of Islam, and say this represents Islam because this is what Fox News shows us 24/7” and that by default we are choosing to remain blind to the real issues and thoughts in the region, as “we’re not trying to learn more about this and be more responsible.” This wording struck me as one of the more important moments in the talk. If Americans, interested in this issue of democracy in the Middle East, do not choose to look beyond what media pundits tell us, and do not choose to dig deeper to try and understand the subtleties of this most complex and abstruse issue, they are betraying the academic responsibility by allowing incorrect information to be perpetrated throughout the media, and this irresponsibility may have a devastating impact on the future of Arab democracy in the years to come. Amaney Jamal is one vocal, intelligent, and fascinating academic working to turn the tide of this spread of misinformation.


In the struggle for Middle East democracy, it’s an ‘Arab question’ that needs to be answered: thoughts on Amaney Jamal’s talk to the City Club of Cleveland

In a talk given by Amaney Jamal to the City Club of Cleveland, Jamal begins by describing the global political scene after the Soviet Union was disbanded as one that “assumed that liberal democracy had emerged victorious,” and how it became clear that this was not particularly true for the Middle East. This is still true today, and although public opinion polls have shown that a majority of citizens in Arab states support democracy theoretically, in practice they continue to maintain the status quo to an authoritarian regime.

She notes there are “two overarching explanations” to this ideological dichotomy: that democracy is fundamentally opposed by both the political culture of the Arab world and the culture of Islam, or alternatively, that it is the particular course of economic development which has had a much more important role in the lack of democratization in the area. Jamal argues that as democracy has flourished in nations like Turkey and Indonesia, it must be a particularly “Arab question” that needs to be answered, and that the answer most likely lies in the lack of an autonomous middle class in the region. Instead, she argues, the region is marked by heavy economic disparity, with some states, particularly oil-rich states, offering their citizens lavish wealth, with other states relying heavily on US aid. For this reason, citizens are wary of political disruption that may prove to change their economic situation in a way that is difficult to predict.

Throughout the talk she discusses the struggles of the region that affect the democratization process, while suggesting new outlooks on these issues and possible solutions. While the interesting points she raises are far to numerous to go into in this forum, anyone with any interest in the important political developments in the region would be well-advised to attend one of her lectures if given the opportunity. In a discussion more often marked by anger, vitriol, and combativeness, it is refreshing and truly educational to see a dialogue between speaker and audience that is measured, intelligent, and respectful.

Muslims and otherness: Thoughts on Dr. Rashied Omar’s “Muslim Extremism: Between Myth and Reality”

Is Islam itself inherently violent or extremist?  This is the question that was discussed in a recent talk given at IUSB by visiting scholar Imam Dr. A. Rashied Omar.  In it he discusses public perceptions of Islam in the West, offers a historical background for the interpretation of key Qur’anic texts, and discusses the socio-political factors that may influence Muslim extremism. Since 9/11, public perception of Islam in the United States has become increasingly divided, as can be seen in a 2011 Pew Research Center poll, which shows an equal split amongst respondents to the question of whether Islam is more likely to encourage violence amongst its adherents.  Interestingly, a converse relationship between political affiliation and opinion on this issue also emerges, with two-thirds of Conservative Republicans and Tea Party members Isla encourages violence more than other religions, while two-thirds of Liberal Democrats believe the opposite.  From this polling data it is clear that this is a partisan issue, and one more likely influenced by politicians and the media than by actual academic study.

In the speech, Dr. Omar analogized between Islamic violence and the use of Biblical texts to justify such atrocities as apartheid in South Africa.  Several more analogies could be extended to other incidences of Christian faith-based violence, such as the work of the IRA in the United Kingdom, or domestic terrorist groups here in the United States, leading Dr. Omar to posit that it is not the religious text itself that is inherently moral or immoral, but the individual interpretation governed by the reader’s own morality.  He offers as an example verse 5 of chapter 9 (surah al-Tawbah) of the Qur’an to demonstrate how moral interpretations of a text void of all historical context can misidentify Islamic beliefs.  The verse states:

Once the sacred months have passed, you may kill the idolaters when you encounter them, and take them [captive], and besiefe them, and prepare for them each ambush.  But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free.  God is Forgiving, Merciful.

Taken out of context, this verse could be seen as advocating for religious intolerance and warfare, however, as Dr. Omar points out, most Westerners and even many Muslims are unaware of the context of the verse, where hostilities against Muslims were frozen for three months and due to resume imminently.  In this context, it can be seen that the permission to “kill the idolaters” was specifically during a time of war when the very future of Islam was threatened.  To compare, we can take one of many Biblical verses out of context to make the, admittedly facile, argument that Christianity encourages violence:

Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women: but come not near any man upon whom is the mark; and begin at my sanctuary. (Ezekiel 9 : 6, King James Version)

So why is this analogy unconvincing to the modern Western citizen?  While it is arguably rare for a serious academic to believe that Islam is a religion of violence and commonplace extremism, the fact remains that a distressingly high percentage of Westerners believe that Islam in general is a violent religion.  In my mind, the most serious omission to the speech given by Dr. Omar was not touching on the theory of the ‘Other‘ that has served to separate Muslims in the Arab world as well as Muslim-Americans.  While it is important to spread awareness and dismiss the misinformation that spreads about Islam to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Westerners who have deep-seated anti-Islamic beliefs are not likely to be swayed by academic explanations for contentious Qur’anic passages.  The theory of the ‘Other,’ that has been posited by philosophers such as Hegel, Said, and Lacan expresses the natural human tendency to separate, whether physically or ideologically, a non-dominant culture or group.  This separation confirms and establishes their dominance, protecting their own self-identity.  With the advent of global technologies, the boundaries of separation caused by Othering have been diminished, but not erased, and much still needs to be done to unify disparate cultural and religious groups.

Tahrir Lounge: Hannah Arendt’s “sphere of appearance” in action

From town hall meetings to workers’ councils, from demonstrations and sit-ins to struggles for justice and equal rights,” is how Hannah Arendt described the manifestations of the “sphere of appearance,” a place where “I appear to others as others appear to me, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate things, but to make their appearance explicitly,” and one that exists “wherever men are together in the manner of speech and action.” While this space is an intangible one, it has had physical representation in public spaces dedicated to political discussion and subversive action. One such public sphere, called the Tahrir Lounge and held at Cairo’s Goethe Institut, has been created in Cairo as a new public space dedicated to frank and open discussion about the issues facing the citizens of Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations, with the goal of increasing political awareness and civic engagement.

In an article for German media outfit Deutsche Welle, the Tahrir Lounge is profiled as a new sort of venue where the politically minded can discuss the political issues of the day and refine their political agenda by meeting with those with both contrasting and complimentary views on democracy and the democratic method. In a region where political discourse is often discouraged, and speaking out against the government is often a punishable crime, it is all the more important to create a safe haven where politics can be debated without fear of reprisal. The Tahrir Lounge offers such political edification. Through seminars, debates and workshops, the Lounge enables established thinkers to share ideas and a younger generation to formulate their voice. This is of particular importance to Egypt, a country where freedom of communication and knowledge sharing has been threatened through cellphone service and Internet shutdowns and filtering, as well as restriction of press freedom. Here, the communication of political beliefs in a safe and personal environment can be a vital tool to the promotion of democratic ideals.

In addition to open forums where political ideologies and philosophies can be discussed and debated, Tahrir Lounge also hosts training seminars and workshops, where specific roadblocks to democracy, such as discrimination against women, religious intolerance, and other human rights issues can be challenged, and action plans can be made. Political revolution has been compared to tectonic shifts, where the force and friction of conflicting political ideas pushing against one another can produce a new political landscape. As this cannot happen in an insular, one-party system, public spaces like Tahrir Lounge can foster true political discourse, and enable attendees to form educated responses to the political challenges faced by Egypt today. Tahrir Lounge’s success can be summed up in the response to Tahrir Lounge by one young man who is a frequent guest at Tahrir Lounge events, who said that while “a year ago [he] would have accepted” the government’s stance, Tahrir Lounge has enabled him to take an informed and critical look at the real issues facing Egyptians young and old. To use his words, “Now I see.”

Islam, or the islamic people, that is the question

Thematic mapping website mapsofworld.com have released a new infographic that attempts to map the social response to democracy among predominantly or fully Islamic states.  In addition to isolating countries with the highest Muslim majority, the infographic highlights ways in which the Arab Spring has affected the political landscape of the region, such as the ousting of several political leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Lebanon and ensuing governmental changes, and the incidence of protests breaking out in over a dozen other nations.  More importantly, in my mind, is the use of polling data to attempt to offer a comprehensive view of the citizen’s views of democracy and Islamic law throughout the region.  The inforgraphic compiles data from sources such as Pew Research Centre polls, Gallup polls, and Freedom House to ensure a breadth of scope of the piece.  Of particular interest to me was the negative correlative link between the desire for democracy and the desire for a strong economy, with respondents from economically weaker nations believing that the strengthening of the economy was more important than instituting a democratic government.  Offering this perspective differs from other polls by not showing the two options as an either/or binary, leading us to believe that respondents do not desire democracy; rather it shows the concerns that some citizens have of a governmental overhaul leading to an economic crisis, but still believing democracy to be desirable, although perhaps not at the present moment.  Of additional interest was the polling data on freedom of speech and Shari’a law, to see where individual nations stand on the issues, and showing strong support for democratic ideals of freedom of speech, protection of minorities, and a limit to the influence Shari’a law would have on the nations constitution and judicial branches.

Of course, what this infographic is telling us is not, as it is titled, whether Islam is “pro-democracy” but whether the Islamic people are pro-democracy.  By constructing an infographic that is balanced, politically neutral, and comprehensive, we can explore the relationships between democratic values and governments that are theocratic, secular, or with state religions, and most importantly, separate the rhetoric from the true opinions of those who will be influenced most by these political decisions in the coming years.

Gender inequality in Arab nations: A function of islam itself or a reinforcement of the patriarchal status quo?

Many people have used the issue of gender inequality in the Middle East as an example of why democracy is an impossibility in Arab nations, often pointing to a few verses of the Quran as proof that women’s rights will continue to be a non-starter for Islamic states. Some studies, however, are showing significant gains in the women’s rights movement in the region, leading some to move from the adamant belief that Islam and gender equality are mutually exclusive, to the study of how the changing nature of Islamic politics can be used for the advancement of women.

In an article for Human Rights Quarterly, political activist Amira Mashhour focuses on divorce and polygamy laws in both religious sharia law and the legal precedence set in several countries to study the possibility of a common ground between women’s rights and Islamic law. She argues that the gender inequality found in most Islamic states is not a function of Islam itself, but rather a reinforcement tool for the patriarchal status quo, and that the “dynamic nature of Islamic teachings, the evolving character of Sharia, the spirit of Islam towards women’s rights, the principles of justice and public welfare, and the essentially feminist Ijtihad leaves no room for doubt that a common ground could be found between Islamic law and gender equality,” among womenspecific issues such as sexuality, rights over women’s bodies, and veiling.

Mashhour argues that, despite the popular Western misconception, Sharia law is not static, but is evolving based on continued interpretation of Islamic texts and the needs of the Muslim people. She goes on to cite several legal examples involving polygamy, men’s right to divorce, and women’s right to divorce, and the legal contradictions and discrepancies between the two. For example, the ways that men and women may initiate divorce are quite different, particularly when it comes to the role the dowry plays, with women who desire a contested divorce being required to relinquish their dowry to their husband entirely. Mashhour additionally notes that as the marriage contract is considered a legal document under Islamic law, divorce may be granted if either member breaks any condition that was included in the contract before the marriage. While it is true that to women in many Middle Eastern countries, the marriage contract has different implications to husbands and wives, and the legal spousal obligations disfavor the female spouse, women still carry control of themselves, their bodies, and their lives that are legally protected rights.

Of particular interest to me were the various interpretations of certain aspects of sharia law, with Mashhour offering the following crucial and often unasked questions: “Who interprets Quranic texts? Who drafts and adopts contemporary personal status laws? Who implements such laws?” Answering these questions, Mashhour implies that it is not the texts themselves that prevent the freedom and equal status of women, but the men who control the texts and wish to preserve the status quo that has allowed them to disempower and dominate women in the first place. With the patriarchal culture of these states being weakened in favor of a more egalitarian, pluralistic system, we can assume that the rights for women found in the law books and religious tomes can come to fruition.

Islamic revivalism and its role in bringing democracy to center stage

With the possibility of democracy in the Middle East becoming a major international political issue over the last ten years, it is often easy to overlook the historical context that has led to the potential for Islamic democracy. A 1995 article by political scientist S.V.R. Nasr provides a broad historical overview of the issue, focusing on the role that Islamic revivalism has played in bringing democracy center stage, and the influence it continues to have on policy makers who are concerned about the role the Muslim religion would have in a new political system.

Islamic revivalism focuses on a literal interpretation of the Quran and the laws within it, and advocate for a strict, and some might say draconian, adherence to some of the most controversial aspects of Islam. Unlike many other fundamentalist religious movements, however, Islamic revivalist leaders encouraged political takeovers to establish an Islamic state, with Nasr noting the possibility that “democratization will sow the seeds of its own demise by giving Islamic revivalism a handle to monopolize the political discourse and possibly take over power.” He argues that fears of this eventuality have caused some to question not only the viability, but the benefits of introducing democracy to the Arab world. But he also provides some historical examples as to how pluralism may be able to overcome the revivalist goals, in particular the history of the Jama’at in Pakistan, noting how “despite five decades of indefatigable activism it has not been able to translate its power into control of the state and the political process.”

By studying the impact that groups like the Jama’at has had on the political process in the past, groups advocating for true democracy can learn to utilize the “open political process” democracy offers to ensure that the democratic process is not overtaken by fundamentalist groups, rather than eschewing democracy entirely in fear of supplanting one fundamentalist authoritarian regime with another.