A few nights ago I was watching the popular Al-Jazeera ‘debate’ show, “The Opposite Direction” (as translated). On the show there was a debate about democracy, specifically with regards to the posed question of whether modern democracies suffered from a stranglehold by leaders/dictators. Bush and Blair were made examples of.
One of the panelists claimed that democracy was a failure, that there was no such thing as democracy, that democracy has essentially destroyed the world, that democracy is a sign of the apocalypse. He claimed that these were all undeniable facts. He also claimed that members of the pro-democracy camp idolize the ideology so much that they don’t allow anyone to disagree with them.
In any case, as both panelists debated (poorly), I realized two things. First: that I had heard this exact debate by so called experts and ordinary members of society alike, and second it reminded me of another type of debates I’ve also grown accustomed to hearing concerning Islam.
Granted, that Islam is a religion and Democracy is an ideology or form of governance, yet when we are talking about east-west divides, both seem to be representative of either end of the spectrum. Or at least they’ve been made out that way.
The way we (mis)understand democracy in the Arab world is very similar to the way the Western world (mis)understands Islam. Hence, we form similar baseless arguments regarding both, and in both regards we are all wrong.
In the debate, it was argued that democracy was a failure based on several factors. The first was that voter turnout is very low in the US and many democratic countries, thus pointing out that most people’s voices are not heard, which defeats the point of a democracy. The second was that you have election fraud and other such discrepancies. The third is that the President ends up doing whatever he wants anyway despite low approval ratings and despite the fact that it is against the will of the people. Examples of the US and UK were heavily relied on during the debate, not to mention the failure to establish such a system in Iraq. They went as far as calling democracy a “new religion”.
I personally found such points to be idiotic and easily refuted.
Yes, there are discrepancies. Some times you have election fraud, sometimes its low voter turnout, sometimes people screw with the system itself, sometimes they dig for loopholes. And yes, sometimes people vote for (what most of the world would deem) the wrong person. But none of these things represent the failure of an otherwise pretty decent modern ideology to govern with. They may chip away and/or erode the foundations of its ideals, but even instilled freedoms are protected by that same system of checks and balances. People have the choice to go to the polls and inflict change. They can elect a government that essentially undoes much of what was done by a previous administration, and indeed, a great deal of the time they (Americans) do.
As for voting for Bush again, I don’t see that as a failure just because most of the world (including myself) disagrees with the choice. Most of the world (including myself) also disagrees with Palestinians electing a Hamas government. But that’s the point right? Disagreeing with the result doesn’t invalidate it.
History isn’t going to remember Bush as the epitome of Western democracy. He is a footnote in what might be considered, a low point in the history of democracy. The failures of his government or the ones before it, or the ones that will precede it are not necessarily representative of this system of government.
These arguments are also true of Islam and the way the Western world has come to (mis)understand it.
Bin Laden is the personification of Islam on that part of the world, just as Bush is the personification of democracy on this part of the world. Iran, Saudi Arabia and even the Taliban are commonly cited as examples of modern purely Islamic states when I consider their actions and system as about Islamic as the KKK is Christian.
In both cases, people will cite human failures as representative of a system’s failure, or a religion’s failure. The actions of some come to personify the whole of the idea.
We forget in all the debating that whether itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a system of governance or a religious belief system, both rely solely on two things: faith, and basic human behavior, both of which are highly volatile elements. A system or a religion can be (perceived to be) perfect, but they are both dependent on imperfect elements. Faith isn’t perfect, people are not perfect, and their actions are almost always never perfect.
Our perception has become that democracy is something that is entirely western and must be rejected forthright. I am not talking about freedoms; I am talking about the whole system of governance. Democracy has been whittled down to Bush safeguarding “the only democracy in the Middle East”, Israel Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a symbol of oppression and occupation. It has been whittled down to be synonymous with Bush “spreading democracy in Iraq”, another symbol of oppression and occupation. In the same way, Islam is rejected by the other side as yet another unknown element to fear. It has been whittled down to similar synonymous contexts of “Bin Laden”, “Al-Queda” and “Terrorism”.
But this is the way Islam has been presented to the west: in the form of oppression, fear and terror. And this is the way democracy has been presented to us; down the barrel of a gun.
These debates are all the more humorous when we consider the fact that eastern and western media do not seem to interact in this modern age. These shows, or news networks or debates never seem to cross paths, so people on either side of the world are oblivious to how the other side sees them, or misunderstands them. Western audiences, for the most part, don’t have access to Arab news networks like Al-Jazeera, and what little of western media we get over here, is largely ignored by the mass population; either brushed aside as western propaganda or barred by the language barrier.
Is media to blame? No, not entirely but it probably plays the biggest role. It is essentially the only tool in this information age that has the power to divide or unite. Not in the absolute sense. In other words it doesn’t have the power to do away with misperceptions and misunderstandings, but it does have the ability to minimize them. If more Arabs understood Hebrew, their watching of Israeli television wouldn’t solve the problem of Palestine, but it would get people thinking about it differently for sure.
This makes me think about whether the ‘masters of misconceptions’ have a vested interest in controlling media to prolong the misunderstandings.
What would happen if the curtain was thrown back and both perceptions met on stage for the first time?
What would happen if the whole process was demystified?
Would our side understand their side better and vice versa?
Would we say “wait a minute, democracy isn’t reallyÃ¢â‚¬Â¦”?
Would they say” wait a minute, Islam isn’t reallyÃ¢â‚¬Â¦”?
Would they realize that both can actually play pretty well with each other if they were ever given the chance?