Understanding Islam; Understanding Democracy

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 it’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 – 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 really…”?

Would they say” wait a minute, Islam isn’t really…”?

Would they realize that both can actually play pretty well with each other if they were ever given the chance?


  • hmm.
    very interesting.

    I agree with a lot of what you said, the media role, the misunderstanding of the masses to the other side on both side etc. all cool.

    I wanna say though, that i too dont beleive in… well i dont know whats the word to define it, but i will explain:

    the system of electing the governer (president, etc) by asking the general public to cast their votes, this particular PART of the process, i strognyl disagree with.

    See, politicians are always dirty, arent they?:)
    ok, lets say that its at least the general rule: they are willing to do just about anything to get in power, no?
    thats human nature after all, few things compete with the man’s thurst for power and control, after all.

    So politicans would lie, decieve, make false promises, spend billions on marketing themselves just like any other product that you would buy even if you dont need due to advertizing, they would twist facts, use the media, creat rumors, support bad guys and smear the reputation of good ones, just about anything to get them where they want, no?

    Politicians are in a buisness where the benefits are huge, and hence they are willing to invest huge efforts and money to get to their goals, and hence there are always people willing to provide their survices to creat just the approperiate spin and propaganda with the help of media experts, image consultants, psychatrists, thinkers, consultants, just about every sort of professionals that are going to make sure that the everyday jo write the name of their employer when he goes to vote in the elections day, right?

    the average jo now, who is my neighbor and yours, the supermarket guy, the taxi driver, millions of people, billions of people, the masses, are victims of all these efforts, and they are the target of all these efforts, right?

    I have great concerns, about the elegibility of these masses, that lack the needed political knowledge and eduaction, to be trusted in a matter that is as extremely important as choosing a leader to a nation.

    they just cant. think of all the guys you meet everyday, not the smart ones that work with you, not the friends you hang with, those are small minority. think of abo m7ammed that lives in a village in karak and makes a living by raising chickens. think of abo 2a7med that never left irbid and never finished high school, think of billions of poor and uneducated people in the camps, in the slums, in il wi7dat, in jabal il marreekh, the masses! do you really trust their wisdom, effected also by all the efforst spent by the employees of each candidate, to choose YOUR leader?

    I dont.

    I think the way it should be, is that only the elite should be consulted in such matters and allowed to vote.

    nice post.


    ps: still za3lan minnak wa3adtni to continue the niqash last time o ma waffet 🙂

  • Khalid: The elite … but who gets to decide who belongs to the elite and who not?

    You’d immediately have people complaining they’re not heard because they’re not elite, actually exactly as it happened in Europe before the advent of democracy, with the “elite” being roughly equal to nobility …

  • It’s very confusing and very frightening. But you both make very good points. In the USA it gets more and more difficult to make an informed choice and vote for the best candidate. As is pointed out above, democracy can be devious. The candidates have teams of professionals grooming them to appear to be something they are not. We have nothing to rely on except for their records and histories. The political parties are always looking for their opposing party’s flaws and errors and pointing them out in “smear” campaigns. The majority of the citizens here will not vote for Bush again. But one good thing about Democracy is that after 4 years only, we again have the opportunity to “get rid of” the person in power. We also can vote for Impeachment prior to that if we learn the President has acted illegally or immorally. Why this hasn’t been done now I do not know, but I do know we don’t have to worry that if we go onto a blog and demand impeachment, that we will be harmed or killed by a Democratic extremist or Republican Extremist. The important thing is that we have the technology to reach out across oceans and talk to each other….and more importantly, to LISTEN to each other. That’s what I’m doing. I don’t feel Democracy should be forced onto any country or people. I don’t feel Islam s hould be forced onto any country or people. I do feel that we should start talking. And listening. I respect you and care about you because we are both human beings and deserve to live a life of peace and opportunity. Talk to me and tell me what you feel, and I will tell you what I feel and let’s work this out together so our generation can teach our children how to have meaningful relationships and discussions with each other, and to care about each other regardless of some differences. Keep talking!

    Peach and Love to you all.

  • There’s a lot of misconceptions about democracy in the western world as well. Throughout the ages, Democracy was ridiculed as “Rule of the Mob”. And in today’s world, that seems to be true. The masses are ruling the minority, and if someone in the minority screams for their rights they are silenced with the usual “we have popular mandate, we have the right to take that away from you”. No respect for property, no respect for privacy, and no respect for freedom. The masses have become the tyrant.

    It i not to be forgotten that the U.S. is indeed not a democracy, believe it or not. The U.S. is a republic. Voting is only a method of electing leaders, it does not grant the official anymore powers beyond what it is delegated to them (depending on position) by the Constitution. The rights of the minority, be that race or social class or anything else, should not be infringed. That is, unfortunately, not the case today – politicians seem to have found convenient to simply “ignore” the Constitution. They pick and choose who they want to tax. They pick and choose what they think someone should not have. They pick and choose what they think people should not do. The first is a breach of equality, a justice quality. The second is a breach of property rights. And the last is a breach of freedom, most specifically freedom of choice and/or of speech. Hiding behind the “mandate of the people” concept is Tyranny of the Majority.

    Legislation must be enacted to stop officials from believing they have a “free pass” to do what they wish once elected. That alone could have saved a lot of headaches, if not lives, for the past few years.

    I’ll end with a few good quotes from Ben Franklin, and one from Thomas Jefferson;

    “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

    “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!”

    “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”

    -Benjamin Franklin

    “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”

    -Thomas Jefferson

  • i LIKED the analogy, and the simple answer to ur Q’s is NO.
    As for taking the states as an example of democracy (rule of the people) it is not a good example since it is as khaled want democracy to be it is the ruling of the elite.
    the way the system works is that those people plus the majority of the population is easily persuade to elect a certain candidate while the educated find no purpose in electing anyone, so with a ballot turnout of about 30-40% you can sway the vote quite easily.

    As far as i know the closest thing to a running democracy is France where the turnout rate hits up to 80%, the unions are an active part of governance. The politicians are kept in check by the people (unlike the states where you just go to vote every 4 years and you are removed from the process afterwards) through protesting and demonstrating (which is illegal in the states atleast when it comes to the war).
    In my humble opinion is that the next evolution of democracy (which is far from young) is for the people to be able to vote on the major decision and for that to be taken into account (war is an example) & for finding a solution for maintaining the rights of the minority which seem to be washed away from the process.

    How the problem regarding the information is that the two things you are discussing are not something that can be learned sufficiently through observation or 3rd party accounts they are things that need to be experienced first hand because the preconception at this time and age are so instilled in us that we can’t really over come them with sheer willpower any more we need to obliterate them with wear & tear.

Your Two Piasters: