Bernard Lewis on Muslim democracy

A must-read article by Bernard Lewis in Foreign Affairs, providing some of the historical and cultural background to today’s “Arab spring.”  Lewis claims that equality among believers was a “basic principle of Islam from its foundation in the seventh century . . . Islam really did insist on equality and achieved a high measure of success in enforcing it.”  How that was achieved Lewis does not mention, and he appears to contradict himself when he relates that the principle of “consultation” by the ruler involved tribal chiefs, the landed gentry, and other grandees.

Lewis’ skill in translating Arab culture to Americans, using masterful prose, is second to none.  His sympathy with his subject is apparent, but he never condescends, and never overlooks the obstacles on the way to democracy in the Muslim world (if, indeed, such a region exists).

Obvious difficulties are the rage of the dictators who don’t wish to lose their jobs, and the equal but opposite rage of the fundamentalists who wish to dictate the narrowest possible interpretation of the Koran.  But one always learns new facts from Lewis – most startling, to me, was his assertion that no concept exists in the Arab world for “citizen.”

This notion, with roots going back to the Greek polites, a member of the polis, has been central in Western civilization from antiquity to the present day. It, and the idea of the people participating not just in the choice of a ruler but in the conduct of government, is not part of traditional Islam. In the great days of the caliphate, there were mighty, flourishing cities, but they had no formal status as such, nor anything that one might recognize as civic government. Towns consisted of agglomerations of neighborhoods, which in themselves constituted an important focus of identity and loyalty. Often, these neighborhoods were based on ethnic, tribal, religious, sectarian, or even occupational allegiances. To this day, there is no word in Arabic corresponding to “citizen.” The word normally used on passports and other documents is muwatin, the literal meaning of which is “compatriot.” With a lack of citizenship went a lack of civic representation. Although different social groups did choose their own leaders during the classical period, the concept of choosing individuals to represent the citizenry in a corporate body or assembly was alien to Muslims’ experience and practice.

It is with this bit of historical knowledge in mind that we must judge the slow evolutions of Iraq’s newly-elected assembly.  In general, and despite the problems he analyzes so well, Lewis remains optimistic.  Democracy, he concludes, has spread to unlikelier places, and there’s no reason to suspect that the Muslim Middle East is, for cultural or religious reasons, immune to the trend.



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