The future of the Arab Spring: Islam, Islamism, growing paranoia and future prospects – Part II

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English: Map showing the territorial four main...

English: Map showing the territorial four main races/ethnicities/colors of South Africa in 1979: Whites, Coloureds, Blacks and Indians. The gray areas indicate the Apartheid-era Bantustans, which are almost exclusively black. This map is a photoshopped version of the CIA-made original map at Perry Castañeda map collection at the University of Texas website. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written by Raeesah Cassim Cachalia (1)

Part I of this discussion explored the paranoia around the growth of political Islam after the Arab Spring. The discussion explained many of the issues involving Islam and Islamophobia and where these issues stem from. Continuing from this, part II briefly examines democracy as well as the Islamic state and explains why democracy, as we know it today, should not be the only option considered for regime change in Arab Spring nations.

The flaws and fallacies of democracy

Democracy needs to be evaluated as more than a theoretical ideal but in light of its implementation and track record as well. This is because freedom and justice, among the other values which democracy is meant to entail, do not merely exist in the right to vote or in the existence of a peoples’ constitution. Democracy, at its core, is a system meant for the benefit of the masses. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “…freedom translates into having a supply of clean water, having electricity on tap; being  able to live in a decent home and have a good job; to be able to send your children to school and to have accessible health care. I mean, what’s the point of having made this transition [to democracy] if the quality of life of these people is not enhanced and improved? If not, the vote is useless.”(2) South Africa, despite having come a long way from its Apartheid past, is an example of the distance between democracy in theory and practice.

The past six months have seen a number of South African citizens worked up into a frenzy over Government attempts to impose toll tariffs for the use of major public roads. Government claims the tariff is necessary to cover a large ZAR 20 billion (US$ 2.6 billion) debt accrued for various road projects. In considering why the regular national budget does not cover such expenses, many angrily point to Government corruption along with gross wastage of state expenditure by South African politicians. To name but one example, that of former Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Sicelo Shiceka, we may look at the following official findings regarding the former Minister’s expenditure of state, and thus taxpayers, money in 2011 (keeping in mind that poverty rates are as high as 64% in parts of South Africa with these parts of the population living on less than ZAR 10 (US$ 1) a day):

  • ZAR 546,864 (US$ 71,687) for a personal trip to Switzerland under the pretence of official Government work.
  • ZAR 640,000 (US$ 83,920) in one year spent by the Minister and his immediate staff on one of South Africa’s most costly hotels.
  • ZAR 55,793 (US$ 7,300) for a one night stay for the Minister and a private acquaintance in the same hotel.
  • ZAR 160,000 (US$ 20,975) in eight months for flights for the Minister’s family members (including an “estranged wife and current girlfriend”).(3)

South Africa may be a relatively new democracy, but even established democracies indicate the illusions of this system. The United States Patriot Act, which allows the imprisonment and indefinite detention of citizens without access to legal aid or even a court hearing, is more akin to authoritarianism, but has similar illustrations in a number of democratic regimes.

Modern day democracy: Terms and conditions apply

When examining the concept of democracy as a political regime type, it is important to understand the economic system that is usually a part of this package and its potential suitability for developing nations. More specifically, we need to understand the way in which the system operates, particularly in post-war, post-revolution countries. Two examples merit close attention here, that of South Africa in the immediate post-Apartheid era and that of Lebanon after the 2006 Israeli invasion.

South Africa

Apartheid in South Africa was not a mere political regime but an economic system that had the country’s wealth as well as opportunities concentrated in one part of the population. Modern day South Africa has seen this concentration spread over to parts of the black population, creating a black elite, while, as in Apartheid times, those at the very bottom remain there. Nationalisation of parts of South Africa’s economy (most notably mines and banks) and the redistribution of wealth were not only part of the initial plan of the new Government but among the core values expressed in the famous Freedom Charter of 1955.

What transpired in the early days of South Africa’s transition from Apartheid to democracy stood in sharp contrast to such aims. In his book, Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, author and activist William Gumede explains the way in which South Africa’s ruling party departed from their initial goals and ended up with a neo-liberal economy that effectively widened the gap between rich and poor in South Africa and how the neo-liberal policy of ‘redistribution through growth’ proved to be a false ideal. Gumede explains: “It was an onslaught for which the ANC was wholly unprepared. Key economic leaders were regularly ferried to the head offices of international organisations such as the World Bank and IMF, and…some of whom had no economic qualifications at all, took part in abbreviated executive training programmes at foreign business schools, investment banks, economic policy think tanks and the World Bank, where they were fed a steady diet of neo-liberal ideas. It was a dizzying experience. Never before had a government-in-waiting been so seduced by the international community.”(4)

The African National Congress (ANC) went to great lengths to ensure a smooth and bloodless transition to freedom and democracy. In doing so, it included the former “white” Government in plans for a new South Africa. Economic negotiations took place between the two with the ‘assistance’ of bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. These negotiations resulted in the creation of an independent Central Bank(5) (the Reserve Bank of South Africa),(6) resulting in budget constraints which prevented or cut down spending on housing projects for the poor because of the massive debt the new Government was expected to repay (although it had been accrued by the Apartheid regime and had nothing to do with the new regime), and international trade agreements which prevented state involvement in certain industries. This allowed the previous system to remain intact, under the control of the previous regime. Further slaving away to the international community to the detriment of its citizens, South Africa was unable to procure medical supplies (most notably AIDS drugs) because of international Intellectual Property restrictions. The crux of these events being that such measures were quietly undertaken without the consent of the public and without consensus even among ruling party members themselves, thus “…it was the nature of democracy itself that was being changed during these negotiations.”(7) Close to two decades after the advent of democracy in South Africa, the country has now surpassed Brazil and emerged as the most unequal society in the world. Additionally, it has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world and much of the population lives in squalor without access to running water, housing and healthcare.

Lebanon

Post-revolutionary periods are not the only times when opportunities will be exploited. Suffering devastating repercussions after Israel’s 2006 assault on Lebanon, the country faced a heavy burden with the rebuilding (literally) of affected parts of the country. Damage was estimated at US$ 9 billion, over and above Lebanon’s already-existing debt accrued after its lengthy civil war. A collection of states offered to assist Lebanon through loans and grants for the necessary reconstruction work. The conditions attached by foreign states to such loans included the privatisation of phone and electricity industries, price increases on fuel, cuts in social spending and higher consumer taxes. Furthermore, reconstruction work would be carried out by large multi-national corporations which would not necessarily employ local manpower.(8) Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, accepted these conditions much to the discontent of the Lebanese people who, together with a number of political parties and unions, began protesting the Government’s acceptance of such aid. The general consensus among the people was that if foreign ‘aid’ was going to increase their financial woes, adding to their detriment in the long run, such aid was not welcome.

The Lebanese were well aware of the strings attached to such aid, having suffered through it at the end of the Lebanese civil war where reconstruction went hand in hand with privatisation and only benefitteda small elite.The private company, Solidere, founded by businessman and later Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, is often credited with the reconstruction and modernisation of war-torn Beirut. Indeed, Beirut locals were under the impression that the company was going to aid in the rebuilding of the city, assisting those affected by the war. In time they realised what the project was actually about: the creation of a sort of green zone, of luxury housing, shopping and businesscomplexes, literally accessible only to a handful of the population. It is said that when Beirut residents from poorer suburbs ventured into the Solidere area, they were thrown out by security guards and told they were not welcome in the area as they “frightened the tourists.”(9) It was Hezbollah who, in turn, took up actual relief efforts after the 2006 war, repairing infrastructure, providing generators and funds for those affected, to start over.To date, many Beirut residents still dwell in slums with war-ravaged infrastructure in sharp contrast to the Solidere community.

Free market reform sometimes comes through the door of transition or new democracy, sometimes through rebuilding peace or even rebuilding after natural disasters and has, in fact, already taken place once in Egypt (in the 1980s) under the Mubarak regime. It would indeed be a tragedy if Arab Spring nations went down this path after the immense efforts put into the various revolutions. While some seek political change, many are primarily concerned with economic issues. In Mounib, one of Cairo’s most destitute neighbourhoods, “residents were not concerned with national identity, the dichotomy between liberals and Islamists, the threat of a military regime or American interests in the region. They were concerned with the polluted canal, the uncollected waste, the mosquitoes infesting the area and the lack of official response.”(10)

One size fits all?

What the West lacks is an understanding (having learnt no lessons from colonial times) of tribal considerations, which play such a big part in the East and in Africa but are totally absent from Western politics. This is yet another reason why a wholly Western approach will not work in seeking suitable systems to complement regime change in Arab Spring nations. When discussing the challenges that Pakistani Presidential hopeful, Imran Khan, will face this year, a Pakistani analyst mentioned: “Bilawal Bhutto may be completely untutored at the moment, but as the head of the PPP [Pakistan People’s Party] and the son and grand-son of two former popular prime ministers of Pakistan, he will soon have legitimacy to begin his attacks.”(11) The comment perfectly encapsulates thephenomenon ofhereditary politics and nepotism, which is a reality in many parts of the world.

Similar cases may be found in places like Egypt and Libya. The question is how to adequately deal with issues like this. Democracy is by no means an automatic answer. In South Africa, democracy did not solve the problem and, in fact, became the framework in which corruption and nepotism has festered.

Democracy is essentially a liberal, secular system and this is yet another reason why it may not be wholly suitable for Muslim nations. While strict adherence to religious values may have become taboo in many parts of the world, there are parts of the world which still choose to hold firmly to religion, culture and tradition. Furthermore, rather than seeing religion as an impediment to personal or societal growth, many see such values as a solution to the moral decay which lies at the root of many contemporary problems.(12)

The Islamic state

When referring to Islamic law or governance, an immediate image of a repressive monarchy/dynasty/dictatorship comes to mind. We do not seek to delve into history or challenge the perception that Muslims in the Middle East are a primitive society that exists (and always has existed) in perpetual anarchy along with strange customs and beliefs and no sophisticated, orderly form of law. Along with others, the media has sensationalised the issue and reduced Islam to what it prohibits or imposes, shedding no light on what it can bring forward to modern societies. Scant efforts are made to separate the Islamic faith from customary practices and cultural barbarism,  often portrayed as religious fervour. By way of example, honour killings and the recent phenomenon of ‘emo killings’ in Iraq have more to do with societal or cultural issues, but have been portrayed as Islamic in nature with people in the Western world blindly accepting such flawed assertions. Similarly, the prohibition of women’s education under Taliban rule in Afghanistan or the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia are more related to the archaic customs of these respective nations rather than Islamic injunction and should be understood as such. And many would be surprised to know that suicide bombing is a practice without foundation in Islam and in fact originated with Tamil Tiger separatists in Sri Lanka.

Many are totally oblivious to the fact that Muslim nations were not always governed as they are now and would be surprised to know that monarchies and dynasties run contrary to early Islamic teachings. This would perhaps come as a shock to many, seeing as the ‘custodians’ of the holy Muslim land of Saudi Arabia have adopted this system, but should indicate the distance between true Islamic law and what has become customary in the Middle East today. Even a brief overview of Islamic history (whether it be of the time of Prophet Muhammad’s (13) rule, the Muslim rule over the Ottoman empire or the 600 years during which Spain rested in Muslim hands) will bring forth information that will come as a great surprise to many and indicate the relative peace in which both Muslims and non-Muslims lived. To elaborate on this, certain fundamentals of an Islamic state may be expounded as follows.

Rule by consent

Islamically, a number of varying methods may be used to elect a leader. The common thread which runs through is consent or acceptance of a ruler through bay’ah, or pledge of allegiance. As far back as 1,400 years ago, before women’s suffrage was even considered in the Western world, women would partake in the electoral processes of the Islamic state and were among those who were consulted before a leader would accede to power.(14) Furthermore, the nature or interpretation of a leader’s position under Islamic law differs greatly to what we have come to know today. Not as a sovereign but rather as a vicegerent, the first Khalifa of the Islamic state addressed the people as such after being elected: “I am not the best among you; I need all your advice and all your help. If I do well, support me, if I err, counsel me… In my sight, the powerful and the weak are alike; and to both I wish to render justice. As I obey God and His Prophet,(15) obey me: if I neglect the laws of God and His Prophet, I have no more right to your obedience.” This would go to show the position of a leader and his position in an Islamic state and that he is governed by higher law.

This is not to say that polls or elections as we know them today are unacceptable. The concept of Ijtihad is described by some as scholarly deliberation or interpretation of the primary sources of Islamic law. As such, Ijtihad allows for the progression and evolution of law according to times and circumstance, as long as such evolution does not contradict fundamental tenets of Shariah. One way in which an Islamic election does, however, differ is that from the very outset, nominations for a particular leader are brought forward through consensus of a community. To illustrate this, the Khalifah Umar bin Khattab who ruled over part of the Muslim world during the 7th century was once approached by a man who requested that he be considered for the position of Governor of a specific province in the region. Umar refused saying that precisely because the man asked for the position, he would not give it to him as political power was not meant to be coveted because of the potential for abuse by leaders who desired power.

The concept of shura or consultation

Sometimes likened to representative democracy, shura in Islam is the process whereby decisions are made through mutual consultation and takes place in every sphere from private/family life to business dealings and governance, too. The strength of the shura system in Government lies in the representation it provides across society. In early Islamic states, shura on state matters took place between diverse sectors of society, acting as representatives for such segments, and in this way put forward the interests of society at large. Secondly, shura is a way in which one leader’s authority may be limited promoting transparency and accountability on state decisions which are accepted fundamentals of healthy societies.

Human rights in Islam

A clearly defined system of rights exists under Shariah. These include ‘modern-day’ human rights as we know them today, including: rights to life, property, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion and speech, among others. Islamic law also puts forward a clear judicial system which includes a right to a fair hearing and fair treatment if in captivity.

The end of history?

The Arab Spring, together with the Occupy Wall Street movement as well as woes faced in large chunks of Europe’s economy today, may suggest that contrary to what many believe, we have not reached the end of history wherein Western versions of democracy and capitalism emerged as the dominant regime-type,to which the majority of the world eventually succumbed. Denying this theory complements present attempts to shake the current global hegemony, which has left parts of the world in utter chaos over the past 10 years.

It is time to recognise the essential need to challenge this hegemony, whether in the economic, political or social sphere. The United States (US) and her allies have shown a mad use of power in the post-September 11 world, and it is interesting to see this power being challenged, albeit in subtle ways. Most recently, we have countries such as China and Turkey ignoring the sanctions placed on Iran, placing national and regional needs ahead of the West’s political games. Along with this, we see South America taking a very definitive step away from Western control. Increased cooperation between nations and the establishment of CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) has seen a decline in US military influence in the region and an increase in economic self-sufficiency. Latin American states, along with a number of other non-Western states, have been developing their own particular regime types in modern times. As philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, aptly puts it, “the current system has lost its self-evidence, its automatic legitimacy, and now the field is open.”(16)

Muslims across the Arab world should not have to be apologetic about their desire for an Islamic state simply because the West deems it inappropriate, nor should they have to be afraid of being branded as ‘Islamist’, radical or fundamentalist for wanting this. The salient fact is that in an era of imperial fascism those in power will go to great lengths to cling to power, including exploiting or manufacturing vulnerability among people. Moreover, in such times there will always be ‘masters’ of the system, as well as victims and targets. Whether against Jews, blacks or Muslims, there will always be some or other force which is presented as threatening or undesirable within societies.

Furthermore, opposition or outcry to political Islam has nothing to do with the upholding of democracy, human rights or freedom. It has nothing to do with a fear of extremism or the even more ludicrous belief that Muslims wish to implement Shariah law in the West.(17) Western Governments will cooperate with the most brutal, despotic regimes as long as such are subservient to Western interests with the main concern being the preservation of the status quo which is unmistakeably defined by neo-colonialism. Western Governments have too often been complicit in the overthrowing of people’s leaders and the propping up of despotic regimes. And thus at this juncture we must ask what the issue really is and not give into the sensationalism of the media or the propaganda of states. One will easily note the senseless nitpicking which takes place. An analyst on French news channel, France 24, recently voiced concern over the newly elected Egyptian Parliament which she described as “male-dominated and Islamist dominated,” as if any other Parliament in the world is not male-dominated! The same channel doing an insert on alleged Toulouse killer, Mohamed Merah, stated that Merah had become radicalised during his time in prison, “in his cell he’d read the Qur’an every day.”(18) The deeply disturbing thing being that no effort was made to explain why or how this was a problem, the message being that the Qur’an by itself was a threat. It is then laughable when Western leaders come out urging tolerance towards Muslims, saying that ‘extremist Islam’ is the problem and not Islam itself when it has been their deliberate efforts that have seen the rise of Islamophobia over the past decade. The Toulouse killings last month were indeed tragic and in no time discussions abounded about the threat of Islamism and terrorism. But what of those killings by right-wing extremists (which are steadily on the rise), which have yet to be classified as terrorism despite the fact they far exceed the number of ‘Muslim’ terror attacks in Europe?(19)

Responsibility must also come from within the global Muslim community itself. This means not giving support to every individual or organisation that claims to be acting under the auspices of Islam or to every group claiming to be fighting ‘fi sabeelillah ’(in the path of Allah). Nigeria’s Boko Haram or Somalia’s Al-Shabaab are prime examples of this, for they are in fact not resistance movements or movements for the betterment of their fellow countrymen. Al-Shabaab’s actions (preventing aid from reaching those affected) during the catastrophic Somali famine of 2011 attests to this.

The challenge ahead

Revolution and resistance is firmly rooted in Islamic history. The question is how to continue from this juncture and build on the progress made during the Arab Spring without being forced into yet another system which inhibits the growth and potential of these nations and their citizens. In search of a contemporary model of political Islam, the main challenges that present themselves are: the lack of a common goal in the global Muslim community, the disunity present in this community and the absence of responsible and inspirational leadership among the community. If, however, these challenges were to be adequately met Muslims could very well emerge as responsible contributors to the global society.

The notion that liberal democracy is the only or best way forward for developing nations needs to be seriously re-evaluated in light of the many factors: the uprisings in various parts of the world over the past year; the futile wars waged against third world nations by ‘democratic’ states; the consequences of these wars on the global human rights regime and the economic insecurity which the system has fostered. The need for a new approach should be clear by now. We have a global hegemony that has forgotten how to negotiate or cooperate with other nations and instead chooses to act as the schoolyard bully, wreaking havoc on anything in its path. The product of this mentality can be seen in comments like: “There are many ways to be smart about Iran…maximum covert operations…including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems, all of it covertly, all of it deniable…”(20) If we are to reverse this damage and prevent further damage then it is perhaps time to consider alternatives.

NOTES:

(1) Contact RaeesahCassimCachalia through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Conflict and Terrorism Unit ( conflict.terrorism@consultancyafrica.com).
(2) Klein, N., 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Allen Lane: London.
(3) ‘Public Protector’s findings against SiceloShiceka’, Politics Web, 14 October 2011, http://www.politicsweb.co.za.
(4) Klein, N., 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Allen Lane: London.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Which translated into a lack of government control the entity.
(7) Klein, N., 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Allen Lane: London.
(8) Which could have perhaps counted as a redeeming factor to foreign companies profiting from the crises.
(9) Klein, N., 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Allen Lane: London.
(10) ‘Egypt’s Government: Designed for dictatorship’, Al Jazeera, 18 October 2011, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(11) ‘Imran faces his greatest test’, Al Jazeera, 2 January 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(12) ZwelinzimaVavi pointed to the loss of traditional African customs as major reason behind contemporary problems in South Africa today, from Government corruption to crime to the high rate of teenage pregnancy. See ‘SA most unequal society in the world’, Business Report, 4 May 2011, http://www.iol.co.za.
(13) Peace be upon him.
(14) In deciding who would rise to succession after the assassination of Umar ibn-Khattab, consultation was held and later headed by AbdurRahman bin Auwf who sought the opinions of the people of the region on which candidate would be most suitable. Women were consulted as were travellers who happened to be in the region at that time, along with students.
(15) Peace be upon him.
(16) ‘SlavojZizek: Capitalism with Asian values’, Al Jazeera, 13 November 2011, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(17) A testament to the failure of the American education system and the demise of intellectual thought in the country, see the ridiculous comments made by American actress Victoria Jackson on how Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the highest ranks of the U.S Government and is now determined to bring the country under Shariah law, adding that “Very few people in America are as informed and educated as I am.”, ‘Victoria Jackson: Muslim Brotherhood Taking Over America, Six Hour FBI Meeting’, Huffington Post, 27 December 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com.
(18) ‘Looking for Merah: the word from the Toulouse suburbs’, France 24, 29 March 2012, http://www.france24.com.
(19) ‘Germany’s new breed of neo-Nazis pose a threat’, BBC, 27 March 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(20) Newt Gingrinch, Republican Presidential candidate on the Iranian nuclear issue.

Monday, 04 June 2012 08:08

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