Saad Eddin Ibrahim
Today’s Wall Street Journal contains a piece entitled “Reviving Mideastern Democracy: We Arabs need the West’s help to usher in a new Liberal Age.” It was written by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, chairman of the board of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo. Ibrahim was jailed in 2000 and again in 2002 for his pro-democracy work in Egypt. I can’t link to the article because WSJ is a subscription-only service, but here are some highlights: [UPDATE: Thanks to Ben F, here it is from Opinion Journal.]
“Democracy is the way forward. It is the only sure way to keep the Middle East from going to the brink of war every few years. . . . How do I rate the prospects for democracy in the Middle East? I think that they are surprisingly good. I am well aware of those who marshal evidence to show that instituting democracies and open societies in the region, or perhaps even in the larger Muslim world, is difficult or impossible. The difficulties are well known and undeniable. But they can all be overcome. In previous decades, authoritative voices said that Germany, Japan, Slavic countries and even Catholic societies would never, could never, be democratic. I am not speaking of popular prejudices here, but of high-level scholarship and expert consensus. Batteries of learned naysayers honestly believed that there was something about German, Japanese or Slavic culture, or about Catholicism, that was fundamentally and unchangeably hostile to democracy and democratic values. . . .”
Now, I would be the last person to say that these difficulties can’t be overcome. But the President has made these comparisons too, and they simply aren’t exact. At the end of World War II the ideologies that fueled German and Japanese militarism were discredited and rejected. Radical Islam, however, is not discredited in the Middle East.
I’d like to know, in other words, how Ibrahim intends to respond to the challenge of those Muslims who, by their words and deeds, hark back to the words of Ibn Khaldun himself: “in the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.” In Islam, says Ibn Khaldun, the person in charge of religious affairs is concerned with “power politics,” because Islam is “under obligation to gain power over other nations” (Muqaddimah, trans. Rosenthal, p. 183).
Those are not words of openness, tolerance, and democracy. And they are still widely held in the Muslim world.
Ibrahim: “I’ve never believed anything more strongly in my life. This is not just about Egypt, or the Middle East, or the Arab peoples–this is a global struggle, a battle for the world. Those who are carrying it on in countries and regions such as mine need the help of citizens in mature democracies. Reach out to us, engage us in dialogue, give us a hand if and when you can, and let our message be heard in the West so our culture and our religion will not be unjustly condemned as intrinsically against freedom and democracy, because they are not. . . .”
I would be happy to engage Ibrahim in dialogue. There is no denying his courage and determination, and I admire them. I would ask him to engage the questions above fully and honestly.
Ibrahim: “When we founded the Ibn Khaldun Center and as we guided its work throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, we had the Liberal Age very much in mind. We saw ourselves not as builders from scratch, but as revivers of a great (but not perfect) tradition that had existed not only in our country but also in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Morocco and elsewhere. We were and we remain determined that this liberal tradition–and the Egyptian Court of Cassation, as witnessed in our legal case, is part of this legacy–will not be forgotten. We believe that if these ideas receive the exposure they deserve, the memory of this tradition and, more importantly, the still-living relevance of its core teachings on rights, freedom, transparency, and justice, can play a large role in showing that democracy does indeed have a reasonable chance of putting down roots and growing in the Middle East.”
Rights, freedom, transparency and justice must be for all in Islamic societies, not just for Muslims. There is no liberal tradition of this kind within Islam — there is just the inequality and discrimination of dhimmitude for non-Muslims. This must be addressed by any group working to establish democracy in a Muslim nation.
Ibrahim: “Instead of the ‘paralysis by analysis’ that comes from cataloguing all the familiar reasons why our peoples will ‘never’ be ready for democracy, we choose to remind ourselves of the liberal options that were once open and can be open again.”
I am not saying “never” or trying to induce any “paralysis.” But the questions above must be answered.