Sunday, July 09, 2006

Can an Illiterate or an Islamic Fundamentalist cast a vote?

My countrymen and women are tired of American politicians and Syrian intellectuals ramming the word democracy down their throats.

They are sick of hearing the word. Suspicion of American motives runs deep and they cannot imagine intellectuals delivering anything but hot air.

Deep down in the Arab and Islamic psyche, you find admiration for power and powerful rulers. It comes from family tradition, culture and religion. Fathers, and tribe elders, personified power and benevolence and thus commanded respect and obedience. The Quran reinforced this tradition. However, rulers enjoying absolute power, especially in the early history of Islam, were wise enough to consult with their subjects over major decisions and listened to their grievances through a consultative council (Majlis Al Shura).

Throughout their history, Arabs have rebelled against greed and injustice rather than absolute power.

Modern day Arab rulers understand this basic popular psychology. It is not clear that Saddam Hussein ever did. He was seen as greedy and unjust, consequently few shed tears when he was toppled. Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, who also enjoyed absolute power, was seen as benevolent, wise and just. Millions came out to mourn his death rather than celebrate it.

The concept of democracy as practiced in Greece and Rome departed the Levant when Islam arrived with a different governance model, which seemed to work well for centuries. A modern style of democracy returned to the Levant at the turn of the 20th Century. The Syrians carried it back! (Ask Sami Moubayed how and why}.

Can Arabs go on living under their traditional model of governance, that of the all powerful but benevolent ruler? Yes they can, if they are a homogenous society and have plenty of money to go round, as in the UAE.

Can Arabs in Syria live under such a model? No they can not. Syria is a rich tapestry of cultures and religions. Syrians are generally more at ease with liberal values and the country has to earn a living by growing things and making things that the world wants, against fierce competition. So people need to be free and creative and organized to survive. Syria experimented with democracy in the 1940s and 1950s but the country was young and clumsy. That was then. And we are here now. The world is very different and many Syrians can speak a foreign language, send an e-mail, dance to the latest techno beat, revel in classical Arab poetry and read the Quran or Bible before going to bed at night. They feel at home in Montreal, Los Angeles or Tartous because there are 15 million Syrian expatriates around the world acting as cultural bridges to their folk back home.

Can a Syrian farmer who doesn’t read or write vote? You bet he can. He has been forced to do so by a Baath party chief for 40 years! Given a choice, he may vote for his next door neighbour whom he thinks is honest enough, listens to others and acts in his community's best interests. Hundreds of millions of illiterate people in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and African countries know exactly who to vote for and why. For sure, education makes for a more enlightened and productive society but it is not a prerequisite for humans to express their free will. The poorly educated and ill-informed can be deceived. But it is the patriotic responsibility of the more educated to maintain the integrity of the voting system and expose fraud, and for the state to punish the fraudsters.

Can an Islamic fundamentalist cast a vote? He will probably be the first to do so. Passion and faith can move mountains. He will want to maximize his chances of exercising power. The voting in of Hamas in Palestine is a classic expression of passion and faith but also frustration and disillusionment with the previous Palestinian administration and Israeli oppression. People need to vent their anger and express their political wishes directly and freely. Democracy is only a mechanism which allows them to do so peacefully. It is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. The alternative is aggression and social conflict, the weakening of civil society and the economy and erosion of state power. No country in the world today can hope to flourish economically or culturally without an enlightened, honest and fair system of government which protects the basic human rights of every citizen and guarantees him equal opportunities.

Should a low level of education, or the rising religious fundamentalism in Syria be used as reasons for delaying the transition to a more representative and open system of government?

I leave it to the reader to draw his own conclusion.


Nafdik said...

Great comment Philip I. The only thing I disagree with is linking Islam to the departure of democracy.

Philip I said...


Thank you for your comment. Point well made. I have amended the offending paragraph. I hope it no longer wrongly implies that Islam drove out democracy and democractic principles. The point is that Islam brought its own model of democracy, that of the absolute but benevolent ruler who consulted with his people and listened to, and addressed their concerns.

syrian said...

I would love to hear your comments on my post from yesterday. Its odd that out posts are similar in so many ways yet so different!!!

Philip I said...


I have read your post with great interest and I am truly amazed at the meeting of minds over the issue of education and democracy. Is it really so blindingly obvious or we just happend to have been both seduced by the same philosophical arguments?

You will have seen on syriacomment that many contributers seem to have bought into the idea that poor education is somehow a barrier to democracy (aka freedom!). I just felt I had to respond, and I'm glad I was not alone in this. Best regards.

Fares said...


as always great work and your post makes excellent points...

I am just frustrated that Syrians are so great in talking and explaining themselves very well, and in general they are very well informed (applies to other middle easterns) and know how to discuss and debate.

But we have no means of changing anything and we are so impotent in demanding anything such as a basic freedom for our intellectuals like Michel Kilo and the other heroes, and you have some enlightned people such as Alex (BTW she is a woman and not a man as you might have thought) who in reality endorses any regime action even though she pretends otherwise.

a message to all Syrians: Syrians don't need to agree on every single issue, it is called diversity and freedom of opinion, and they don't have to be all in favor of removing the regime or changing it for that to happen.
They also don't need to discuss what to do with the Golan or Iskenderoun because they can't do anything about it anyway.

This regime is expired and needs to seriously change and respect its people for its survival. Stop creating excuses to justify its actions. And yes I don't expect everyone to agree with me but the majority have decided that they are fed up with this regime.

Philip keep up the good work and don't let some people keep drawing you into useless discussions, Arabs have been discussing liberating Palestine for 60 years now or more...

Fares said...

Arab Blogs get Some media exposure

Abu Kareem said...

Philip I,

I agree with you regarding Syria's uniqueness. However, I think all Arab societies are ready for democracy. No Arab society is so insular that it is ignorant of what is going on in the rest of the world. Benevolent power does not necessarily trump democracy; even a relatively homogeneous state like Kuwait is clamoring for democratic change. Besides, I truly believe that the free choice provided by democracy is a natural human instinct. The Palestinians emerging from years of occupation and without the benefit of a democratic tradition voted in precentages that put established Western democracies to shame.

Philip I said...

abu kareem

Thank you for your thoughts and perspective. You are absolutely right. Democracy is a natural human instinct.

To support your argument further, I would say that the benevolent ruler may well ignore women altogether. This of course can lead to the total isolation (and perpetual intellectual subjugation)of one half of the nation. Kuwaiti Women, in particular, have been brave enough to stand up and fight for their democratic rights. Good luck to them and every other Arab citizen in pursuit of social justice.

Fares said...

My emotional take on the events in Lebanon

sorry kind of long, read 3rd section if you want quick.
only people with hearts and brains can read, no need for hyprocrites.
Appreciate your feedback.

Philip let's show the world that we Syrian liberals don't support what is happening...this is a war on us instigated by Nasrallah