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Posted on 4th July 2014
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This article in The Economist attempts to diagnose the ills of the Arab world. Its position seems to be that the modern interpretation of Islam is at the root of the problem: that religion is preventing democracy, free-market forces, education and religious and social pluralism.
One of the things that struck me about the article is that the author seems obsessed with democracy, both as a good thing in itself, and as the cure for many of the ills of the modern world. Not only is this position not justified in the piece, but it seems in contradiction to historical background given at the beginning of the article.
In the heyday of the Arab world their society was ruled by dictators and royalty. During this time they made enormous contributions to science, art, literature and architecture: we have Arab civilisation to thank for our system of numbers (they gave us the number zero, essential to modern mathematics), most of the ground-work in astronomy (the development of which was stunted in Europe by the influence of the Roman Catholic Church), technology for navigation and much more. If you want to see an example of Arab architecture, visit the Alhambra (and compare the Arab parts to the section that was reworked by the Spanish after they drove the Moors out of Spain - the Spanish architecture is horrible in comparison). All this was achieved without democracy; the same is true of most other great civilisations in history: China, India, the Incas, etc.
The article in The Economist mentions Indonesia as an example of a successful Muslim nation with a working democracy, but they do have some significant problems (endemic corruption, and their currency took a major dive about a year ago), and they are most certainly not Arabs. Successful Arab states in the modern world are generally not democratic: the UAE and Saudi Arabia, for example.
Democracy is one of the obsessions of the modern world. The western civilisations have exported it around the planet by various means. As the colonies of the great western powers evaporated, we "gifted" the newly independent states with constitutions and democratic systems. We continue to export it, for example in Iraq and Afghanistan. We shouldn't be so surprised when it doesn't work; it doesn't work so well in the west either. The systems of government in the USA and much of Europe can at best be described as pseudo-democracies, and often fail to deliver government "by the people, for the people".
I am not saying that democracy is inherently bad, but I am saying that it is not necessarily right for every nation, every society and every religion, and I am most certainly saying that it is not an essential prerequisite for a wealthy, happy, productive, educated and pluralist state, operating under the rule of law and with sexual and religious equality.
Part of the problem, however, is that western civilisations have done too good a job of marketing the idea of democracy as the cure for all ills. This means that people around the world want, and believe that they need, democracy in order to be happy and successful. I think we might have "sold them a pup".