Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Democracy and enlightenment in the Muslim world

Egypt continues to be embroiled in confusion and just this side of chaos, not made more coherent by protesters’ refusal to “negotiate” terms in which they will agree to disperse. The newly-appointed vice president—Omar Suleiman, like most of the top echelon of the government a military man—has declared that Egypt is not ready for democracy, and he may be right; the protesters have not articulated a “plan” for governing beyond Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. The protesters cannot be blamed for doubting any promises for reform, of course; promises of governmental reform have been made and then broken before, although it is reasonable to believe that this time the powerful military is concerned enough with the possibility of chaos, and if only for its own safety take seriously the need for a more effective outlet for the people’s frustration. This was certainly the point being made to me by an immigrant from Algeria, who I have observed to be increasingly on a slow boil as events have unfolded, and is impatient with a typical American’s doubtfulness. Whether that is a separate issue from the Muslim Brotherhood’s fundamentalist—and inherently anti-democratic—ideology is another matter.

The only Muslim countries with democratic governments that are close to the Western sense are secular states like Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon. In Turkey, Kemal Ataturk was the most powerful and influential personality in what was left of the Ottoman Empire following its defeat in World War I, and was a committed secularist who wanted to form a society based on the Western model. Pakistan was obviously influenced by centuries of British rule, and in Lebanon there had to be some accommodation between its mixed Muslim and Christian population. But in the main, the Muslim world, which challenged the West for supremacy at least until the 16th century in terms of culture and technology, has since that time been bogged down in religious fanaticism, fatalism and poverty. While the West experienced a Renaissance, an Enlightenment, and an Industrial Revolution, these periods seemed to pass most of the Muslim world by. In some parts, even re-interpreting the Koran to fit the realities of modern life is punishable by death, or at least the threat of it.

Western thought had its “dark age,” of course—when everything was explained by the supernatural, and everything was understood to be guided by unchangeable rules set by a divine being; science, culture and literature was not permitted to stray far these rules, thus calling them into question. However, during the Enlightenment, scholars, philosophers and scientists no longer tolerated being confined to fixed “systems” that did not take into account the often chaotic forces of nature and were contradicted by empirical observation; the laws of nature such as that formulated by Newton were better able to explain what was once unknown, opening the world to a greater understanding of its mysteries. Since these ideas were a direct threat to religious dogma, they were not readily accepted; but by the 18th century intellectual persecution, because of increasing skepticism, was unsustainable. The evolution of political thought (particularly in questioning the concept of divine right of rulers) inevitably followed.

The West was thus able to break out of the straightjacket of religious dogma and advance socially, culturally and technologically. This did not occur in the greater part of the Muslim world, and its society has remained for the most part adverse to new ideas that question the relevance of religious fanaticism in the modern world, and open the mind to new possibilities without the straightjacket of intolerance. The fact the Egyptians on the street have not been able to define what “freedom” means to them beyond being a concept, let alone the responsibilities it entails, is problematic for the future. So much of the Muslim world has not laid the foundation in which independent, individual expression can be expressed without the strictures of intolerance.

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