First Person | Embrace the Change

Churning in the Middle East is good for the world

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

Had he been alive, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, well-known revolutionary poet of the Indian sub-continent, would have turned 100 on 13 February 2011. He couldn’t have asked for a better birthday gift than tossing over of assorted tyrants, from Tunisia to Egypt, in the month of his birthday. If the momentum continues then perhaps the third one (Muammar Gaddafi of Libya) would have gone too by the time this article appears.

Several decades ago, raising his voice against another tyrant in another country (President Zia ul Haq in Pakistan), Faiz, an avowed Marxist, — he was given the Lenin Award by the erstwhile Soviet Union — had hoped that he lives to see the day when, ‘zulmon-sitam ke koh-e-giraan, rooee ki tarah urh jaayenge’ (the perpetrators of cruelty and injustice would be tossed over like cotton balls) in his famous poem ‘Hum Dekhenge’ (We Shall Witness). Even though the revolution that he had hoped for is yet to come to his land of birth, assorted Muslim countries in the neighbourhood, from North Africa to West Asia, have been ignited by that spark.

These are early days yet to believe that this spark will cause the fire which will change both the face and fate of these countries. And though the movement has spread, the momentum seems to be abating a bit, leading a few analysts to mock these churnings as mere uprisings and no revolutions. It is a good thing that there is no revolution. Revolutions seldom throw up democracies; they only throw up potential dictators or as Gaddafi insists, ‘leader of the revolution’. It is also a good thing that these mass movements are leaderless for the moment. It does not take very long for a leader to become a demagogue. Since there are no signs of anarchy yet, perhaps we need to wait and give people a chance.

Democracies evolve, gradually and with trial and error, with each nation finding a model that meets its aspirations the best. The importance of the mass movement in North Africa and West Asia lies in the fact that the people have found courage to assert themselves. They have emerged out of the self-inflicted blow of victimhood and are seeking a say in the destiny of their country. And this is the biggest sign that democracy may yet come to these countries.

However, for that to happen, the West, especially the US, must maintain a hands-off approach to the region and not try to impose another political system to safeguard its interests. There is more to the world than the US interests and more to people’s frustration than hatred towards the US. The people of Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia or wherever, may not be particularly fond of the US, but they do not hate the US so much to risk their lives and those of their children. They simply want the hereditary oligarchs in their countries to go. They want their leaders to govern their countries, putting the interests of the country first and not act as the custodians of US interests in their countries or regions.

The US’ fear, reinforced by Israel, is that these popular movements will radicalise the Arab societies and taking advantage of the vacuum, Islamic extremists will seize power. Or worse democratic elections in these countries will bring radical Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to power, as they did in Algeria, when the US had to lean on the army to seize power.

These are baseless fears. Religious radicalisation of any society in this region, including in Pakistan, has happened under the tutelage of the military dictators who have repeatedly propped up politico-religious rabble-rousers as bulwarks against genuine democratic movements. These dictators, who want to rule in perpetuity, seek to suppress the people in the name of Islam, as it is easier to isolate the rebels by labelling them as apostates. The Faustian pact between King Saud and Abdul Wahab in Arabia is testimony to this. Even today, Saudi Arabia is the least open society in the region; and it has nothing to do with the fact that it is home to two of Islam’s holiest shrines.

As far as elections bringing Islamists to power is concerned, if that is the mandate of the people, so be it. Isn’t this what democracy all about? Haven’t elections in Europe brought Right-wing parties to power? Didn’t elections in India bring the Right-wing BJP to power? The virtue of democracy is that it tempers the most radical groups, who have to chart the middle course, both to retain and return to power. But this is mere rhetoric.

The truth is, Islam is a political religion and it will always play some role in the governance of a Muslim country. To think that these countries are becoming increasingly radicalised because there are more hijabs and beards on the streets is fallacious. There are more hijabs and beards on the streets now because till a decade ago these people did not step out of their homes or madrassas seeking secular education or jobs. Now they do. This is not radicalisation. This is the first step towards liberalisation. When these people take the reins of power, they will open more schools than madrassas.

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