Editor’s note: Madhav Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair at Manipal University in India. The views expressed are his own.
Despite the 2008 economic crash and lingering possibility of a Eurozone collapse, the West still clings to its one-size-fits-all mentality – especially when it comes to political systems. Democracy is still almost inevitably defined in terms of the Western model, with periodic elections to choose representatives to a parliament or head of state. Local variants, such as Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga system, are dismissed as not really democratic. But this “universalization” of the Western approach – especially for countries embarking on the path of democratization – is misguided.
I was an early believer in the Middle East democracy project, with the caveat that first there needs to be a comprehensive reform of school curricula. The present fare offered to young minds, especially in Saudi Arabia, is a mishmash of confused ideas cloaked in theology. The result is that the education system fosters minds that are in many cases unable to properly grasp reality, ones that instead too often focus on vague concepts that get superimposed onto the real world. It’s little wonder that conspiracy theories are so prevalent in the region.
The deepening of democracy within the Middle East should therefore start in the classroom, not the ballot box. Yet the reality is that this can best be done by a ruling elite free of the fear of the vote. This is not to argue that democracy is ultimately harmful, but merely to suggest that the proper societal and economic foundations should be laid first.
Rather than looking toward the U.S. or French models, states within the Arab world would be better off looking east, and drawing some lessons from the experience of South Korea and Taiwan, which set in place the forward-looking structures necessary for economic success before subjecting rulers to the ballot box.
Indeed, one need not look very far to see the dangers of doing otherwise – Egypt highlights the consequences of transitioning to a Western-style democratic model without an intermediate period of building up institutions and mindsets promoting democratic values. Although elected by the public, President Mohamed Morsy is a prisoner of conventional Egyptian experience, with the only departure from his predecessor being that he sees the Muslim Brotherhood as the natural core of governance, rather than the military-security apparatus patronized by Hosni Mubarak. So long as Morsy persists with such an approach to governance, Egypt is likely to continue on its present unstable path.
Likewise, the ruling family in another Middle East giant, Saudi Arabia, needs to abandon its longstanding policy of pandering to extreme religious interests and switch support to the modernizers. To a certain extent, King Abdullah has already embarked on such a path, but it is at far too stately a pace, one that needs to be accelerated if the kingdom is to survive the aftershocks of the unfolding disaster in Syria.
Finally, while Moammar Gadhafi was reprehensible while alive, his fall has had disastrous consequences for his country, with arms from Libya flowing to groups that are ideological cousins of the Taliban.
Democracy is a beverage best served diluted, at least until the body gets accustomed to its headiness. Sometimes the processes of democracy are used by the many to trample on the rights of the few, something seen not just in the Middle East but in faraway Malaysia, where halal food dominates despite a third of the population being Christian, Hindu or Buddhist. Yet despite its relative economic prosperity, Malaysia’s religious tensions also point to future strife and even conflict.
For long term stability, countries must take the long view and allow a period for the introduction of secular and rational curricula in schools, the creation of institutions that conform to democratic norms, and the awakening of minds numbed by the ceaseless barrage of, for example, Wahabi cant.
Until such a period of adjustment takes place in the Middle East, democracy taken neat will do enormous harm to the nation drinking it.