Neal Rauhauser: Democracy and Islam – Lost in Translation

Cultural Intelligence


Neal Rauhauser
Neal Rauhauser

A Streetcar Named Democracy

Ten years ago Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan famously quipped “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.” This was meant to prod Turks into thinking about their form of government, but the quote is applicable, albeit displeasingly so, for other situations in the Mideast.

The differences between the Sunni majority and the Shia and other related derivative sects are something of an analog to the split between Protestants and the Catholic church between four and five hundred years ago. Christendom fought it out, coming to the separation of church and state as a solution to the conflict. Islam is six hundred years newer that Christianity and they have not yet had such a resolution.

slices of islamOur society, with the Wars of Reformation long over and four hundred years of English liberalism as a foundation, has an expectation of what democracy means – a pluralist government with regular elections that enforces the rule of the law. What we are seeing in Egypt today is that the Muslim Brotherhood viewed democracy in the way Erdogan represented it; they rode it past the removal of a compliant strongman, then wanted to hop off at the “majoritarian Islamist” stop. What happened there a few days ago fits the definition of a coup, but our definition might be in need of an update.

Syrian Alawites, facing a loss of control of the country and an aggressive, majoritarian Sunni insurgency funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are suddenly interested in democracy – a peaceful, pluralist government strikes them as a better deal than payback for years of oppression at the hands of the Assad regime. If you ask any policy maker outside of the Arabian peninsula you would get a heartfelt “YES!” if you could point the way to achieving this. The conflict has already spilled into Lebanon, once part of Greater Syria, and it’s starting to draw would-be jihadis from across Europe, who can make it as far as Turkey without needing a visa. The border is porous and policy makers fret about radicalized jihadists returning home as hardened urban guerrillas after spending time in Syria.

Trying to see the Mideast as we saw eastern Europe during the Cold War – as a place that needed and wanted to be liberated, is fundamentally incorrect. Islam is the substrate upon which societies there are built, and we have to see things as they are, not through some simple minded lens of western rhetoric. Egypt’s coup may be the clean, well lit, safe stop for its people. If we insist on enforcing our idea of what democracy means we could well be compelling the Egyptians towards something similar to what is happening in Syria, and no one wants to face that.

I see varying opinions on this, some simple minded and knee jerk, while others are carefully measured positions by those who have traveled and worked in the region. The only consensus I see right now is that rushing to judgment could have grim consequences.