Democracy, or… Hypocrisy?

On a recent trip to Egypt and Iran, two countries considered to be world leaders of Sunni and Shi’a Islam, I did not meet a single person who didn’t recognize the need for more democratic political reform across the Muslim world.

And I met a lot of people — including Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the president of Tehran University (who holds a University of Waterloo Ph.D. in engineering), Egypt’s Minister of Higher Education and Research, former Sudanese president Sawar Al-Zahab and Sudan’s former prime minster Sadeq Al-Mahdi. As well, I encountered many professional analysts, academics, intellectuals, university students, and informed taxi drivers.

But the vast majority of people I met not only doubted the West’s sincerity in calling for democratic reform, but accused powerful Western countries — especially the U.S. and, more recently, France — of blatant hypocrisy. Such strong opinions stem from a number of deeply-rooted reasons.

“Give us a break,” says Fahmy Huwaidi of Egypt’s Al Ahram newspaper, regarding the demand for almost-instantaneous democratic reform. Huwaidi, one of the Muslim world’s top columnists (his readers number in the millions), pointed out to me that “the West took more than 100 years to reach a decent level of democracy. Why then do they expect us to attain democracy overnight?”

Another reason why informed Muslims accuse the West of hypocrisy is that Western nations have repeatedly encouraged secondary steps toward reform while totally ignoring the fundamentals upon which any robust democratic system depends. For example, they hailed the Egyptian government’s long-overdue appointment of a woman judge to the country’s supreme court earlier this year, but never raised concerns about the more serious erosion of the Egyptian judicial system’s independence over the past 20 years.

At The Muslim World: Challenges And Opportunities, an international conference held in Tehran only a day before the recent devastating earthquake, I met some 50 leaders and intellectuals — including current Pakistani opposition leader, Gazi Hussain Ahmad of Jama’at-e-Islami — who agreed that the West is not really serious about democratic reform in the Muslim world.

Many also accuse the West of exploiting existing undemocratic practices of Muslim governments. Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, for example, reportedly answered American president George W. Bush’s are-you-with-us-or-against-us telephone call after September 11, 2001 with an immediate "yes" without asking for a few days to consult with his aides and other government officials representing the Pakistani people. Of course, Bush was delighted with that immediate yes.

Another issue fueling accusations of Western hypocrisy is the not-invented-here syndrome. While British democracy is different from America’s, both are widely accepted as valid models of democracy. But when it comes to the Muslim world, non-Western democratic models are not considered acceptable.

Most Iranians believe that their governmental system, although dissimilar to both the British and American models, is nevertheless democratic; yet the West did not even bother to study it as a valid alternate model. Another example is Malaysia’s successful democratic system, which is not widely praised in the West; yet Malaysia has not only achieved an exemplary level of political reform in only two decades, but has done so alongside unprecedented economic reform and development, combined with a full commitment to multiculturalism and the upholding of minority rights.

In stark contrast, consider the post-9/11 regression of human rights that has taken place in virtually every major Western country — especially those that have incessantly pressured Muslim countries to abandon the levels of human rights awareness they may already have achieved. Such duplicity is truly hypocritical.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. leads the international pack of post-9/11 human rights violators, routinely detaining citizens of foreign countries – some for more than two years – without laying charges or allowing them access to legal counsel.

But France recently topped the list of Western human rights violators by proposing legislation that would ban publicly worn religious attire — particularly the hijab, or headscarf, worn by many Muslim women. This pending move has shocked the entire Muslim world and with good reason.

Is this kind of racism the behaviour we should expect from Western nations who’ve always prided themselves on being champions of liberal democracy? Many Western-educated liberals in the Muslim world could not even find adequate words to describe and respond to France’s indefensible action.

They now wonder who, and what, will be next once the hijab is banned in France. Will other Western nations follow suit? Will there soon be a ban on building mosques? Will Muslims be forced to change their names, as happend to early 20th-century European Jews? Will they be barred from certain security-sensitive jobs? Many Muslim liberals fear it is now just a matter of time.

In Holland, the charismatic and ultra-conservative political hopeful, Pim Fortuyn, called for the closing of his country’s borders to all Muslims, whose religion he described as "achterlijk" (backward). In only a few months of public media exposure, his popularity skyrocketed. Fortuyn soon became leader of a growing political movement and when he was murdered on May 6, 2003, it was just one week before elections that might well have resulted in his becoming prime minister of the Netherlands.

The young man who killed Fortuyn was an animal rights activist, who declared Fortuyn’s ideas were a menace to society. He is now serving 18 years in prison.

"Democratic" Western governments are also considering the use of "nonlethal torture" for interrogating resistant suspects, says Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz. Insisting he does not advocate torture himself, Dershowitz suggested only days ago to law students at the Université de Montréal that senior judges could be empowered to issue "torture warrants" permitting its limited use in cases of imminent national danger.

He also predicted that countries such as Canada, the U.S. and France might be among the first to use nonlethal torture for interrogation purposes; all of which must sound confusing to Muslim countries whose potential models for democracy are crumbling around them.

When it comes to fundamental democratic reform, therefore, perhaps the Muslim world would do better to emulate Western democratic ideals of a century ago, not the hypocritical and schizophrenic brand being practiced today.