Monday, August 15, 2011

Is Democracy Enough?

By Nermeen Murad
Let us imagine political utopia: an Arab governance system based on proportional democracy reflecting the true will of the people. Would that be enough?
My new theory on the calls for reform and democracy in the Arab world lately is that democracy is not enough. What we need is enlightened reform leaders who show us the way to an enlightened democracy. That would mean respect for the rights of women and minorities as a first step towards respect for pluralism and multiethnicity and, therefore, a democracy that is based on a value system rather than an electoral system. Short of that, we would have autocracy disguised as democracy.
I have an image in my mind when I think of the need for reform in the Arab world. There is this security man with one of the old doctor’s bags that opens up and stays open, standing next to a leader wanting to institute democratic reform. Every time the leader proposes something, the security man puts his hand into his bag and pulls out a ghoul to warn the leader off that bit of reform.
Let us look at Jordan as an example: on giving nationality to the children of Jordanian women, out come the ghouls of Palestinians, Egyptians, economic hardship, dissolution of Jordan’s social identity and water scarcity; on introducing a fairer proportional representation in national elections, out come the ghouls of Palestinians (again) and Muslim extremists; on lifting restrictions on knowledge creation and dissemination by reforming the laws of the press and publications and Statistics Department laws, the security man rummages even further into his bag of tricks and pulls out the ghouls of “outside agendas” and “destabilisation” and the ever present Palestinians; on reform of the personal status laws to remove male guardianship over the female relative (which lasts from birth to death) and, more importantly, her free access to finance, out come the ghouls of “Western influence” and “broken homes”. Actually these ghouls are pulled out of the bag of the conservative male citizen who isn’t as prominent as the security man but stands just a few steps behind him and has appointed himself as the ghoul master of social freedoms.
Back to my security man: on allowing university students to discuss politics, the security man whispers something about university lecturers and professors being officially banned from attending lectures by visiting speakers unless personally invited by the dean of their college, so how can students be allowed to partake in politics? But then he goes back to his bag and pulls out Islamists, Palestinians, social violence, tribalism and (out comes the conservative man) loose women; on allowing Shiite Iraqis to perform their religious rites, out come the ghouls of Iran and “Lebanonisation” of Jordan; etc. etc.
I have my own ghouls as well. If true proportional democracy were to be introduced in Jordan today and the results announced tomorrow with the predicted Islamic majority - most of whom have direct links to extremist “next door neighbour” kind of Islamic leadership, buoyed on by the fretful and sometimes xenophobic tribal conservatives and a few so-called leftists to keep the pendulums swinging, then I would pack my bags and leave this country, which I can tell you from now will no longer resemble anything than I can call mine.
The many reform committees have put forward their recommendations by now on how we would move forward with reform in Jordan, but most significantly, they have been trusted to put forward constitutional reforms.
These, in particular, have to reflect not only the bag of ghouls of the security and conservative men, but also guard against democracy being used as a tool to change our value system which is based on modernity, globalism, respect for women, social cohesiveness and inclusion in order to guarantee social, religious and political pluralism.
The constitution, unlike any other reform tool, must in the first place dictate the value system that guides our legislators and our executive authority, as well as our security man and our conservative man. Under such scenario of enlightened guidance, democracy would surely become enough.
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 15/08/2011

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