Arab nations reject autocratic regimes

by Izeth Hussain

(February 20, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Universal Democracy - Earlier in these notes I have held that with the Arab countries also turning to democracy we can realistically suppose that democracy has a universal appeal. We must bear certain facts in mind in this connection. What has been afoot in the Arab countries is much more than an inclination, a mild and reasonable preference, for democracy. It is rather a powerful drive towards it, as shown by the fact that in Egypt 287 had died and still the demonstrators kept surging forward in vast numbers. That was despite the fact that the US, the West’s chosen watchdog in the Middle East, has been grimly determined to see that the Arab dictators are kept as long as possible in a state of pro-Western doghood. The strategy was to try to keep a grip on M-East oil, and to ensure that the New Imperialism has at least a partly racist character through the success of Yanko-Zionism.

I must acknowledge before proceeding further that many of the countries that have taken to democracy since the 1970s have been practicing deeply flawed versions of it. But the over-all democratic trend has been unmistakably very powerful. It seems clear that the ideology of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, is not peculiar to the Western inheritors of the Enlightenment. That it has a universal appeal is suggested by the fact that - as I pointed out in an earlier note - governance under pristine Islam was thoroughly democratic. I next want to argue in this note that it had to be expected that should people be given the option in the contemporary world, they will usually turn to democracy.

By way of substantiation I will turn to the record of the Meso-American civilizations, depending on material provided by a friend who has been researching the subject. They were isolated civilizations with no contact with the outside world, since for around thirty thousand years the land bridge connecting Siberia to North America had broken down. They consisted of the Olmec, Maya, Totlec, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Aztec civilizations. The earliest of them, the Olmec, was established around 1,000 BC, while the last, the Aztec, flourished from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. The Aztecs were notorious for practicing human sacrifice, and though the evidence is not conclusive it seems probable that the others also did so. So it seems that the practice of human sacrifice was for the Meso-American civilizations an integral part of being human.

Superiority of whites

For decades there was a mystery about how Cortez and his 600 managed to conquer the Aztec empire. It was supposed that the superiority of the whites to the Amerindians was the explanation. Then it was supposed that the potential victims of human sacrifice had joined up with the Conquistadores. It was also supposed that the Aztec rulers were unnerved by an astrological prediction that seemed to be coming true with the appearance of Cortez. But it came to be established that the Aztec polities - comparable to the Greek city states - had rebelled and joined the 600 against the dominant Aztec group, and that that was the decisive factor in the success of Cortez. It is a revealing fact that the potential victims of human sacrifice did not rebel. So far from doing so, they complained that the Spanish were interfering with the hallowed rites of the Aztecs, in which the potential victims themselves took pride. It is possible that human sacrifice would have continued for centuries or even thousands of years if not for the intrusion of a foreign culture, as an essential part of the Aztec chintanaya. The question is whether change comes about compulsorily or voluntarily. In the Aztec case the change was initially compulsory, but it quickly became voluntary as shown by the fact that human sacrifice was given up without any real struggle.

The same process of voluntary change from unwholesome and sometimes inhuman practices can be seen in other cases too, when the option for change is open. One example is that of suttee, in which Hindu widows burnt themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands, which was hallowed practice in India down the millennia. The British forbade it, and it disappeared without any struggle. I must add that it was left to our own Ananda Coomaraswamy, a pukkah reactionary, to write enthusiastically in favor of suttee during the last century. Another example, a very striking one in my view, is the abandonment of the niqab and the burqa, covering the whole face and not just the hair, by Muslim females who migrate to the West. France has a Muslim population of around seven million, but only an infinitesimal fraction, just about two thousand, insist on wearing the niqab or the burqa, which I must add have no Koranic sanction at all. The example shows that when there is no compulsion by the state or the society and the option is open, Muslim females readily escape from the subjugation - an unIslamic subjugation - in which they are held in many Islamic countries.

I want to conclude this note with some observations on the universal appeal of democracy. The usual cultural explanations seem to be rather weak. It used to be supposed that the appeal is peculiar to the West, to countries formed by the Judeo-Christian culture which is in consistence with the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. But Islam places an even stronger emphasis on equality than does Christianity and it is arguable that it provides a transcendental justification for individualism because it is an essentially Protestant religion, insisting on an unmediated relationship between the human individual and the Divine. And yet the cultures formed by Islam have been far more recalcitrant to democracy than the others.

It is arguable that Hinduism and Buddhism are essentially inegalitarian religions because according to the notion of karma people are born into high or low stations in life in consequence of their past deeds. That means that both religions provide a transcendental justification for inequality. But Hindu India has been democratic for sixty three years, except for a couple of years when democracy broke down under Indira’s emergency. In Sri Lanka the break down of democracy went on for a much longer period, but it has certainly been democratic for the greater part of the time since Independence. It does seem therefore that the usual cultural explanations for the appeal of democracy are very weak.

The plain truth is that democracy has a profound appeal for humanity all round the globe irrespective of cultural inheritance. I suspect that to make sense of this we have to postulate something like a human nature, some fundamentals constituting the human being. Otherwise it seems difficult to explain how it came about that human sacrifice which seemed an integral part of being human for centuries or even thousands of years, in cultures that were entirely closed during all that time, came to be suddenly and voluntarily abandoned. My postulate is open to an empirical test. Ask anyone whether he prefers living under totalitarian control to liberty; whether he prefers arbitrary power to living under a rule of law which applies equally to all; whether he prefers living under a rigidly hierarchical system which altogether prevents his upward mobility to one in which there is some degree of upward mobility and some degree of social equality; and whether he prefers living in a society rent by internecine quarrels to one in which there is a high degree of fraternity. The answers will be in favor of the latter with minuscule exceptions, indicating something like a universal consensus in favor of democracy.

Stateless societies

Perhaps the most persuasive evidence pointing to a connection between human nature and democracy is the record of stateless societies which persisted for a much longer period all over the globe than societies living under states. I am indebted here to the writings of the French anthropologist Pierre de Clastres, who defines the state as a body of men and institutions that are apart from the rest of society and exercise coercive power over it. Such stateless societies were invariably democratic, and many of them were the first affluent societies, the first societies of leisure. Rousseau, it seems, was quite right. The interested reader should get a DVD of Kevin Costner’s revolutionary film Dance with the Wolves, which celebrates the noble and democratic way of life of the Sioux Indians. So, it seems clear enough that the Arabs will break through to democracy despite the machinations of the Western leaders, particularly of the Yanko-Zionist racist leaders. Let the damned tyrants tremble!

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