Arab Spring chilled by Islamist Winter

By From page A6 | February 13, 2013

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
— Francis Fukuyama, 1992, “The End of History”

More than 20 years after the publication of “The End of History and the Last Man,” there may be more history yet unwritten: that there remains a majority in the Muslim world whose ideal is not Western liberal democracy.

The murder last week of Chokri Belaid, the leading opponent of Tunisia’s Islamist government, may be the final nail in the coffin of secular freedom in that North African state.

Whether won through foreign invasion, as in Iraq; won with the help of NATO bombers, as in Libya; or won in the wake of popular uprisings, as in Tunisia and Egypt; every Arab country that has broken the shackles of its traditional dictators in the past few years has failed to establish a secular, democratic government.

All are now moving in the opposite direction.

Their model of revolution may not be Poland, Czechoslovakia or Hungary of the early 1990s. Their revolutionary archetype looks more like Iran of the early 1980s.

One by one, the new Arab states have begun to impose a form of Islamism on their people. They have failed to protect the rights and interests of secularists, folks of other faiths or followers of other forms of Islam. They have trampled on the rights of women, and gays and those who advocate what we consider modernity.

What warmed up as an Arab Spring has chilled into a Salafist Winter.

The execution of Belaid outside his home near Tunis was especially ominous, because Belaid was the leading voice against fundamentalist Islam. With no response from the “moderate” religious government, Tunisia’s radical Salafis have been violently attacking anyone they judge to be insufficiently pious or conservative.

These attacks parallel those that took place in Iran in 1979 and 1980 after the shah fell. The Persian victims, like those in Tunisia, were not supporters of the old regime. Religious thugs targeted liberal democrats and religious minorities who had helped bring down Reza Pahlavi in Iran.

The night before the Salafists killed Chokri Belaid, who had led a party called the Democratic Patriots Movement, he was quoted as saying, “All those who oppose Ennahda (the ruling Islamist party) become the targets of violence.” In less than 24 hours, the bull’s-eye was directly on Belaid.

A fair question to ask is whether the Muslim faith is incompatible with Western liberal democracy?

Obviously, there are practitioners of Islam in every Muslim country who are liberal democrats, who want their countries to have what our founding fathers gave us. But they are unable to win free and fair elections. They seem to be a shrinking minority. They lack the numbers to stand up to Islamic radicals, who represent the views of many common people.

As long as that is the case, how can a Muslim country ever be a secular liberal democracy?

UC Davis history professor Susan Miller, who is an expert on North Africa and the Middle East, thinks my question is off-base and off-putting.

“The terms ‘secular,’ ‘liberal’ and ‘democracy’ are terms that arise from a Western and Euro-centric context,” she said. “It seems to me hubris to expect people in other parts of the world to understand these terms as we do.”

It might have seemed like hubris, then, when secular liberal democracy arose in the United States and eventually the rest of the Christian world.

For most of its history, the West was not secular, liberal or democratic. It would not have been irrational 17 centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus at Golgotha to claim that Christian faith was not compatible with democracy as we know it.

Yet Western culture evolved. And since the fall of Soviet communism, most of the Christian world has to one degree or another become liberal and democratic. As professor Francis Fukuyama would say, as a rebuke to Karl Marx, history has ended for us.

But it has a long way to go in the Middle East.

The greatest challenge for liberal governance in the Arab states is not Islam. It’s their backward economies and the culture that produces. There is not a single Muslim country where a majority of workers make a middle-class or better living in the private sector and government is financed by taxing its citizens.

In order to have a successful democracy, a country needs most of its people educated, working in the modern economy and paying the taxes that fund government. It’s not enough to pay the bills with oil money. People who are democratic are people who have a stake in government.

For liberal democracy to come to the Muslim Middle East, they don’t need to abandon their faith. They need change their culture. They need to believe in a strict separation of mosque and state.

That will happen with better education, free-market economics and the ubiquitous development of a working middle class.

— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at [email protected]

Rich Rifkin

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