ACRPS Director General Azmi Bishara: "Democracy has no Religious Identity: Islamists an important part of the Arab political elite"
The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies is hosting a conference regarding Islamists and Democratic Governance, with both a focus on the past experiences of these political movements and an attempt to understand the future directions to be taken by Islamists. The opening session was packed with academics and researchers from Qatar, other Arab countries, and some even further afield. Beginning the proceedings, ACRPS Researcher Jamal Barout began by emphasizing the scholarly nature of the conference, which seeks to examine the challenges facing the participation of Islamist movements in democratic life. According to Barout, this is of particular importance not only because Islamist movements have rapidly come to power in a number of Arab countries following the revolutions, but also because Islamist movements gained experience of governance in some Arab countries in the pre-revolutionary phase. With all of the presented research papers being subject to an academic refereeing process, the event would be ideally placed to provide an opportunity for a robust discussion between researchers and political Islamists from a variety of Arab countries.
Following Barout's opening, ACRPS General Director Dr. Azmi Bishara delivered the first lecture, focusing on the relationship between religion and democracy. Bishara opened his statement by criticizing the commonly made link between "Judeo-Christian" civilization and the foundations of democracy, claiming that such a link was entirely the product of sophistry. As Bishara reminded the audience, the source of democracy in Europe was neither ancient Athens nor Jerusalem, but emerged from what started off as an elitist trend in Europe on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. He added: "All [historical] revolutions were rebellions against the privileges of the few, and were also demands for greater participation. They were thus democratic revolutions in some sense or the other. Today, however, democracy has come to mean the construction of a political system that allows for public representation and the selection of representatives through an electoral process. Democracy also means accountability of the elected representatives, and a limit on those representatives' terms in office, as a guarantee that [democracy] does not become a form of tyranny."
Bishara went on to stress that liberty was the presumed norm, with restrictions on liberty being the exception. Bishara moved on to speak of the relationship between religion and democratic principles, stating that many people have tried to find a link between these two, but that nothing meaningful could be found to tie them. With religion being a matter of spirituality, and democracy being a matter for the political realm, attempts to bring the two together were doomed to be futile. Notably, Bishara went on to discuss some of the misconceptions of Max Weber's writings, with regards to a presumptive link between capitalism and "the Protestant work ethic". Commenting on the widely cited book, Bishara point out that the frugality driving industriousness and the sanctification of work and discipline - widely celebrated as a feature of Protestantism - was not the precursor to either capitalism or democracy, but was motivated primarily by a desire to seek God's grace. These features, Bishara pointedly stated, were also easily visible in Islam. Ending his discussion of Weber, Bishara added that "... we can say that it is possible to find modes of religiosity and religious behaviour that are compatible with democracy. This is then a discussion about political culture."
Responding to a widely reported Arab public debate, he pointed out the links between "enlightenment" and democracy. The Enlightenment, said Bishara, was an exclusively elitist experience, with democracy emerging as a political reality without public culture becoming necessarily "democratic". Continuing in the same vein, in a response to a section of Arab critics of the influence of Islamic civilization, Bishara lamented how all public debate on the question of liberty had been morphed into a debate on hedonism, a result of a crackdown on more meaningful political freedoms. Making an analogy with the Anglo-Saxon world, Bishara pointed out how both Cromwell's Cavaliers, who pointedly banned alcohol and the celebration of Christmas, and much of the Pilgrim tradition in the United States were inspired by religious fervor, so there was no reason why Islam could not play a similar role in the Arab countries. Notably, both Muslim Salafis and the Puritans who killed King Charles I were concerned with bringing "innovations" in religious practice to an end. The newly emerging Islamist elites in Arab countries, said Bishara, now have the responsibility to direct the contemporary political discourse, having completed their gradual ascendancy to become a part of the wider Arab political elite.
Dr. Bishara closed his remarks with a debate on the public culture of the Arab countries, with public opinion now becoming an important factor in the establishment of Arab democracies. He also gave a brief overview of the results of the Arab Opinion Index, which provides an indication of attitudes to both politics and religion by thousands of Arab respondents. The results of the Index have countered many of the widely held preconceptions of "the Arab street". The Index relies on field studies undertaken in cooperation with a number of research centers in 12 Arab countries, surveying approximately 16,000 people; the results have revealed that 85% of Arabs define themselves as either "very religious" or "somewhat religious," while only 11% of Arabs define themselves as "not religious," and a statistically insignificant 0.4% describe themselves as "non-believers". More importantly, however, 47% of the respondents described religiosity as being based on "social welfare and charitable treatment of others". In other words, as Bishara pointed out, nearly half of the respondents viewed social relations through a "civil" lens, with respondents indicating that differences in religious belief and practice were not barriers to social interactions.
Interestingly, most of the results of the Arab Opinion Index indicated that respondents to the survey, including those who are self-described as "very religious," do not oppose democracy, nor do they oppose the separation of theologians from the political decision-making process. Concluding his statements, Dr. Bishara pointed out that the real threat to the establishment of Arab democracies lies in the willingness of a group of political forces to build alliances with imperialist or Zionist forces, which would form a threat to the national sovereignty - a necessary precondition for the rise of a democracy.