Religion, Democracy, and the Arabs’ View of America
Sadeq Jawad Sulaiman

Sadeq Jawad Sulaiman is a former Ambassador in Washington, DC. He is a member of Al-Hewar Center Advisory Board. He made the following presentation at Hull University in the United Kingdom on November 24, 2003:

Thank you for a kind welcome. I am pleased to be with you and thankful for the opportunity of this conversation.  I am also happy to see here students from our part of the world, including my country, Oman.  I feel uplifted by this   young generation's enthusiasm for higher learning, and am gratified that some of them are accorded the opportunity to receive it at this and other great universities of this great country. It is my ardent hope though that along with knowledge a good measure of wisdom is also passed on.

I say this because the complexity of our world, I observe, follows mainly from our expanding fund of knowledge, our accelerated pace of understanding nature.  The turbulence of our times, though, ensues primarily from our lack of self-understanding.  That says to me that our growth in knowledge needs to be complemented by growth in wisdom; that our capacity to choose wisely ought to match our ability to affect change.  So much of the foolhardiness we exhibit as individuals and nations these days is a result of trying to be smart rather than wise, to overpower rather than level, possess rather than share.  As a result, we all end up sharing a poor quality of life. On the other hand, we can all reap boundless benefits and blessings from working together and sharing in a cooperative and equitable manner.  

In all we do, context matters. It makes a world of difference whether we approach an issue in a humanistic context or from a parochial standpoint. In the former we are prompted to be consistent, fair, and inclusive; in the latter, we are prone to become selective, contentious, and exclusive. And since we live in an increasingly interdependent world, and at unprecedented proximity with one another, it would serve us well to approach our common interests and concerns in a context of intellectual discourse and humanistic considerations rather than in a context of inter-religious, intercultural, or international argument that has become so shrill now-a-days. For better or worse, in a relatively short span of time we have transformed our world from a far-flung planet of isolated societies to a global village of seamless humanity. Paraphrasing Francis Bacon as he saw the signs of things to come as early as four centuries ago, having changed the world so much we must change our philosophy as well. This is the context, I hope, in which we will learn to think, discuss, and interact.

Now to turn to the two questions that I am asked to address, namely, Religion versus Democracy; and the Arabs’ View of the United States let me observe that the two are not unrelated in the context of American-Arab relations.  The Arabs by and large have come to view the United States more as a hegemonic power than a benevolent democracy. The Americans, on their part, seem to think that much of the Arab dysfunction is due to the Arab democratic deficit.  And both the Arabs and Americans are finding out the centrality of the role of religion in framing their perceptions of each other. Religion, democracy, and perceptions are thus intertwined. 

Among the Arabs the tension between religion and democracy is subject of   ongoing debate, the question at the core being whether the two are, or are not, mutually compatible.  In its more vigorous form the debate is carried on between the Islamists and non-Islamists.  Radical Islamists reject democracy as being incompatible with Islam; moderate Islamists accept Islam-friendly versions of democracy.  Non-Islamists, on the other hand, accept democracy without reference to religion.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are revealed religions.  A revealed religion is perceived not as a product of human intuition or experience, but rather as guidance of divine source, embodied in sacred texts revealed to human messengers, or prophets, at various junctures in the distant past. It has two aspects of incompatibility with democracy. In a third aspect, though, revealed religion and democracy are compatible.  Let me elaborate.

The two areas of incompatibility relate, respectively, to authority, and sphere of interest.  Religious authority is divinely sourced.  Democratic authority is humanly constituted.  Where religion employs human intellection, it does so only as consistent with its sacred texts.  Where democracy draws on religious guidance, it does so only as consistent with human consensus.

Rooted in scripture deemed eternally true, religious rulings are independent of human judgment, hence fixed in time.  Democratic determinations are shaped by    our changing circumstances and evolving knowledge, hence stand revision by new discovery and insight.  And whereas democratic lawmakers are elected and thereby held accountable, the givers of religious rulings are not elected and therefore unaccountable.

The other incompatibility lies in the sphere of interest.  Religion is concerned with the human condition in this world as well as in the next.  It in fact gives greater weight to the latter, from the standpoint of this life being transitory and afterlife being permanent.  It offers fixed conceptions of the nature of the universe, its genesis, the origin of life, the advent of the human being, and yes even the end of history – all in a metaphysical context.  It has historically tolerated, even allied with, despotic rule.  Religious ethics hangs on the prospect of reward and punishment in the hereafter; it in fact teaches that one could not be moral and disbelieve in the eschatological Day of Judgment.  And every given religion questions the veracity of every other religion.

In contrast, democracy is not concerned with afterlife.  It espouses no metaphysical conceptions.  It works through human understanding of things big and small.  Its ethics is based on enlightened self-interest.  It mandates collective deliberation and decides by majority view.  It posits legitimacy of any public authority in the outcome of free elections.  Democracy, moreover, neither adopts nor favors any given religion.  Nonetheless, it protects freedom of belief, religious or otherwise.   And one democratic system does not question the veracity of another democratic system.

Given this divergence between revealed religion and democracy, where might one look for a sphere of convergence?  A common ground exists in the sphere of ethics.  Whether motivated by temporal self-interest or consideration of afterlife fortunes, ethics is the interface between religion and democracy.  

Ethics is the commitment to and practice of the principles and values that make life peaceful and better for one and all.  Principles and values are the same for all humankind.  They are the same in religious as well as philosophical thought.  

A principle is the core idea from which reason proceeds and by which it judges all secondary ideas.   Justice, equality, freedom, and dignity are principles with which we require all our laws and practices to conform. A value, on the other hand, is a human achievement that benefits the achiever and society as well.  Knowledge, prosperity, cooperation, and integrity are values. In all what religion and philosophy offer, notwithstanding their divergent worldviews, we find little difference in their cognizance of the principles and values by which humans prosper and for the lack of which may perish. Here then is the common ground on which religion and democracy meet without disputation. 

Let me now go to the particularity of Islam.  If all revealed religion is only partly compatible with democracy, why is it that Islam is singled out?  It is because the peoples of the other religions have disengaged from the edicts of their religions, and have formed civic societies.   They have opted for democracy on its merits, without either giving up their religions or seeking religious sanction for their democratic choice.  They have separated religion from state, and repealed religious rulings where contemporary circumstance and insight have so warranted.  Muslim Arabs are still tentative about crossing that line and accepting democracy on its merits.

Three core issues hold back the Arabs from an open acceptance of democracy.    First, there is the issue of sovereignty, with the implication that with sovereignty   posited in God the sacred text becomes paramount, and its interpreter, the clergyman, the final arbiter of all matters human.  On the other hand, with sovereignty conceived as a prerogative of the people, the people get to decide for themselves. 

Orthodoxy maintains that people are fallible, therefore, untrustworthy.  The stronger nations grow the more belligerent they become.  By the same token, a majority within a nation may persecute the minority, or an oppressive few hijack power and aggress against the many.  The idea of sovereignty resting in the people would breed more such aggressive behavior.  Conversely, the awareness that sovereignty rests in God tends to hold us back. The proponents of this view call for an Islamic state under the tutelage of the clergy in their capacity as the unchallenged interpreters of the scripture, as if the clergy as such were divinely wise and virtuous. This view obviously puts Islam at variance with democracy, which is inherently a-religious. 

Liberal Arab Muslims posit sovereignty in the people, arguing that it is God who has willed for the people to be sovereign.  It is He who has decreed that humans would learn and improve by trial and error.  The very notion of accountability on the Day of Judgment is based on   people being responsible for their actions in this life.   Yes, absolute sovereignty rests in God, but sovereignty in terms of running our lives on this planet rests in us.  Islam does not mandate a religious state; it rather requires all states and societies to abide by the principles and values that benefit humankind.  This view is not inconsistent with democracy. 

The second question relates to the mode of governance, and it basically revolves around the concept of shura.  There is agreement that shura is mandatory, or at least very desirable, but disagreement as to what it ought to mean in practice.  In the orthodox view, shura is taken to be the process by which a ruler may seek the advice of an influential few in coming to a decision, without being bound by their advice.  This suits despots and those benefiting from them.  And it makes shura, and thereby Islam, inconsistent with democracy.

In the liberal interpretation shura is broad and binding mutual consultation through which a decision is democratically arrived at.  It implies equality of status among citizens, male and female, in the consultative process.  In this view Islam is compatible with democracy.

The third question pertains to the status of women.  Here, two clashing conceptions result in opposite positions.  The orthodox believe women are inherently inferior to men, hence their historical deficiency, and the reason why they should not be co-equal with men. This view makes Islam incompatible with democracy. 

In the liberal view, however, the historical record of women is seen not as a function of an inherent deficiency, but rather as a result of suppression at the hands of men.   In today's world, given equal rights and opportunity, women have proved to be as good as men.  Granted that gender differences may dispose men and women to choose somewhat different roles and professions in life, but that must not be a basis for unequal status before the law. This view makes Islam compatible with democracy.

Faced with the need to reform, liberal Arab Muslim scholars try thus to adapt the interpretations of the religious texts in order to accommodate some civil rights and civil liberties as well as some limited forms of democracy.  To them, as to the majority of the Arabs, moving to a secular framework of intellection, and thereby governance, is not an option, or rather is not an option yet.


Our second question is: How do the Arabs view America?  Let me state upfront that I am not an expert here.  My view is informed by random observation rather than professional expertise. And yet America figures so pervasively in the Arab discourse that one can hardly miss the consensus in which it is viewed very negatively indeed.

Not long ago it used to be said that there exists a like-dislike Arab attitude towards America.  In more recent years it has been more of a dislike-only attitude.  I shall offer my analysis of the degradation at two levels: first, the core issues plaguing the Arab-U.S. relationship; second, the widening cultural, ideological divide

At the top of the issues plaguing the relationship is, of course, the Palestinian issue.  Whatever justification Washington may have found during the Cold War years for throwing its weight with Israel, that justification could no longer hold.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Arab governments have extensively cooperated with the United States.  U.S. military forces are now hosted at bases and facilities across the Arab world.  Arab oil flows uneventfully to the West, including notably the United States.  Economic relations, trade, and bilateral ties in general have seen significant upgrade. Even in the highly problematic area of combating terrorism most Arab governments are cooperating with the U.S. effectively and well.   Thus in the view of most Arabs there exists no objective ground for U.S. partiality to Israel.  There exists no rational interpretation either, except to say that Washington has still not freed itself of a long-standing pro-Israeli bias.

The American partiality as such emboldens Israel, frustrates the Arabs, and perpetuates the Palestinian people's plight.  It prolongs the illegitimate and heavy- handed Israeli occupation and domination of Palestinian land and society, resulting in escalating loss of life, acute suffering, and systematic destruction of infrastructure and property.  Washington could constrain Israel and help restore to the Palestinians their dignity and rights.   But it has not earnestly chosen to do so yet, and for that the Arabs, to a person one might say, deplore the United States.

More recently, the issue of Iraq has also aroused resentment.  Here only a small minority of the Arabs speaks well of the vanquished Iraqi regime; the majority strongly condemns that regime for its long, atrocious misrule.  However, most Arabs think the U.S. had no right single-handedly and against international consensus to invade sovereign Iraq.  The fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found despite a long, intensive search has strengthened the conviction that the U.S. went into Iraq with a mind to establish hegemony in that oil rich region and, concomitantly, to enhance Israel's security and economic interest.   

The third issue souring the Arab attitude towards the United States is Washington's declared war on terrorism.  In general, the Arabs are not averse to combating terrorism, for their societies too have suffered greatly from the acts of the terrorists in their midst. But they take exception to Washington's indiscriminate approach that depicts Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation as terrorism. They also resent what they read as a deliberate and persistent American attempt to stereotype most Arabs as potential terrorists. 

While the foregoing three issues register resentment at the general Arab level, a fourth issue registers resentment mainly among those who view dictatorial rule as the main hindrance to Arab progress. This group includes Islamists as well as non-Islamists.  The complaint here is that the U.S. has deliberately obstructed democratic evolution in the Arab world by sustaining dictatorial regimes that serve its interests.  Curiously enough, this complaint recently found an echo of sorts in President Bush's remark that “sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.” On the other hand, Mr. Bush's praise of the rudimentary and, in the eyes of many Arabs, farcical progress towards democracy in the Arab countries he named is being roundly criticized as hypocritical.    

In addition to these four specific issues on which U.S. policies of recent years have generated intense anti-Americanism, there is a widening cultural alienation as well. To the Islamist Arabs, as to Muslims by and large, the U.S. is waging a relentless war against Islam; to the nationalist Arabs, that war is being waged primarily against the Arab culture and identity.  In either view the U.S. is seen as trying to undermine both Islam and Uruba (Arabism) by weakening the Arabs, distorting their image, hindering their progress, and diminishing their role in the world. A mirror image of this perception, or misperception, exists in the United States, whereby the Arabs are seen as incorrigible enemies bent on harming America whichever way they can. The reciprocity here borders dangerously on a clash of civilizations – that pervasive and generational antagonism everybody dreads but   few work earnestly enough to ameliorate or avoid. 

Finally, how do I view the prospects for democratic governance in Arab societies?  Not bright short term, I am afraid.  I see no significant signs of a credible movement towards democracy, or even of an earnest public interest in the democratic option.  There is much pro-democratic rhetoric and institutional facade to be sure.  In real terms, though, despotic tradition, autocratic privilege, public apathy, and Islamist reservations collectively pause a formidable hurdle.

And what about the prospects for improved U.S-Arab relations?  They do not look bright to me short term either. The extremists on either side persist, making the prospect of a civilizational clash ever harder to discount or avoid. Ironically enough, even the moderates who deny or dread that eventuality (creeping reality, some would say) fan its fires in myriad ways.  And relentless incitement in the media, both Arab and American, does not help in diffusing tensions either.

Stark as this assessment sounds, it should only serve to alert us more to the dangers lurking in the years ahead if the current trends are let to continue.  But it should not make us loose heart and thereby give up effort to disrupt these trends and help re-channel matters in a positive direction. The great Bhagavad Gita teaches that we act where we must without regard to results, for action where necessary is its own justification. The illustrious Qur’an instructs likewise: act and God will be the judge of your action. In other words, even in the face of sheer hopelessness, neither withdrawal nor paralysis is an option for a concerned citizen.

On a positive note, let me leave you with this thought by Werner Heisenberg, the physicist after whom the uncertainty principle in physics is named. He wrote, “It is probably true quite generally that in the history of human thinking the most fruitful developments frequently take place at those points where two different lines of thought meet.  These lines may have their roots in quite different parts of human culture, in different times or different cultural environments or different religious traditions: hence if they actually meet, that is, if they are at least so much related to each other that a real interaction can take place, then one may hope that new and interesting developments may follow.” 

Let us hope positive developments may still follow from the encounter between the Islamic Civilization and the Western Civilization, and from the interaction between the Arabs and Americans.  And let us not just hope, but also proactively help in realizing that possibility the best we can.  In a previous era, the Arabs passed on to the West Islam's long and laboriously gathered treasure of knowledge.  Since the Renaissance, building initially on that Arab/Islamic legacy, the West has been the leader in all fields of learning.  In the broad sweep of evolution, it matters little who leads and who follows as along as we all gain from the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the human mind in whatever country or culture it flowers best.  It matters immeasurably, though, whatever our role or position in the human procession at any given point in history, that we act out of humanistic considerations in the most noble sense.  That means we must recognize the innate dignity of all persons and peoples, and deal with one another cooperatively and equitably at all times.  As intelligent and moral beings, we do have the capacity to perpetually rise above our  shortcomings, and excel.    

Thank you.

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