Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Real Questions About Arabs and Democracy

As the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas illustrated, cultural rights are an integral part of the individual rights of citizens, considering the interconnectedness between private and collective identities. It is therefore legitimate to inquire about the ability of a particular legislation to ensure justice is met when conflicts of identity and disputes regarding the recognition of unique groups arise.

I do not wish to elaborate these philosophical deliberations even if they are closely related to the topic of discussion. To return to the Arab situation, one of the main obstacles to democratic transformation is the cultural factor and its incompatibility with politics.

This is evident on three main levels:

1- First, the religious level, or the relation between the concept of umma (nation) as a spiritual and ideological unity and, on the other hand, the existing political structure known as the nation-state. Even Islamic movements have failed to solve this contradiction between the spiritual meaning of umma and the political reality.

In this respect, how is citizenship defined? Does it include those belonging to one religion but different state or is it restricted to the existing nation-state even if it includes individuals belonging to different religions and communities?

2- Second, the national level, or the relations between the umma as a sentimental, historical, linguistic unity (according to early Arab nationalists) and, on the other hand, Arab nations belonging to a geographical unit. If the dilemma is currently being put forward in the European Union, the issue is more complicated with regards to the Arab world, where regional bodies remained tied down to idealistic wishes, incompetent institutions and ineffective agreements.

3- Third, the nation-state level, or the relation between central government and a diverse society that continues to be split by competing identities and solidarities.

It is important to distinguish between negative diversity which ought to be confronted and cultural diversity that is connected to the essence of identity and belonging. Electoral democracy that endorses the opinions of the religious and national majorities is unable to guarantee the rights of ethnic minorities that constitute the social fabric of society. This is why it is crucial to build additional mechanisms for representation to contain the varied and complex society rather than seek comfort in meaningless statistics.

No comments: