Western democracies are undermining people’s rights

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Intense theoretical debates about the virtues of democracy have been taking place over the past months as we attempt to analyse events in the Arab world. Democracy, most conclude, should be the goal: it is the best political system, one in which citizens can see that their political choices are respected, their freedoms and rights protected. Such an outcome would be Mena’s greatest achievement: at last, the Arabs will experience pluralism, openness and — why not — modernity.

At the same time,

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in the West, the democratic system is going through one of the deepest crises in its history. Far from idealised, theoretical descriptions of the democratic system, citizens of western countries have the increasing impression they have been forgotten; that their opinion counts for nothing.

As former Tunisian president Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi fell because their respective peoples were calling for freedom, eight European leaders (the list is far from exhaustive), who should have resigned because of their responsibility for the economic downturn, are imposing their rule over the political apparatus. The political system known as democracy has proved to be neither transparent nor free when both state and citizens are so deeply in debt. Who is making the decisions today? Who has the power?

When Greece’s Prime Minister George Papandreou started playing politics with his call for a referendum, he was criticised and eventually forced out of office: it is not time to consult your people, he was told, as their freedom to decide could lead to our collective collapse… The dominant economic powers and institutions as well as the ratings agencies have enforced their own logic: this is not the right time to consult your people.

The media simply follows along behind; for them it natural and consistent for elected presidents and ministers to be forced out of office without the population having had its say. As if, in time of crisis, the rules of democratic procedure must be suspended: citizens are nothing but spectators. The Muslim majority countries are being asked to reassess the relationship between the state and the religious authority. Islam should not impose its truth and dogma over the democratic elected state. The latter must be free, and must express the will of the majority. Theocratic regimes are dangerous, as they neither protect the equality of citizens before law nor their right to decide their future. Critical points indeed!

The Muslim majority countries should by all means rid themselves of their secular or religious dictatorships. To call for democratisation is legitimate and appears to be the only way forward: this is the essence of the Arab awakening, its hope as much as its goal. Yet, we should be asking sharp questions about the model and the ends. Should the Arab countries follow in the footsteps of the West? Is the western model worth duplicating? Where are this freedom and transparency the democrats are talking about? Whichever way you turn, you hear rising complaints: people feel as though they are losing their rights, enjoying less freedom, becoming progressively marginalised.

In the US, the most recent and ever-deepening economic crisis is exposing the citizens’ helplessness. Millions are unemployed and deep in debt; they have no medical insurance to cover their needs, no social services to protect their families. They are asked to vote for candidates who spend billions of dollars on election campaigns, yet end up being forgotten between elections. Some citizens tried to make their voices heard on Wall Street: real power is not in the White House but along that street where the dominant economic actors, agents and institutions, are not required to respect democratic rules.

Economic control

Theirs is the power of economic control and high finance, of money and media: here democracy has no room, no reality. The protesters numbered a few thousand indignant citizens expressing a common view: which way are the western democracies heading?

In Europe, the feeling is the same. We may well have no religion exerting control over the state, but the transnational corporations, economic institutions, banks, media and well-structured lobbies are undermining the very essence of any democratic system (which should be based on transparency and majority rule). We talk about separating religious authority from state authority — but who will protect the state from the economic, financial and media powers that are imposing their anti-democratic decisions and policies? It is all well and good to celebrate an idealised democratic model, but the truth of the matter remains that western democracies are eroding; people are losing their rights and prerogatives. It is time for the citizens to wake up and to demand transparency, respect and consistency.

The Arab world needs political creativity; but the West, deep in crisis, cannot be a model. It is time to find other ways, new horizons. The globalised world is undermining national democratic dynamics. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or even the US, Greece, Italy, France or Germany cannot achieve ‘democracy’ on their own. Yet nationalism would be a new trap, as the non-democratic forces are lurking behind the existing nations, where the citizens have no status and have lost their rights. Democrats and free citizens must learn to look beyond their borders: an arduous and demanding task that will require transnational civic movements. There is no choice. With freedom comes some constraints: an apparent paradox, yet a historical truth.

Tariq Ramadan is Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and a visiting Professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. His new book Islam and the Arab Awakening will be out this month.

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