Arab Freedom Ahoy

May 4, 2009

[First published January 4, 2006] There are many commentators and analysts who assert that Arabs are not interested in democratic freedom, or that the Arab culture is hostile to it. It is important, therefore, to publicize the Arab Human Development Report 2004: Towards Freedom in the Arab World published by the United Nations Development Programme, Arab Fund For Economic And Social Development (link here). It begins with the theme of the whole report:

Of all the impediments to an Arab renaissance, political restrictions on human development are the most stubborn. This Report therefore focuses on the acute deficit of freedom and good governance.

Given its source and funding, the report is surprisingly honest:

No Arab thinker today doubts that freedom is a vital and necessary condition, though not the only one, for a new Arab renaissance, or that the Arab world’s capacity to face up to its internal and external challenges, depends on ending tyranny and securing fundamental rights and freedoms.

Ah, you might think, it must mean something different by freedom than we do in the West. No way. By freedom the report means not only civil and political rights, the rule of law, and an independent judiciary, and therefore, as it says, “freedom from oppression,” but also “the liberation of the individual from all factors that are inconsistent with human dignity, such as hunger, disease, ignorance, and poverty.” These, the report points out, rest upon popular participation, government transparency, accountability, and fair and free selection processes. In other words, democracy as we know it.

Keep in mind this is an Arab report as it also asserts what we all know:

Some Arab governments also violate the right to life extra-legally and extra-judicially. Human rights organizations have observed that official reports on killings tend to be short on facts. In most Arab states, the names of the victims are not mentioned, and no public investigation is conducted.

Extremist groups which perpetrate assassinations and bombings and espouse the use of violence also violate the right to life. Armed confrontations between security forces and armed groups result in civilian casualties that can outnumber victims in the ranks of the combatants.

And more surprising, it also frankly deals with the way Arab men treat their women:

In general, women suffer from inequality with men and are vulnerable to discrimination, both at law and in practice.

Despite laudable efforts to promote the status of women, success remains limited. Greater progress is required in women’s political participation, in changes to personal status laws, in the integration of women in development, and in the right of a woman married to a foreign husband to transmit her citizenship to her children. The inability of existing legislation to protect women from domestic violence or violence on the part of the state and society is another deficit area.

And now for the most important observation of this report — the claim the Arab and Muslim “mind” makes them incapable of democracy. Says the report:

[A] recent research effort, the World Values Survey (WVS), has exposed the falseness of these claims by demonstrating that there is a rational and understandable thirst among Arabs to be rid of despots and to enjoy democratic governance. Among the nine regions surveyed by the WVS, which included the advanced Western countries, Arab countries topped the list of those agreeing that “democracy is better that any other form of governance.” A substantially high percentage also rejected authoritarian rule (defined as a strong ruler who disregards parliament or elections).

Why have Arab countries failed to meet their people’s desire for freedom and democracy?
Undoubtedly, the real flaw behind the failure

of democracy in several Arab countries is not cultural in origin. It lies in the convergence of political, social and economic structures that have suppressed or eliminated organized social and political actors capable of turning the crisis of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes to their advantage. The elimination of such forces has sapped the democratic movement of any real forward momentum. In addition, there are region- specific complexities that have deepened the crisis.

In other words, dictatorships are at fault. There is much to gladden the freedomist in this report. Even if it is projecting on the Arab world a bias toward freedom, this report still contains enough undoubted detail and facts, like the above WVS survey, to question the view that democracy is incompatible with Arab culture, and that President Bush’s Forward Strategy of Freedom for the region is grossly unrealistic.

Link of Note

“The unmentionable Freedom” (5/28/05) By Joseph Loconte, The Heritage Foundation

Joseph Loconte is a research fellow in religion at the Heritage Foundation. He says:

Last month a group of Arab intellectuals released their third report in an unprecedented study of the many failures–economic, social, and political–that plague the world’s Arab states. The latest report, “Towards Freedom in the Arab World,” endorses democracy and laments the “acute deficit of freedom and good governance” in Muslim countries. Its authors are getting high marks from the Bush administration. Too bad they’ve largely ignored the most basic freedom under any democratic government: the guarantee of religious liberty.

Although understandable, given his interest in religion, I think he overdoes his criticism of the report for not explicitly favoring religious freedom. But this is implicit in the report’s general treatment of freedom, and then there are these snippets:

The dominant trend in Islamic jurisprudence supports freedom. Enlightened Islamic interpretations find that the tools of democracy – when used properly – offer one possible practical arrangement for applying the principle of consultation (al-shura). The fundamental principles in Islam which dictate good governance, include the realization of justice and equality, the assurance of public freedoms, the right of the nation to appoint and dismiss rulers, and guarantees of all public and private rights for non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Notwithstanding these key theological and philosophical interpretations, political forces, in power and in opposition, have selectively appropriated Islam to support and perpetuate their oppressive rule.
. . . .
In contemporary jurisprudence, human rights constitute the collection of rights incorporated in international agreements and treaties that guarantee all people, irrespective of their nationality, ethnicity, language, sex, religion, ideology and abilities, the fundamental rights to which they are entitled by virtue of being human. However, in Arab countries the issue of ‘specificity’ is frequently raised to weaken international human rights law.
. . . .
The confusion between religion and state is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the Sudanese Constitution, which provides that God, the Creator of humankind, holds supremacy over the State, without specifying the meaning of supremacy. Governance practices apparently sanctioned by God are likely to be immune to criticism and opposition.
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