Toying with Democracy

Democracy is supposedly on the march in the Middle East. But Arab dictators are afraid of true democracy, with its civil liberties and competitive elections, so they conjure up potions that protect the status quo by selecting bits of Western political models and adding some religious interpretation to ensure a patina of Islamic legitimacy.

Saudi Arabia fits this description to a tee. Its rulers – some of the most autocratic in the world – say that democracy is incompatible with Islam. So they prefer the term “participatory government.”

But a majority of Muslim scholars, including such eminent men as the Sheikh of Al Azhar in Cairo and the influential Qatar-based Sheikh Qaradawi, believe that Islam is compatible with democracy, at least as they define it: respect for the rule of law, equality between citizens, a fair distribution of wealth, justice, and freedom of expression and assembly. What remains debatable and contentious is the right of citizens to choose their leaders.

Yet pressure to democratize is mounting, in part due to the smaller Gulf States, which compete with each other in democratic reforms. Qatar and Oman have elected consultative councils and enfranchised women. Parliamentary elections occur in Kuwait and Bahrain, and at the end of last year, Sheikh Mohammad al Maktoom, Crown Prince of Dubai, in the U.A.E., suggested that Arab leaders must reform or sink. Iraq’s elections have turned up the pressure even more.