We hear much talk of “democracy” across the Arab World in these days. But what are the elements that make for true democracy?
Democracy is, of course, much more than multi-party elections and the right to vote! For Democracy to work, a country also needs an educated and informed electorate, which in turn needs a free and fair press, which in turn needs a strong and independent judiciary. And, all of these “institutions” of democracy can only survive if there is a strong but accountable security apparatus to maintain law and order.
But, even then, Arab societies have traditionally voted along ethnic, religious or tribal lines. The present fear in a country like Egypt is that this trend, even if the above institutions of democracy can be established before the next elections, will result in the majority of people voting along religious lines, resulting in the election of an Islamic government. And the concern is that this government will then morph into a theocracy in which non-Islamists will become the victims of the “tyranny of the majority”, as Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali calls it.
Real democracy needs more! It can only thrive in a society that has a profound respect for personal liberty with:
- freedom for people to express themselves and to believe what they choose
- unconditional equality for ALL before the law – including women and religious minorities
However, a 2010 Pew research survey of different countries with large Muslim populations flags up a major stumbling block for democracy! For Muslims in Egypt, almost 80% support the death penalty for apostates - those that chose to leave the Islamic faith! The situation in Jordan is even worse, with more than 83% supporting such a punishment!
Similar numbers of people also support other aspects of Sharia, such as the stoning of adulterers, the whipping or amputation of hands for thieves, etc.
These prevailing attitudes pose a huge problem for the formation of any truly democratic society in the Middle East!
People often ask me, “What is SAT-7 doing to address the needs and opportunities created by the Arab Spring? SAT-7 is doing many things to give a voice to the Arab Church – but perhaps its greatest single contribution to the current situation is to openly discuss this issue of personal freedoms and equality for all under law, using the teachings and example of Jesus.
For our western readers, it is important to understand that words like “liberty” and “freedom” have very different meanings in the Middle East. Many sincere Muslims look at so-called personal freedoms in the West and are horrified! They do not want freedom if it means openly selfish behaviour unrestrained by social responsibility, if it means the open flouting of Middle Eastern morality. And this is understandable – but, again, if liberty and freedom in the Middle East will never embrace the freedom for people to believe what they want (and practice that belief) or the fair and equal treatment of all citizens (irrespective of their gender, ethnic or religious background) then democracy will not survive … and another theocracy, monarchy or dictatorship will eventually emerge.
Please pray for SAT-7 staff and producers as they continue to bring a Biblical perspective to national debates of freedom and democracy, that there will indeed be space for the Christian Church in tomorrow’s Arab World!