03 March 2011

Ready for democracy?

Another week goes by, and again I find myself spending almost every spare moment trying to keep up with events in Libya, Bahrain, Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, even Oman. I pray for the prophets and peacemakers in these crowds, and for those caught up in violence and in repressive responses. I pray that those who have leadership responsibilities will not rely on the worn-out scripts of control but be active to see how their stewardship responsibilities are being tested in new and promising ways. Unfortunately, as Mona Eltahawy has said, leaders' speeches always seem to come ten days too late.

Among the channels  I've grown to rely on has been Al Jazeera's English service online. In the video above, Wadah Khanfar, the head of Al Jazeera, tells us why we should welcome the potentially revolutionary changes unfolding in the Middle East.

He gave due credit to the new channels of communication heavily used among the young people whose role has been central, but he put that factor in perspective:
Internet and connectivity has created new mindset, but this mindset has continued to be faithful to the soil and to the land that it emerged from. And what, this was the major difference between many initiatives before to create change--before, we thought, and governments told us, and even sometimes it was true, that change was imposed on us. And people rejected that, because they thought that it is alien to their culture. Always we believed that change should spring from within, that change should be in reconciliation with culture, cultural diversity, with faith in our tradition and our history, but at the same time open to universal values, connected with the world, tolerant to the outside. And this is the moment that is happening right now in the Arab world.
Wadah Khanfar went on to talk for a moment about those worn-out techniques of repression--thugs with camels, and officials spreading fear with warnings about tribalism, about conspiracies from Tel Aviv and Washington (for local consumption) and Al Qaeda and Islamists (for Tel Aviv's and Washington's consumption). But now "this corrupt elite has lost even the power of deception."

How should we observers react to all this? Wadah Khanfar goes on to urge:
Let us free ourselves, especially in the West, from thinking about that part of the world based on oil interest, or based on interest of--illusion of--stability and security. Security and stability of authoritarian regimes cannot create but terrorism and violence and destruction. Let us accept the choice of the people. Let us not pick and choose who we would like to rule the future. The future should be ruled by people themselves. Even sometimes there are voices that might now scare us, but values of democracy and the freedom of choice that is sweeping the Middle East at this moment in time is the best opportunity for the world, for the West and the East, to see stability, and to see security, and to see friendship, and to see tolerance emerging from the Arab world, rather than the images of violence and terrorism.
Listening to him, my mind went back to a line I've heard more than once about societies in the Middle East--and Russia, too: "They're not ready for democracy." Nicholas Kristof argues that "...it’s condescending and foolish to suggest that people dying for democracy aren’t ready for it," but I would like to try to pump just a bit more meaning out of this cliché:

Democracy is, among other things, a way of managing two central and very awkward political tasks--allocating scarce resources fairly, and ensuring that the community of allocators (the government) is both informed and constantly refreshed by the participation of the governed. In every society I know about, people vary wildly in their level of interest in the mechanisms of allocation beyond what they need to know and do for that day's bread. They vary wildly in their assumptions about whether they (or "people like them") have a voice--or even should have a voice--and about who should do their thinking for them. Their worldviews might be formed by national culture, but it might equally decisively be formed by their family's culture. Some of the people in your own neighborhood might not be "ready for democracy"!

Democracies, however, don't depend on everyone being "ready for democracy" at the same level simultaneously. We know that some of us will take on more responsibility than others for the common welfare, but we know that the "common" includes everyone, and we rely on transparency and the constant refreshing of personnel to enforce this understanding.  Why wouldn't it work similarly in other places where repression has been the rule up to now? It's not the "traditional" or "tribal" people, disconnected from the Internet, or some other allegedly passive sector, who are at fault for lack of fairness in allocating resources and power, it is those who use violence and deception to perpetuate unfair access to resources. Those people will always be ready to tell us why "their" people can't govern themselves, or why you must rely on the existing leaders to protect Israel, head off Islamism, or whatever. It's hard to get them to reveal the full equation--in return for this invaluable service, they get to keep their palaces, patronage, and power.

The process of moving a whole society from repression to democracy cannot help but be messy. Old elites will cling, new pretenders will grasp, anxious crowds will search for authority figures, external forces will try to impose their concepts of democracy, and wise men and women will struggle to get a word in edgewise. (I've previously quoted Bulat Okudzhava's prediction that, like the Hebrews, it would take Russians forty years to unlearn the habits of slavery.) As I watch Al Jazeera, I often squelch a desire to cheer out loud--there are too many factors I don't know, there are too many people taking risks that I'm not taking. But, undeniably, it's a season for sober hope.

Open Culture--where I found the speech by Wadah Khanfar.

Joaquin Villalobos: The Arab revolution and the Latin American left.

"War is not the answer to Libyan protests."

Rob Bell's Upcoming Book on Heaven and Hell Stirs Blog, Twitter Backlash on Universalism.

"Churches making movies"--including Yorba Linda Friends. Last summer I linked to a similar story in USA Today.

"Evangelical vs Liberal: a report from the Pacific Northwest"--a review of the book by James Wellman.

"The Other Emancipation Proclamation"--Abraham Lincoln and Tsar Alexander II.

"My favorite Linux desktop: Mint 10." (Mine, too.)

Not sure why--this just seemed the right track for tonight:

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