The False Promise of Western Democracy

President George W. Bush and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas hold a joint press conference in the Rose Garden Friday, July 25, 2003. “To break through old hatreds and barriers to peace, the Middle East needs leaders of vision and courage and a determination to serve the interest of their people. Mr. Abbas is the first Palestinian Prime Minister, and he is proving to be such a leader,” said President Bush. (Photo: White House)

The recent election of Mahmoud Abbas in the Occupied Territories was hailed by the Western press as a milestone in the democratization of the Palestinian people. However, recent reports coming out of that region have questioned the legitimacy of this supposed triumph in democracy.

For starters, demographic studies of voter turn-out have revealed that a relatively small proportion of the overall Palestinian population worldwide actually participated. Along these lines, several election commission officials resigned the day of Abbas’ inauguration, citing various violations of the agreed-upon election protocol. Finally, many Arab activists, scholars, and community leaders have critiqued the representativeness of the Abbas administration’s policies, including yesterday’s announced cease-fire agreement with Israel.

These elections have added to a growing worldwide skepticism about Western notions of democracy (i.e. institutionalized suffrage, parliamentary procedures, etc.). It seems Western democratic practices, here in the form of an internationally-supervised day of voting, do not, in and of themselves, guarantee a truly democratic society. Logistical procedures have been defined as democracy with limited concern for dynamic, ongoing, and diverse public opinion.

Contemporary social theorists have argued that a more radical democratization is the only way for truly democratic practices to emerge. [1] In particular, a society must feature certain elements to represent a democratized environment. These elements include open critical deliberation, collective free learning, unfettered testing of public initiatives, and non-coercive implementation of these initiatives.

Primarily, a society becomes democratized when its people are continuously engaged in public debate and discourse on all relevant issues. More importantly, this process of deliberation must not be simply an affirmation of status-quo policies, but rather a perpetual analysis and critique of the current situation from all angles. Along the way, participation must not be monopolized by certain groups which oppress and control others.

Accordingly, an education that promotes critical thinking and radical voices to emerge must be in place. As Paolo Friere once wrote, pedagogy must reach the oppressed, allowing them to take part in the shaping of the society’s future direction. [3] Thus, schooling must be free to all, regardless of class, creed, etc. Within this context, students can come together in a collective debate focused on the betterment of the society.

At the same time, all public initiatives must have the opportunity to be expressed freely. Thus, an open forum for assessing policy proposals should be in place so that there is no hegemony within the process of designing a society’s development. Alternative visions for a society must abound and have open access to the aforementioned public debate if a society is to be understood as democratic.

The testing of alternative public initiatives must be coupled with procedures for implementation that do not undermine these initiatives’ democratic spirit. The future of a society is not a zero-sum game, where those policies that have won the support of the majority are enacted at the expense of all minority proposals. Instead, procedures should be in place to ensure that policies are enacted on a representative basis, whereby all interests are considered.

With these four principles as the basis for understanding democracy, several questions arise with regards to the recent elections in the Occupied Territories. Have the Palestinian people ever lived in a true democracy prior to these elections? Why would the same world that had neglected these persons for decades now become so vested in “implementing” a democracy? And finally, do these elections and their results truly represent democracy in the Occupied Territories?

With regards to the Middle East, a popular discourse has arisen in the West that Islam is somehow antithetical to democracy. Scholars in the Near-Eastern Studies discipline have for decades chronicled the history of the Muslim people as one of inherent dogma, fundamentalism, and totalitarianism. Ironically, these historical accounts have often lacked a historical context. For instance, the legacy of colonialism and imperialism are ignored when making universal statements about Islam and democracy. As Edward Said wrote in his famous treatise on Orientalism, the West has consistently imposed a certain representation of Islam that has been adopted by the Arab world itself. [2] In this sense, the Palestinian people have been inhibited from constructing their own identity, left to be represented by the Occident.

Despite all of these limitations imposed from abroad, the Palestinian people have actually practiced democracy for centuries. The Muslim cultural concept of ijmah characterizes a mode of deliberation where all parties agree to hold open debate until unanimous consensus is reached, irrespective of time limitations. A truly free “marketplace of ideas” has existed in the Arab world for some time, as opposed to the often-abbreviated public discourse of the West. Ijmah characterizes Islam’s code of moral values, including an ethic of humanity rather than hegemony.

When these two factors (Orientalism and ijmah) are taken into consideration, the supposed lack of democracy in the Middle East can be seen as a “blame the victim” campaign perpetrated by the West. Western powers have occluded their role in limiting democracy in the Middle East by professing about the supposedly inherent properties of Islam. Shrouding themselves in the objectivity of Orientalist academia, the West has been able to produce a sense of the “undemocratic Muslim”, thereby justifying the imposition of Western “democratic reforms”. Ultimately, a neo-colonial imperialism has emerged, whereby Western authorities have attempted to replace the practice of ijmah with Occidental democratic procedures.

The point is that the elements of democracy have existed in the Middle East, and still do. However, like so many other historical treasures, Western occupation has attempted to destroy ijmah through institutionalization. The Western push for bureaucracy has standardized, formalized, and thus undermined ijmah’s egalitarian, creative, and liberating spirit. Ijmah has so often led to an Arab realization of their exploited existence under Western colonial rule. No wonder, then, why the West has been so eager to replace ijmah with the logic of the voting booth.

In analyzing the current situation in the Occupied Territories, it is critical to assess the power interests involved. As Abu Nimah and Abunimah wrote recently, the “international peace process industry” has benefited from Israeli occupation of Palestine. These diplomatic elites from the West and the Arab world have crowned Abbas as the appropriate moderate to suppress the grassroots radicalism that has sought immediate and unequivocal Palestinian liberation. Thus, the burning desire for change on the streets of the Occupied Territories is not being met by an administration bent on perpetuating the “status quo of endless negotiations”. [4]

The growth of true democracy in Palestine has thus been stunted. The popular practice of ijmah has been curtailed by a preoccupation with technique. However, democratic practice can only emerge from a context of democracy. And, as feminist scholar Nancy Fraser argues, that context must combine economic redistribution and multicultural recognition. [5] Since neither of these two ideas are practiced in the United States or Israel, it should come as no surprise that the parliamentary procedures implemented by these two countries in the Occupied Territories have not contributed to the growth of true Palestinian democracy.

Per Fraser’s recommendations, democratization must begin with meeting the basic material needs of the Palestinian people. Without land, free movement, civil infrastructure, and human rights, the peoples of the Occupied Territories cannot practice democracy no matter how liberating the voting booth is made to appear. Only when the conditions for an economic base of sustenance are provided can the Palestinian people continue cultivating the democratic spirit characterized by ijmah.

Until the West frees up the material basis for Palestinian survival, the second important prerequisite for democracy, multiculturalism, cannot take place. In particular, Orientalism’s haunting legacy must be eradicated by allowing the Arab peoples to freely articulate their identity and represent themselves with pride. The needs of the Muslim world must be heard, rather than preemptively assumed and critiqued.

Mahmoud Abbas’ election victory has been viewed as a symbol of a new democracy in the Occupied Territories. However, the value of Western democracy is questionable for the Palestinian people, since the four principles of a democratized society cannot be implemented within the current state of Israeli occupation. It is imperative that the world come to the aid of Palestine, not through an invasive imposition of democratic practices, but rather through the liberation of space, both intellectual and physical, for true democracy to grow.

Related Links

  • BY TOPIC: Palestinian Elections (9 January 2005)

    Nora Bassiouni is a Palestinian-American undergraduate pre-medical student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California. She is an active member of the Students for Justice in Palestine organization and working to organize a medical relief mission for the people of the Occupied Territories. David Reznik, born to Russian Jewish parents, is an American graduate student in sociology at the University of Miami, Florida. His specific research interests include race/ethnic relations and globalization. He is an active member of the Jewish Voice for Peace organization.

    West, Cornel. 2004. Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism. New York: Penguin Books. Young, Iris Marion. 2000. Inclusion and Democracy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
    2. Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
    3. Friere, Paolo. 1990. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
    4. Abu Nimah, Hasan & Ali Abunimah. “Mass Hypnosis in the Middle East.” The Electronic Intifada. 19 January 2005.
    5. Fraser, Nancy. 1997. Justice Interruptus. New York: Routledge.