TEHRAN - Professor Eric Thomas Weber believes that there is a great “potential for democracy” in the Middle East.
“The elections themselves may or may not signal much, but the potential for democracy in the region is highly promising and growing,” Weber told the Tehran Times.
Weber also said, “Democracy is more than public procedure.”
He added democracy “includes values and social beliefs and practices.”
Following is the text of the interview:
Q: What are the main obstacles to establishing democratic governments in the Middle East?
A: Democracy depends fundamentally on communication. The power of the people is derived from communicating with one another about problems and aspirations, as well as the methods used to address both. Therefore, there is no more important factor than the free-flow of information. If there are people in a society who do not feel free to speak about their concerns and grievances, it will be impossible for the society as a whole to carefully respect disadvantaged groups’ interests and rights. The only path to ensuring that societies pursue justice proceeds first and foremost through the avenue of a free press, one that is permitted to be critical of its own government and authorities.
A second basic need for empowering people to be self-governing is education. A population that is not educated cannot systematically foster self-respect in its people, enabling them to pursue meaningful life plans among a variety of opportunities for each individual. Education is the vital means by which a people can learn about its own conditions and contribute to their intellectual and moral amelioration.
A third relevant consideration for answering your question is that people must be treated with respect and equality – but not because people are all the same. They are not. People must be treated equally because we are all individuals, because we are all different. Therefore, positions of authority in society must not be closed to particular populations, to ethnic or racial minorities, or to women. So long as people are excluded from positions of authority, those in power will not be checked by the considerations of persons who are different from them.
There are more concerns that are of subsequent importance for democracy, but if societies do not have a truly free press, if they do not educate their people by means of a meaningful education necessary for free citizenship, and if they are not all treated with real equality of opportunity for all citizens, then the prospects for democracy are weak. There have been times of far greater freedom in the Middle East than we find in some countries today, and there are increasing opportunities for opening the channels of free communication. It remains to be seen whether more Middle Eastern societies are ready to permit the free criticism of public and religious leaders. It will take considerable courage to make that change, yet it is vital for the growth of democracy. One of the remaining tests will be whether the nations of the Middle East can reject the classification of some citizens as inferior, especially women and persons of minority ethnicities, races, and religions.
Q: Can the elections in Egypt and Iraq be considered as transition periods to democracy?
A: Democracy is more than public procedure. It includes values and social beliefs and practices. Public procedures can have some impact on public values and beliefs, but there is no guarantee. If Egypt and Iraq were culturally ready for some changes, then public procedures will have more impact than otherwise. At bottom, however, the fundamental question is whether the public in such societies is ready to accept that all citizens should have a voice in public leadership, and whether the people are ready to fight the forces which will cling to outdated practices and beliefs.
More than the elections in Egypt and Iraq, it was the whole movement dubbed the Arab Spring which suggested that people in the Middle East are fed up with governments that are oppressive. It is plausible that governments in the Middle East will work to be more considerate of their people’s needs, and thereby preserve their current forms of government through appeasement. At the same time, the Arab Spring generated a crack in the foundations of fear that have for so long prevented some societies from standing up for change and democracy. The people of the Middle East are varied and often poorly represented. If they fight for freedom of the press, for meaningful education for all citizens, and for the equal treatment of women and all other citizens, I believe that we will see a serious shift to democracy and to more widespread economic development and stability. In short, the elections themselves may or may not signal much, but the potential for democracy in the region is highly promising and growing.
Q: Is the Western model of democracy applicable in Middle Eastern countries?
A: The greatest determinant in answering this question, I believe, concerns freedom of religion, and consequently the freedom to criticize both political and religious leaders. Criticism sounds disrespectful, and it can often be delivered in manners that are disrespectful. Nevertheless, criticism is a vital tool for pursuing knowledge and justice. When people raise legitimate criticisms of an idea, proposal, or public figure, we gain insights about areas for improvement or ways to modify our ideas, proposals, and representation. The nations of the Middle East vary greatly, yet a somewhat common trend is that there is far more freedom of inquiry in the scientific or empirical realms than in the humanistic and moral spheres.
The Western approach to democracy emphasizes personal liberty to a maximal degree. In the Middle East, even if the people choose not to embrace such wide liberties as Western democracies, it will nevertheless be vital to democracy in the region to permit the free flow of ideas, criticisms, and public speech for citizens of all kinds to try to persuade each other about how policies should be written, about how nations should be governed. In short, I believe that democracies in the Middle East may look quite different from some Western democracies, yet in some crucial respects, they will have to share protections of speech and freedom in education if meaningful democracy is to develop and flourish.
Eric Thomas Weber who has a Ph.D. in philosophy is associate professor of public policy leadership at the University of Mississippi (USA), and is representing only his own point of view. His third book, Democracy and Leadership, was published in November 2013.