COMMENT The hypocrisy of al-Demoqratia
By Ramzy Baroud
So this is how democracy works?
In 2004, France banned headscarves and school principals chased after young
"defiant" Muslim girls who continued to cover their heads in school. Now,
following a national referendum, Switzerland has banned the construction of
minarets, because minarets also somehow symbolize oppression. Thanks to the
dedicated action of the far-right Swiss People's Party, the Alpine skies will
be free from the snaking menace, which would spread intolerance and taint the
splendor of Swiss architecture.
In between these two peculiar events, the targeting of Muslims in Western
countries and the subjugation of entire Muslim nations
all over the world has never ceased. Not for a day.
Moreover, the collective targeting of small or large Muslim communities in
Western countries, and the deliberate abuse and degradation of Muslim
individuals and Islamic symbols (from the Holy Koran to the Prophet Mohammed)
has also never ceased.
Bizarrely, most of these actions have been done through "democratic" channels
and justified in the name of democracy, on the basis of upholding the
principles of secularism and Western values.
Many thoughts come to mind here; all unreservedly angry.
I remember when the word "democracy" used to resonate so loudly among Arabs and
Muslims around the world. The more they were denied it, the more they yearned
for it. University campuses in Cairo, Gaza and Karachi took their student union
elections so very seriously. Innocent blood was spilled in clashes around
campuses as students desperately tried to express their right to vote, to speak
out and to assemble.
Those were the days, when al-demoqratia, Arabic for democracy, was the
buzzword in the Middle East and beyond. Even Palestinian political prisoners
held their elections, ever so faithfully, surrounded by highly fortified towers
and under the deriding gaze of armed men in the unforgiving heat of the Naqab
Arab and Muslim masses were keen on democracy to the extent that there was a
near consensus that democracy, although a Western conception, could be
distinguished from the many ills invited by Western interventions, imperialism
and wars that scarred and continued to impair the collective Muslim psyche.
An entire school of Muslim thought was in fact established around the concept
that democracy and Islam are very much compatible. Such a notion goes back to
Egypt's Azharite scholar Rifa'a al-Tahtawi, who argued in the first half of the
19th century that the principles of European modernity were compatible with
"Al-Tahtawi's work influenced the philosopher Muhammad Abduh [1849-1905],
another Azharite who is often described as the founder of Islamic modernism,
which is captured in his statement that in Europe he found Islam without
Muslims, while in Egypt he found Muslims without Islam," wrote German
anthropologist, Frank Fanselow.
If one sets his prejudices aside to ponder this for a moment, one would realize
the intellectual valor it takes to consider and even embrace commonalities with
the very powers that have instilled so much harm and fear.
Even in their darkest, least proud moments, Muslim intellectuals and nations
displayed impressive open-mindedness. They are hardly ever credited for that.
More recently, in Egypt, people tried hard to vote, in the face of beatings,
public humiliation and imprisonment. In Palestine in 2006 the price was even
higher - starvation. Gaza continues to endure under a medieval Israeli siege,
ultimately because of an election.
Muslim communities in the West have long been considered the luckiest; after
all, they live in the abodes of democracy. They drink from the fountain of
rights and freedoms that never runs dry.
However, these idealized assumptions missed the fact that Western democracy was
conditional. And unconditional democracy can only be a farce.
Much has been said to explain the West's faltering on its own commitment to
democracy. No, the tragedy of September 11, 2001, is hardly the defining moment
that created the growing chasm that made the West fearful of Islam. Despite all
that has taken place since then - the constant spewing out of right-wing
hatred, evangelical fanatic preaching and all the rest - America is still more
tolerant than Europe. Nor was the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe a
response in solidarity to America's woes.
Honestly, the French are not fond of Americans, nor are the Germans necessarily
that passionate about the Swiss. But this didn't stop a German Christian
Democratic state interior minister, Volker Bouffier, from making a
"recommendation" to Muslim communities in his own country: "Naturally the
Muslims in Germany have a right to build mosques. But they should make sure not
to overwhelm the German population with them."
How do you overwhelm people with minarets? Is this a post-post-post-modernistic
logic that we are yet to be informed of?
There are only four minarets in the entire country of Switzerland, a country
with a population of approximately 7.6 million people. How overwhelming can
that be? And aren't religious freedom and the freedom of collective and
individual expression basic rights guaranteed by democratic values?
But this is hardly about a 4.8-meter tall minaret in the northern Swiss town of
Langenthal. It's about the fact that the one who suggested the structure is a
Muslim furniture salesman by the name of Mutalip Karaademi. He didn't know, of
course, that his modest idea of adding a minaret to the community's mosque
would generate a nationwide referendum, and an international "controversy".
Karaademi was not trying to "Islamificate" the Swiss. He just wanted his
community to have a place for worship (as opposed to the unused paint factory
it currently uses for prayer), to be able to express its collective identity
without fear. Ironically enough, the Muslim community in Langenthal is mostly
Albanians, refugees who fled Kosovo seeking escape and deliverance.
What a strange paradox: Muslims escaping to the West, physically and
figuratively, only to find double standards, self-negation and, at times, pure
For now, however, a new consensus is forming: democracy can be invoked and used
against Muslims only, and not for Muslims. It can be manipulated to deny them
their identity in Europe and their freedom in Palestine, to ensure their
subjugation in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and to meddle in their internal affairs
Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an author and editor of
PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in many newspapers,
journals and anthologies around the world. His latest book is The
Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle (Pluto Press,
London), and his forthcoming book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter:
Gaza's Untold Story. (Pluto Press, London), now available for pre-orders on