The war against Arab democracy

I’m in Crikey last Friday with a piece on the crisis over Qatar. I talk about some of the scary parallels with the First World War – my original title was “Sarajevo on the Gulf” – and I try to get at what Saudi Arabia and its allies are really on about:

When Saudi Arabia is accusing someone else of Islamic extremism, it’s pretty clear that something else is really going on. Qatar’s real sins, in the Saudis’ eyes, seem to be threefold:

  1. It has tried to maintain good relations with Iran, thereby, at least to some extent, opting out of the Saudi narrative of perpetual conflict between Sunni and Shiite Islam;

  2. It has provided funding and other support for the Islamic political movement the Muslim Brotherhood, which was overthrown by the current military regime in Egypt and is aligned with both Hamas in Gaza and the Turkish government; and

  3. It is the home of news network Al Jazeera, which is funded by the Qatari royal family and provides generally independent and politically neutral reporting on Middle East issues.

I quote Gideon Rachman’s bon mot on the Arab Spring: “The good news is that this is the Arab 1989. The bad news is that we are the Soviet Union.” There are also links to a number of other commentators who have said similar things, to which I would now add, at the top of the list, this piece by Hugh Miles in yesterday’s Observer. It’s well worth a few minutes of your time.

Miles headlines with the story of Al Jazeera, which he explains very well, but even more importantly he shows the connection between my second and third points above:

What [Saudi Arabia and its allies] find particularly distasteful is the widely propagated view, shared by the Qatari leadership, that sooner or later Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas will come to power across the whole region, propelled either by revolution or democratic elections. …

Given that on the few occasions Sunni Arab countries have been able to hold free and fair elections Islamist parties have usually won, even though they are not often allowed to take or hold power for long, Qatar’s assumption that one day they will come to power is not unrealistic. But for Qatar’s neighbours it is heretical.

This is the vital point to appreciate. But if your understanding of “Islamist” is that it’s roughly equivalent to “terrorist” or perhaps “extremist fundamentalist” (if, say, you’re Gerard Henderson), then the quoted passage makes no sense. On any conceivable test, the Saudi regime is much more extreme in its fundamentalism, and more closely linked to the terrorists of Da’esh/IS or Al-Qaeda, than the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas.

The big thing about groups like the Muslim Brotherhood is not just that they believe in some sort of political Islam – that’s normal for the region – but that they have popular support and are trying to bring about democratic change. As Miles puts it:

Arabs generally are fed up with their corrupt and useless unelected governments and are ready for any alternative in future, as long as it looks nothing like the past. Many Sunni Arabs, liberals and Islamists alike, find al-Jazeera’s democratic, Islamist discourse and optimistic vision of the future much more inspiring than the visions their widely hated and feared governments are peddling.

That’s not to say that the Brotherhood and its sister parties would necessarily remain democratic if they took power. But so far their record is a lot better than that of their opponents. The potential is there to bring political Islam within the democratic tent, in much the way that the Christian Democrat parties did for political Christianity in the period after the Second World War.

And that’s what forms the common bond between the Saudis and the hard right in the United States – both the neoconservatives and the Trumpian nationalists. Both are committed to the view that Islamic democracy is impossible; the Saudis because it threatens their autocracy, the Americans because it means admitting the Arabs to the status of real political players.



3 thoughts on “The war against Arab democracy

  1. Never mind the American Trumpian Right, we have plenty of the same right in our own back garden. The likes of Gerard Henderson as you mentioned (and who will live for the rest of his life on his prediction of a Trump victory). Yesterday in Rupert’s rag there was Jennifer Oriel whose rant was barely readable. She was in full counter-reformation mode (probably oiling the bearings of the water-wheels in her basement) ranting about the end of civilization due to the revelation of the latest census that “no religion” trumps all other categories of religious affiliation. Everything of any value is apparently evolved out of, and–critically–dependent on the continuation of our Judaeo-Christian traditions. She’s still fighting John Howard’s war as deputy sherif to the lesser Bush’s holy war. In the pages of The Australian she, along with Gerard and the Shanahans, Greg Sheridan (good catholic buddy of Tony Abbott), Miranda Devine etc. It is hard to expect higher quality of civil governance by others (such as Muslim Brotherhood) when the west is regurgitating this toxic philosophy.

    Amazingly the paper published a letter with an opposing point of view to Oriel:

    Jennifer Oriel’s piece does not see that atheists are capable of saving the baby while dispensing with the bathwater. Even if the institutions of democracy, justice and equality are rooted in Judaeo-Christian tradition,that does not mean we can’t continue to enjoy these values in a secular society: the two are no longer intrinsically linked.

    But actually I would say the biggest advances were the Reformation and the French Revolution which had to over-turn the near-2 millenial tyranny of the church, and their monarchial tyrants who ruled as their proxies.


    1. Indeed. Yet the same people will turn around and present themselves as defenders of the Enlightenment, having somehow managed to empty that word of all its anti-religious content.


      1. Yet more Letters-to-Ed are published by The Oz. Of the seven in today’s paper, only two could count as favouring Oriel’s approach, but they do so only weakly and as usual, in confused fashion.

        But speaking of the divine right of kings, it seems we have a new Sun King! Almost too many “interesting times” to keep track of.


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