The assertion that Islam is incompatible with democratic norms, economic growth, technical innovation and modernization has achieved the status of an urban myth around the world. In support of this claim, some "experts" point to supposed defects in Islamic laws of inheritance and incorporation while others point to the dire straits of most Muslim countries. It is an undeniable fact that most Muslims have little hope for a better future and cannot express dissatisfaction with the regimes that oppress them. If they do, they may find themselves facing the barrel of a gun. Is it at all surprising that they seek refuge in Islam, a religion based on social and economic justice and on the interconnectivity of humankind?
Today’s Muslim countries bear little or no resemblance to an Islamic society as envisaged in the Quran and implemented by the Prophet Mohammad in the first Muslim community in Medina. Most of today’s Muslim countries are best characterized by traits that are if anything the antithesis of the Quranic vision: dictatorship, pervasive social and economic injustice, poverty, corruption and backwardness. These autocrats, who are invariably supported by global powers and corrupt clerics, rule over most Muslim countries. Many in the West might well profess support for democracy and human rights for all, but they have consistently preferred their own favored dictator, or, as FDR supposedly referred to them, their own “son of a bitch,” to true representative governance. This has allowed the United States to pursue short-term strategic interests, while corrupt clerics, be they mullahs or imams, have ‘interpreted’ Islam for the masses in support their own selfish interests—and those of the dictators.
In such a setting, those who seek freedom are labeled enemies of Islam by dictators and clerics, and as Islamic terrorists or jihadists by non-Muslims. When dictators and corrupt clerics wish to solicit the support of Western states, they have only to refer to their oppressed and outraged masses as Islamic fanatics. Is it any wonder that the non-Muslim world has become wary of anything labeled Islamic?
Events in Tunisia, Egypt and potentially in all countries from Morocco to Afghanistan could change all that. A peaceful transition to representative governance could transform the image of Muslims and enhance relations between Muslims and non-Muslims around the world. A peaceful transition will, however, not happen in a vacuum. It would need to be supported by a concerted effort on the part of the global media, bloggers and NGOs, Muslims who have emigrated from their countries of birth and reside in non-Muslim countries, global powers and especially by brave Muslims who live in oppressed countries.
Up until now, the global media has largely echoed the party line of their governments and of the multinationals profiting from doing business with these dictators. While the international media appropriately covered the oppressive regime in Tehran, it said little about the abusive Tunisian and Egyptian regimes. But true to form, after demonstrators kicked Ben Ali out of Tunisia and occupied Freedom Square in Cairo, the coverage of these two regimes changed almost 180 degrees. Such duplicitous news coverage should end. The transgressions of dictatorial regimes must be reported as they occur regardless of the regimes’ relations with multinationals and powerful governments.
In Islam those that do nothing in the face of oppression are as guilty as those who oppress. Now is the time for Muslims to reclaim their religion from mullahs and imams. Where a ruler or his family have governed for more than ten or so years, where the lifestyle of the ruler is very different from the lifestyle of those he rules, where the level of poverty exceeds 25% while a few wallow in luxury, here there is likely to be divergence from Islamic teachings. Where all of these conditions exist it is more than likely that there is also massive abuse of the citizenry. Where this is the case, exposure is needed; and the media should expose all such rulers.
The number of Muslims who have immigrated to the West—North America, Europe and Australia—has mushroomed over the last forty or so years, in large part because of revolutions, wars and regional conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. These immigrants have succeeded in most areas of life in their adopted countries. Instead of using their new powers to improve conditions in their countries of birth, a number have chosen to use their country of origin for financial gains, and have ended up supporting oppressive regimes in the process. These expatriates should cease all financial and economic transactions back home. If they persist in these activities, they should be exposed. Instead of pursuing personal gains, expatriate Muslims should lobby the government of their new homes to pressure dictators to reform. They should urge multinationals not to invest in countries that ignore the wishes of their people.
The United States, Europe, Russia and China also have an important role to play. These powers must stop supporting oppressive dictators, even if they are important commercial allies—one thinks obviously of Saudi Arabia. Consistency matters if a great power such as the United States is to play an effective role in achieving peaceful transitions to representative rule in client states.