The Gulf Between Politics of Faith And Western-style Democracy


By Ebrahim Nonoo

Published July 15, 2005, issue of July 15, 2005.
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Whenever I hear the word democracy, I shiver.

Since the term became a rallying cry in Western foreign policy, it has come to mean a set of priorities and values that are essentially American and European. As such, for many of us here in the Middle East, democracy has become dated as a philosophy that can be exported to other cultures.

Some of you, I am sure, may be tempted to dismiss my criticism of Western-style democratization as nothing more than the standard view from an Arab world resistant to change. Before you do, however, consider this: I serve in the government of one of America’s closest allies in the Gulf region, the Kingdom of Bahrain — and I am Jewish.

Today, the ways of life in Europe, America and many other countries do not sustain democratic ideals, and the term “democracy” has so many shortcomings that we can no longer call it a model of society by which to live. There was a time when moral values were a cornerstone of people’s attitudes and behavior, a time when religious values were far more appreciated and encouraged and when there was greater clarity between right and wrong. That time, however, has passed.

Western-style democracy, in short, belonged to an age when certain values, priorities and morals were fundamentally sustainable. Its ideological generalities have proved inadequate in meeting the challenges of modern society — among them, the decline of the family unit and its effect on children, integrating foreigners into society, coping with a justice system that seems to benefit criminals and penalize the innocent, and dealing with the dangerous byproducts of immense progress in communication technology.

Without a doubt, the time has come for societies to reach their own determinations in how to best structure a system of governance. Such a system, of course, must respect the basic tenets of freedoms and reflect the modernized world in which we live. At the same time, there is no reason to reject those aspects of a system that safeguard members of society from moral and social decline.

For the Kingdom of Bahrain, the process of determining the best system of governance is more than just an intellectual exercise.

In recent years, my country has embarked on a new political course of constitutional rule. Since King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa came to power in 1999, Bahrain has reconstituted the governing National Assembly. The assembly is now a bicameral parliament, composed of the appointed, consultative Shura Council — of which I am a member — and the elected, legislative House of Deputies.

Through this nascent political forum, we Bahrainis are witnessing changes of dramatic proportions: greater government accountability, and greater participation of women in the commercial and government spheres, to name just two areas of progress. What’s more, our forward-thinking leadership understands the most crucial criteria for good governance — namely, that a nation’s political success is dependent first and foremost on economic success and openness. And openness has extended beyond economic issues, to the laws governing freedom of speech. Ordinary men and women in Bahrain are, for all intents and purposes, free to publicly air their views and grievances.

Such a state of affairs, I am sure, is to the liking of those in Washington and European capitals who have been agitating for democratic reform in the Arab world. After all, openness in all its manifestations leads to public criticism, which in turn leads to progress, which in turn leads to efficiency, transparency, better allocation of resources and a number of other positive outcomes.

Yet Western observers would be wise to note that openness also produces some less than desirable results: the dissolution of the family unit over time, a much greater rate of divorce, the placing of the elderly in nursing homes, the reliance on debt to maintain artificial living standards, and a liberal judicial system that becomes incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. All this and others, I can assure you, my countrymen wish to avoid for both religious and moral reasons.

So while we in Bahrain wholeheartedly embrace certain aspects of democratization, there are some Western ideals that we do not wish to import. We are creating our own brand of liberalism, one which operates within the confines of our religious, ethnic and social criteria. The social contract we are constructing will guarantee Bahraini citizens their rights — within the framework of priorities and values that are dominant in our society.

To be sure, the transitional phase that the Kingdom of Bahrain is now going through is not at all a simple affair. The application of new laws requires a retraining of large parts of society. Newly created groups and institutions entail recruitment and organization, and structural changes in the education system necessitate massive investment. All these and other changes have been challenging, and will continue to be so for some time.

But as we progress through this period of political reconfiguration, our national priorities and values remain anchored in faith, ensuring the mental health of Bahraini society. Here the Ten Commandments are more than just a model for governing society. The faith they embody is the dominant source of comfort in everyday life, as it is in most Muslim countries.

For those skeptics among you, permit me to briefly recount a story that happened several years ago at my father’s company. A Muslim office boy deceptively kept a large amount of company money that did not belong to him, and when asked to return the money, he denied any wrongdoing. The case against him was clear, though, and it remained only to my father to convince the office boy to return the money.

My father took the office boy aside and asked him, “You are a Muslim and you fear your maker, do you not?” The office boy replied affirmatively. “If you keep the money,” my father reasoned with him, “you may hide from me and you will succeed in your theft, but can you hide from your maker, and will you ever be forgiven for this act?” The very next day, the office boy returned the amount in full.

The lesson of the story is this: We in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Arab world may have much to learn about good governance, as many in the West are far too quick to remind us. But Americans and Europeans might just be able to learn a thing or two from us about the strength of faith — and about what happens to society when it is lacking.

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