Among the most widely accepted notions is one that Political Islam is incompatible with democracy. The last few decades have corroborated this position given that there is no semblance of representative governance in the Islamic world spanning across middle-east Asia. The failure of Arab Spring to dislodge authoritarian rule appears to testify these notions.
We will argue that the prevailing chaos in Middle-east is the result of discovery of oil which has been the main culprit that toppled democracy and people’s rights.
While Islam’s core theology is indeed backward, what needs our consideration is that Christianity was equally if not more regressive in the pre-Reformation period. It is Reformation sparked the ascendancy of West. In fact, post World War II, it appeared that zeitgeist of global democracy will find its way in Islamic countries too. And things in early 50s and 60s actually moved in this direction, until one thing changed it at once – the discovery of oil.
What started this was the fall of Ottoman Empire after World War I. Till then, Muslims had a fairly stable and strong political entity to support it worldwide. The fall of this empire was the biggest blow to the Muslims worldwide (Khilafat Movement in India in 1922 was to protest the British involvement in Ottoman crackdown and not a contribution to the Indian National Freedom movement).
The Return of the Primitive
Saudi Arabia was nowhere the financial centre of Islamic world though it indeed was the exclusive religious centre of Muslims worldwide as the owner of Mecca and Medina mosques – the founding mosques of Islam. The Islam as practiced elsewhere like the Mediterranean circle (Cairo, Istanbul, Casablanca, and Damascus) and even India (Sufis and Ahmediyas) were more urban and pluralistic rather than the desert cult purist Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia which believes that Islam must return to its roots as practiced by Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors as practiced in 7th century Arabia.
Before 20th century, the desert-cult of Arabia (also known as Salafiyyah), the purist version of Islam had little influence outside Arabia. Not anymore. Flush with the petro-dollars, Saudi Arabia today is the financial centre of Islamic countries and has tremendous influence on all Muslims worldwide. Its clout is felt in cultural, ideological and societal dimensions of all Muslims worldwide.
The trends are disturbing as the trans-national loyalty to Ulema (Muslim Brotherhood/Community) and not the “man-made nations” can be profoundly disruptive to communal amity throughout world as seen through fallouts of Multiculturalism in Europe.
But it is the West that is indirectly responsible for the rise of this aggressive version of Islam.
The fuel-addicted western countries buy oil from the Saudi Arabia indirectly strengthening the most fanatic, regressive, West-hating, purist version of Islam that it follows. This dependency has in turn, has also financed the toppling the democratic institutions as seen in Russia, Latin America and elsewhere.
Further, this dependency has forced the west to overlook the ugly truth of oil-rich nations due to diplomatic self-interest. USA the harbinger of democracy elsewhere is mum about the repressive reign in the gulf countries. The heavy purchase of oil is indirectly funding the terrorist organizations which receive considerable sums through charity etc.
A country which doesn’t host even a sizable number of Muslims as against the Muslim population worldwide has unlimited power on all the Muslims countries due to the financial clout. This power has enabled it to buy approval from all countries and impose its purist version. This has led to a massive Arabization of all Islamic countries replacing a more modern, pluralistic society with a purist and anti-pluralist version. The situation now reeks of Arabic Cultural Imperialism seeking to root out native cultures of different nations and imposing its purist version.
For example, Egypt was a more cosmopolitan country with a decent film industry of its own. Now, the same Egypt is inconvenient about the fact that Pyramids which predated Islam is the major tourist attraction. The film industry has been quite progressive; this is now under scrutiny and extremely gender-sensitive. Elsewhere, coed education was quite a norm in universities of 50s, which is unthinkable today.
The oil-addition of west has ensured that it places its self-interest above democratic concerns of these nations. A basic logic is that democratic countries are hard to handle as all government actions are under public scrutiny and the government itself is liable to change within every few years. It’s difficult to manage so many people who themselves keep changing constantly. India for all its negatives stands out precisely because of this reason.
How this hurts representative democratic movements?
In a modern economy, a country can grow only if it educates its people, equips with them requisite skills and makes them employable in the globalized economy. This calls for investment in education, incentives for industries and moreover a liberalized economy which ensures the freedom necessary for free market economy. For free market economy to function, it’s important that the state policies are attuned accordingly, which automatically calls for representative government.
The West has every reason to topple democratic governments and place a puppet dictator who depends on western assistance to crush local opposition. A dictator is must easier to handle for he is the permanent feature and is not under public scrutiny and is not likely to be replaced. He can have his cut from the business while western corporations exploit the local resources freely.
We observe the discovery of oil has high correlation with loss of democratic institutions. For example, Bahrain, a country very much in gulf, had recently decided for a makeover. The labour laws have been improvised to make them more productive. Their stated aim to break free of oil-dependency, and shift to a more modern economy with due recognition to manufacturing and knowledge industry. Why? Bahrain was one of the few nations which were actually running out of oil and total exhaustion of oil was a matter of time. The state needed its entrepreneurs, business and other human resources to manage its growth henceforth.
This is unlike oil-rich nations which do not need its people to help them grow. The state can simply drill a hole and run the economy; it has no necessity of equipping its people to meet the nation’s challenges. Since the taxation is negligible, it holds no responsibility to function in line with people’s expectations. A live example of this peculiar sequence is Russia. Back in early 90s when USSR disintegrated, Russia was rapidly democratizing and was actively befriending the West (esp. USA). With oil toppling $ 100 / barrel, we find a resurgent Russia meddling with USA’s power in Georgia. When oil was priced below $ 20, Iran elected reformer Mohammed Khatami as president. Today with oil-price accelerating skyward, its current President Ahmadinejad denies holocaust.
When will world run out of oil? Experts are divided on this question. Yet, we could be fairly certain that by mid 21st century, oil-production will plateau. Until such time, oil will influence geopolitics more powerfully than before. In fact the final stages can be severe – resulting in worldwide disturbances.
As discussed repeatedly, democratic pace is inversely proportional to oil-price. Higher the oil-price, more are the chances of toppling of democratic movements and installation of authoritarian governance. As oil dips lower, it rapidly increases the democracy in the country.
Solution? Innovation to make better use of renewable resources! Few companies are faced with dilemma – if they innovate fast enough so that they arrive at a comprehensive solution before oil reaches total depletion – they are directly affecting the fortunes of the cash-rich oil organizations. These organizations will ensure that the innovation remains firmly within control and doesn’t interfere with their current profits. Meanwhile, these companies need to show some progress as a justification for their existence.
However if someone indeed breaks the jinx by producing an alternative to oil, it will directly result in decline of the Middle East. We must thank our stars if that happens.