‘Demoqratia’, indeed

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 symbolise oppression.

Thanks to the dedicated action of the far-right Swiss People’s Party, the Alpine skies will be free from the snaking menace that 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 Muslim nations all over the world has never ceased. Moreover, the collective targeting of small or large Muslim communities in Western countries, and the deliberate abuse and degradation of Muslim individuals and of Islamic symbols never ceased either.

Bizarrely, most of these actions have been done through “democratic” channels and justified as being done in the name of democracy, on the basis of upholding the principles of secularism and Western values.

I remember when the word democracy used to resonate 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 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 “ad 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 Desert.

Arab and Muslim masses were so keen on democracy 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 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 Islam.

“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 prejudices aside to ponder this for a moment, one realises the intellectual valour it takes to consider and even embrace commonalities with the very powers that have inflicted 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.

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 idealised assumptions missed the fact that Western democracy was conditional. And that unconditional democracy can only be a farce.

Much has been said to explain the West’s faltering on its own commitment to democracy.

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, neither the French are fond of Americans nor are the Germans necessarily that passionate about the Swiss. But this didn’t stop 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 all Switzerland, one per 100,000 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 H.88-metre-tall minaret in the northern Swiss town of Langenthal. It is 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 an 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 hypocrisy.

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 everywhere else.

Ad demoqratia, indeed.

The writer (www.ramzybaroud.net) is editor of PalestineChronicle.com. 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). He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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