Saturday 27 July 2013

A millennium of isolation

The late theologian Yunus Khalis

By Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s authoritative political analyst, author and kingpin of the impending Al Arab TV news channel, writing in Arabic today for the mass circulation newspaper al-Hayat
I sat on the floor opposite the late Mawlawi Yunus Khalis, God bless his soul, in a modest abode in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area.
It was 1989 and I wanted to pick the Afghan theologian-cum-commander’s brains about democracy and elections.
It was the period when the Afghans and their allies in Islamabad and Riyadh were looking for the best way to seal the Afghans’ jihad with a glorious victory and a happy ending that would bring peace, harmony and prosperity to the people of Afghanistan after the Soviets’ defeat there.
Afghanistan’s political map was very simple.
It was based on power, money, arms, mobilization and special links to the region’s various intelligence services.
Since all these elements were readily available to all and sundry, each of the Afghan parties could claim the measures of supremacy and leadership.
The result was chronic discord among Afghan leaders interspersed with “plebeian” clashes and mysterious assassinations, which impeded the “happy ending” of the Afghan jihad.
Afghans lacked the culture of “elections.”
Prevailing were the old traditional tools of mass mobilization and clout on parochial, tribal, sectarian or ethnic grounds.
Once political Islam entered the scene, partisan ideology followed – until it also fragmented among the sides.
Someone suggested “elections” as a solution. The question was how? Who would oversee elections in an untested environment and a war-torn country?
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who proposed the elections, was himself a political party leader. He did not have everyone’s trust.
Being hungry for power, he did not hesitate taking “exceptional measures” – assassinations for instance – to settle his differences with others.
But there were more vital questions concerning elections and democracy, which is what I heard from Mawlawi Yunus Khalis when he criticized voting as the key instrument of democracy by saying: “How can you equate the ballot of the virtuous scholar with the ballot of the immoral evildoer?”
The question was akin to our surroundings. It belonged to a world of yore and had nothing to do with the present except for the two-wheeled Doshka heavy machinegun sitting on the roof, next to a relaxed turbaned fighter overlooking the valley.
On the valley’s opposite side, exhausted government soldiers were taking a breather from a decade-long war.
The Afghans never agreed an answer to the theologian-cum-commander’s question and did not opt for elections to settle their differences, keeping up their internecine strife until this day.
Yunus Khalis did not study at the Sorbonne or work in international organizations.
He was a religious scholar who studied at a Haqqania maddrassa (religious school), which formed most Taliban leaders.
The school offers simple and direct answers to modern-day problems revolving around two concepts of halal (lawful, based on the Quran) and haram (forbidden by Islamic law) with minimal diligence, reflection and insight.
The result was the Taliban’s failure and ceaseless conflicts in Afghanistan.
Going back to our Arab world, which is relatively more “advanced” than Afghanistan and where liberals and rights advocates have been championing democracy and human rights, we find that 30 months into what we dreamt up as the Arabs’ spring, democracy has hit rock bottom. The ruling elites are wary of it -- of its results rather -- and the marginalized forces have almost lost confidence in it.
But, as Winston Churchill once said, democracy is better than those other forms of government that have been tried. In the Arab republics, democracy is better than a military coup mounted by a “nationalist officer” keen to put his country on the right democratic path.
The “nationalist officer” will always resort to exceptional steps, having applied them in the first place -- by using force instead of the constitution -- to inaugurate his rule. Problem is exceptional steps always hinge on interest and politics. Decisions made outside the rule of law are justified as being “well-intentioned,” except that they open the door to new problems.
Moreover, the outcome of exceptional steps is neither assured nor predictable. The call for a demonstration in support of a step can produce calm, victory and empowerment. But it could also end in bloodletting that leaves an open wound in the nation and its people’s body.
Democracy could turn out the wrong president or a one-sided parliament. But democracy has inbuilt corrective mechanisms that can go as far as impeaching the president and disbanding parliament.
There’s always room for a “second chance” in a democracy. But the second chance under extraordinary measures depends on the whim of the “nationalist officer.” As an individual, the latter is apt to make right and wrong decisions and to be swayed by his entourage and circles.
The big question raised at the onset of the Arab Spring is decidedly apropos: Why did its high winds sweep the republics and caress the monarchies as a breeze?
The answer lies in the republics’ social contract, which states: “The people are the source of all powers.”
Fact is the people discovered that the “nationalist officer” is the source of all powers. The find infuriated them. They revolted at a historic moment and have yet to mollify.
Democracy takes pride of place in the social contract. But it was defaced and turned into a “décor” by regimes prior to the Arab Spring.
Today, Arab liberal and secular forces are disfiguring democracy beyond recognition after it worked in political Islam’s favor. They shelved their “revolutionary purity” and accepted to go along with rationed democracy.
Is political Islam the problem of democracy in the Arab world? Or is an authoritarian culture permeating Arab minds?
These are hypothetical questions that need not be raised or answered. Neither political Islam will disappear, nor will authoritarianism prevail again.
What is certain until further notice is that we will learn democracy the hard way – by trial and error and by bitter experiences that is.
Our masses will face off and we will test rationed democracy, exclusion and forgery pending an awakening liable to challenge all this and persist in the endeavor, assisted by the force of history.
These are the same aspiring forces that took to the streets in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt two-and-a-half years ago despite their torment and frustrations.
Some came from political Islam, despite its tribulations and immaturity. Others came from “deep states” that refuse to give up and go away. And the rest were trying to find their way after a millennium of isolation.