In Muslim lands there was a dream of democracy. But now it has died

The Arab Spring was real and authentic, a surge to claim human rights and remake ossified nations that were ruled by dictators. What happened next?


It hurts to write this essay when Muslims are celebrating Eid after Ramadan. Summertime fasts are tough – 19 hours without water, other fluids or food. It tests personal strength and faith. Fasters are also supposed to give more to the needy. This is a time to feel good about being a Muslim.

You are meant to reflect too on the religion itself – its significance and future. When I do that, the tranquillity and joy of Ramadan soon dissipate and I fill up with guilt, shame and anxiety. Muslims try so hard to live a good life, yet round the world the most horrific violence is perpetrated by Muslims, most often against fellow believers. Promises of democracy fade faster than a summer tan; freedoms are snatched, liberties crushed, equality excised from the official vocabulary. Misery, misery everywhere. Worldwide, Muslims are dying to be free, to live in just and fair societies. The Arab Spring was real and authentic, a surge to claim human rights and remake ossified nations that were ruled by dictators. The world was caught up in that extraordinary moment. What happened next?

In Tunisia, where it all started, two popular secular leaders, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, have been assassinated this year and people are afraid and on the streets again. Back in 2011, a young Egyptian vet told a reporter: “We are sick of the military council which is using the same tools as Mubarak.” Now the military is back and posing as a liberationist army. Before the coup, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, once elected, instantly turned authoritarian. Assad, the butcher of Syria, smiled winningly during Eid prayers, a smile that said he was quashing the very idea of democracy by any means necessary. Massacres and torture are normalised in that wretched country from where millions of refugees are fleeing to Jordan.

Violence, it appears, is the easy answer for all Muslim problems. Look at Lebanon, Iraq and Pakistan – and in countries where Muslims share the land with others. In northern Nigeria, where Christian-Muslim enmity goes deep, Boko Haram bombs and slays Christians in order to provoke a religious war. In Libya, chaos grows and vendettas never stop. Saif al-Islam goes on trial in a lawless country.

Last month, in one day alone in Iraq, more than 50 people were killed. Minority Muslim communities in Pakistan are routinely murdered, as are girls and women for daring to get a life. That letter from the Taliban headman to Malala Yousafzai revealed how millions think out there. A bomb hidden in a cemetery in Nangarhar, eastern Afghanistan, killed seven women and seven children who had come out to celebrate Eid.

The Turkish state was the great white hope (pardon the phrase) of the Islamic world. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a temperate, Islamicist politician who took care of his people, improved the economy and seemed inclusive and respectful of all views. Then he showed his true colours. Secularists and environmentalists who came out to protect an Istanbul park from development and vent other grievances have been savagely put down. A wedding party in the park was tear gassed. Now dozens of secular army chiefs, academics and journalists have been imprisoned for life for a “deep plot” against the state. Turkey already imprisons more journalists than any other country. Those who wanted to keep Turkey out of the European Union for the wrong reasons can now argue rightly that the leadership barely understands the basic principles of freedom and democracy.

You find oppression and tyrannical leaders in non-Muslim countries too – in Russia, Zimbabwe and China, for example. But these places are not indicative of a pattern, a widespread cultural sickness. One finds that pattern, that sickness, in large parts of the Muslim world. In a tweet, I wondered why Muslims the world over were so destructive and self-destructive, which led to many responses on the web and in the post. Some were from the usual bigots, as well as the educated followers of the atheist ayatollah Richard Dawkins – buzzing and stinging like late-summer wasps, asking to be swatted. The most moving were outpourings from good Muslims themselves.

Naila, an Egyptian woman I befriended in Cairo just after the fall of Mubarak, wrote: “You remember Yasmeen [sic], you were with us during Eid and we were so happy. You gave me a shawl and I gave you perfume. I was thinking Egypt is free, Egypt is free. It is not. I went to the square with other free Egyptians and three times, men tried to touch me badly, push me, one pulled my blouse up and pushed me to the ground. My country is now in the biggest prison. Muslims will never be free. They don’t know what to do with freedom. We can only have dictators. Pray for me sister and my country.”

So is she right – that Muslims can be controlled only by dictators? No. She is completely wrong. Some of the most ardent campaigners for democracy I know are Egyptian, Algerian, Libyan, Iraqi, Pakistani, Turkish and Iranian. Duplicitous American and European governments prefer Muslim dictatorships (like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia) to messy elections, and will never do anything about Israel’s ambitions and illegal operations. But these democrats want in their lands the democratic entitlements of Muslims in Europe and North America. Alas, after this summer – in which brutality has been the habitual mark of leaders as well as citizens – that energy, zeal and optimism seem to be weakening. A new realism is blowing in.

Muslims are becoming more self-critical, and about time too. Some now believe this is our dark age, when rage rules and there is no place for the intellect, humanity, love, civic responsibility and co-operation that were all part of our great civilisations of the past. In response to my tweet, Ahmad, an Independent reader, sent me a short story (not for publication) in which a suicide bomber leaves a note saying: “Guns and bombs have killed Islam. I die. There is no hope.” But there is hope. There must be.

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