Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Monotheistic Religions(CISMOR)Doshisha University > Public Lectures > Delving into the Transforming Middle East
Public Lecture from Symposium
Delving into the Transforming Middle East
2011/07/30 13:00 − 15:15
|Place：||Room M1, Meitoku-kan 1F, Imadegawa Campus, Doshisha University|
Katsuhiro KOHARA, Professor of School of Theology, Doshisha University/ Director of CISMOR
Masanori NAITO, Professor of Graduate School of Global Studies, Doshisha University/ Deputy Director of CISMOR
Koji MURATA, Professor of Faculty of Law, Doshisha University/ Deputy Director of CISMOR
Delving into the Transforming Middle East
Katsuhiro Kohara: “Is religion necessary for democracy?”
Prof. Katsuhiro Kohara, director of CISMOR, discussed the situation of the Middle East focusing mainly on Egypt and posed a question that is of special importance in considering the future of this region: “Is religion necessary for democracy?”
Previously, Western governments considered dictatorial states to be less malicious than religious states. Especially, the United States was cautious of the emergence of Iranian-style Islamic nations due to the impacts of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which are still strongly felt. In Egypt, Islamist movements initiated by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Muslim groups were suppressed during the dictatorship of President Mubarak. In the wake of the recent pro-democracy movements, however, a variety of Muslim groups came to the surface, including the radical Salafists—who attacked Coptic Christian churches right in the middle of the pro-democracy movements.
In the face of such a situation, a natural reaction of Western society might be to encourage the introduction of secularism and the separation of religion and state. However, it is doubtful that doing so will lead to the stabilization of the Middle East.
It is true that some Muslim groups feel hostile toward Coptic Christians, but a majority of them are willing to live in harmony with such people. In addition, Kamal Habib, the leader of the Salafist movement, admitted their attacks on Coptic churches and said that they would never commit such again. True to his words, Habib hosted a gathering designed for reconciliation between Islamists and Coptic Christians. The Muslim Brotherhood, as well, began to promote its female members to managerial positions in its previously male-dominated organization. These cases indicate that Islamist groups are trying to become part of the democratization process themselves by shifting to more moderate policies. In this sense, the “degree of moderateness of Islamists” can be regarded as one of the means to gauge the progress of democratization.
So far, it has been taken for granted that democracy refers to liberal democracy modeled after Western nations. This type of democracy does not allow the intervention of religion in building consensus, and it is strictly conditioned on secularism and the principle of the separation of religion and state. However, there can be another type of democracy.
It was young people who played a leading role in the recent pro-democracy movements in the Middle East. Today, the young population aged below 30 accounts for more than 60% of the national population on average in the Middle Eastern countries. To revive “pride,” these young people called for, in addition to employment and other economic opportunities, dignity and social justice grounded in Islamic values. In this light, the recent pro-democracy movements may be interpreted to indicate the possibility of an Islamic democracy that relies on Islam as important standards of equity and justice.
In the first place, public and private spheres have to be divided if secularism is to be introduced to society, but this is not realistic for the Islamic world. In the pro-democracy movement in Egypt, for example, protesters gathered in Tahrir Square, one of the most public venues, and offered “joint prayers,” which, in turn, gave greater momentum to the movement. There, no distinction was made between public and private, as the people shared their sufferings, mourned for the dead, and together called for freedom.
Accordingly, we may say that the recent pro-democracy movements gave rise to a venue for ceremonies and attached new meaning to the concept of “publicness.” What we should do next is to devise a new definition of or redefine the concept of the “publicness” that resulted from the pro-democracy movements.
Masanori Naito: Skepticism toward the “Arab Spring”
Prof. Masanori Naito expressed his skepticism toward the designation of the “Arab Spring” to refer to the recent pro-democracy movements in the Middle East, and analyzed the situation of the Middle East by mentioning the reasons behind his skepticism, as follows.
While there have been several movements that are called “XX Spring,” such as the “Prague Spring” and the “Seoul Spring,” most of these movements are those that are desirable for the West, with the term “Spring” used to emphasize how they measured up to the West’s expectations. It should also be noted that it is too optimistic to simply believe that these movements will bring about positive change.
The main actors in the recent pro-democracy movements were young people who used new media such as Twitter and Facebook to mobilize support, which made the movements appear to be revolutionary. However, considering that government authorities, too, will eventually turn to these new tools, the significance of such tools should not be overestimated. If a movement is to be called a “revolution,” there should be some vision for the future of the nation after the collapse of the current government, but this is not the case for the recent movements. For the lack of future prospects, these movements more aptly resemble “riots.”
In Egypt, for example, the pro-democracy movement led to military rule, and this is another reason behind Prof. Naito’s skepticism. Considering that Egypt’s armed forces were given huge military support from the United States, serious concern remains about the ability of the new military rulers to respond to the will of Egyptian citizens.
From the viewpoint of international society, there is the problem of a double standard. In the recent pro-democracy movements, the West intervened in Libya but not in Syria, which is probably because of Israel acting behind the scenes. During the Cold War period, Syria was regarded as a hard-line anti-Israel nation, but the reality was quite the opposite. Though Syria has claimed itself to be a leader of Arabs and maintained a firm stance against Israel on the surface, the fact is that this country is pro-American. In this light, for Israel, Syria bears special importance in the Middle East. As indicated by this case, the humanitarian intervention by the West has been largely affected by the external international situation and thus lacks consistency, which also explains Prof. Naito’s skepticism.
Then, how can we understand the recent pro-democracy movements in the Middle East? Whenever we look into the issue of Islam and democracy, we should, among other things, keep in mind that, in Islamic society, there is no consensus that departure from God is requisite for achieving democracy. The topic under discussion is no exception. For Muslims, freedom can be realized only by living with God, and certainly, this principle will apply to democratization in the Middle East. In other words, the ideal of “achieving Islamic equity” is the key driving force behind the series of pro-democracy movements in the Middle East.
People calling for democracy in the Middle East place importance on “Islamic equity.” In the recent pro-democracy movements, Muslim leaders did not act at the forefront, but this does not necessarily mean that people in the Middle East aspired to Western-style democracy.
Koji Murata: President Obama’s Concerns
In response to the two preceding presentations, Prof. Murata discussed the pro-democracy movements in the Middle East from the perspective of the political situation of the United States.
In the wake of the recent pro-democracy movements in the Middle East, the U.S. government was forced to deal not only with the governments but also the citizens of Middle Eastern countries. In Western countries, reasonably reliable media such as newspapers and TV are widely available, allowing people to check uncertain information circulating on the Internet and thus avoid being misled by wild rumors. This is not the case for nations with an authoritative regime, where media outlets have been long controlled by the government and thus lost citizens’ trust, while citizens also feel doubtful of the rapidly developing new types of media. It should be noted that such a situation can cause citizens great confusion.
In terms of demographics, the Middle Eastern countries have a large youth population, which indicates the high likelihood of an increasing number of young people moving across borders and engaging in radical activities. Seen from a longer-term perspective, however, it is expected that a demographic change will eventually exert a huge influence on the politics of the Middle East and international society. Prof. Paul Kennedy, a historian at Yale University, predicts that the Arab population will grow exponentially and achieve overwhelming dominance over the Israeli population by 2050. In this light, it is clear that Israel’s ongoing hard-line policy against Arabs cannot be sustained for long. Israel should be aware of this fact, and the U.S. should be led to change its current policy.
However, the U.S. government cannot take action with such a long-term perspective in mind. While U.S. troops have started withdrawing from Afghanistan, this withdrawal plan clearly indicates that the Middle East policy (and Asia policy) of the U.S. for 2012 can be largely affected by the outcome of the presidential election scheduled for November 6, 2012.
Though the chance of the incumbent president winning re-election is 68%, the Obama administration has met with a serious problem: the continued stagnation of the domestic economy and, especially, the high unemployment rate, which rose from 7.8% at the time of the inauguration of Obama as president to 9.2%. In American history, no president has won re-election when the employment rate in the month prior to the presidential election exceeded 8%. A research firm conducted a questionnaire survey to find out how American living standards changed from the time of Obama’s inauguration to the present. In this survey, 34% of the respondents indicated “living standards rose” while 44% replied “living standards lowered.” In fact, in the presidential election in 1980, Ronald Reagan, as a Republican candidate, asked the same question to American citizens and won an overwhelming victory over Democrat Jimmy Carter.
In this light, the 2012 presidential election is fraught with much uncertainty, making it difficult for the U.S. government to implement its Middle East policy from a long-term perspective. We should take into consideration these circumstances of the U.S. when looking at the situation of the Middle East. With this remark, Prof. Murata concluded his presentation.
These three presentations were followed by a panel discussion, which addressed the following topics: the relationship between Islam’s shift to more moderate policies and progress in democracy; humanitarian intervention; the move of Palestine toward independence; and the influence of U.S. policy toward Israel on the Middle East.
(Research Fellow, CISMOR, Doshisha University)
*This lecture will be given in Japanese.
*Admission Free, No Reservation Necessary.
Hosted by: CISMOR
Co-hosted by: School of Theology, Doshisha University