First of all, let me clarify that not all Muslims rebel, but some do. Not all rebellions are about self-determination, but some are. Civilization and international peace and security will pay a steep price if the only answer to Muslim discontent is bloody fists, not democratic openings. A survey past and present edifies.
Today, most refugees are Muslim, for example Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, etc. Most American military bases are hosted by predominantly Muslim countries, for example, Bahrain, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc. But refugees are also Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, animists, or otherwise. And American military bases exist in important non-Muslim countries too, for example, Germany, Japan, and South Korea. In other words, turmoil and belligerency crosses religious or ethnic lines.
The same can be said of self-determination and democracy struggles. East Timorese were Christians opposing domination by Indonesia’s Muslim majority. Namibia gained self-determination by defeating South Africa’s apartheid. Muslim Eritrea gained self-determination against Christian Ethiopia. The Mexican, American, and Chinese revolutions were engineered without Muslim faces. In sum, peoples of varying religions, races, and cultures have sought self-determination or democracy. The struggles are not idiomatic with Muslims. In sum, oppressed peoples rebel and seek self-determination irrespective of religious creed.
Some so-called experts ask: Are Islam and democracy compatible? The answer is, yes. Think of Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Islam contains the seeds of democratic practices and habits every bit as much as non-Muslim religions. Islamic scholars cite the principal of Shura or consultative decision-making. Islam also erects no stark hierarchy of religious authority like the Roman Catholic Church. In fashioning the compact of Medina, the Holy Prophet Mohammad employed revelations from God to create a timeless constitution, yet also sought the consent of all who would be affected by its implementation. President Thomas Jefferson thus borrowed from the Holy Prophet in the Declaration of Independence in speaking of government by the consent of the governed.
The credibility of proponents of democracy in the Islamic world is impaired by their historical and contemporary equivocations or hypocrisy. Britain was no tribune for Islamic democracy during its colonial heyday in India, Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, Sudan, Jordan, Iraq, Oman, Yemen, or the Persian Gulf emirates. France struggled against Muslim self-determination and democracy in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. The Netherlands neglected to celebrate democracy in Indonesia. The United States supports flagrantly anti-democratic regime today in Egypt and elsewhere. In sum, western democracies place self-interest and national security considerations above Islamic democracy when the two clash.
Civil strife and tumult is risked if democracy does not take the Muslim world by storm. By an overwhelming majority, Muslims covet democracy and are willing to make enormous sacrifices towards that end. Indeed, a comprehensive survey published in 2003 by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that many Muslims polled clamored more loudly for political freedoms than Eastern Europeans, most notably Bulgarians and Russians. The Pew findings were echoed in 2004 surveys conducted by Pipu Norris of Harvard University and Rob Inglehart of the University of Michigan. Muslims decisively prefer democracy to any other form of government, and many nations in the Muslim world claim a democratic mantle, including Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Muslims are receiving inconsistent messages from the west. First, they are told that immediate democratization is urgent. Then they are told Islam is incompatible with democracy, and thus free elections are to be feared because risking a reprise of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and rule by benighted mullahs and Grand Ayatollahs. Algeria employed that excuse to cancel 1992 elections, which were destined to be captured by an Islamic party and Egypt did the same in 2013.
Muslims do not dislike the United States or Great Britain or the West, but they often oppose their foreign policies that pursue national interests over consistency or moral justice. The West rejoiced at jihad to oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, but then denounced it against itself. The United States aided Saddam Hussein when he invaded Iran because fearful that the Khomeini revolution might gobble up the Persian Gulf, but then warred twice against Saddam over Kuwait, weapons of mass destruction, and support for terrorism.
Non-democratic regimes in Muslim countries are explained not by religion, but by history, politics, culture, and economic traditions. The United States, like every other country, forges ties with those regimes, which support its interests. Human rights, accountability, and democracy are subordinated. International relations are not exercises in altruism. What might be changed is the United States perception of what are its best interests in the Muslim world. Thus, the United States stumbled in believing that replacing the democrat Mossadegh with the monarchical Shah in Iran would advance its global agenda in the long run. It did not. Dr. Nazir Gilani, President, JKCHR has warned: “Although we hold an undisputable belief that human rights are for all, should know them, demand them and defend them, yet we see this universal faith being savaged under pressures of economic interests.”
At least 750 million Muslims thrive in democratic societies of varying genres. That discredits the effort by some western scholars and ideologues to present Islam as inherently inferior to western liberalism, authoritarian, and anti-democratic. It is a historical fact that Benazir Bhutto was the first female head of the state elected in a Muslim majority country – Pakistan. And America still awaits.
Muslims, like others, cherish self-determination. Self-determination of peoples has been an established human right since World War I and President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points. The concept played a leading role in the post-war settlement, and a few plebiscites were held in disputed border areas. The United Nations, formed after World War II, celebrates self-determination in Article 1.2 as a major objective. Self-determination has been enshrined in countless international documents and treaties that an enumeration must be forgone as a concession to the shortness of life. However, largely, self-determination was honored more in the breach than in the observance.
The woolly principle of self-determination, like the principle of nuclear non-proliferation, has been employed according to big power politics, not according to high moral standards or consistency. Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Bosnia have been recognized as separate nations out of former Yugoslavia by the United Nations, but Kosovo has not been. Likewise, big powers agreed in 1948 that the people of Kashmir have the right to self-determination but this pledge was never fulfilled until iodate. Dr. Nazir Gilani refers to a historical debate “when United States and Great Britain decided in November 1947 and August 1951 to take the Kashmir issue to ICJ. Over the years, these two countries have been dragging feet on the human rights situation in Kashmir and do not want to disturb Indian market by challenging India under her responsibilities under the Charter, under the limited Instrument of Accession and under the UN template on Kashmir.”
The international community and the United States in particular employ double standards, as is customary in human beings individually in both public and private life. The gist of the double standard is this. The Muslim world is urged to practice democracy, yet told to abandon the practice if likely to lead to the election of parties or candidates feared by the United States. Algeria in 1992, Iran in 1953 and Egypt in 2013 are exemplary.
I am not against the idea of self-determination, if tempered by prudence and practicality. Indeed, I believe self-determination is the answer, not the problem in Kashmir and some other convulsed territories. But the world of politics and international relations do not lend themselves to Euclidean formulas.
In the end, I can say with confidence that people of any religion will turn to violence when peaceful avenues of dissent or opposition are closed. We must listen carefully as well as speak forcefully for all international conflicts, be it Palestine, Myanmar or Kashmir.
(Dr. Fai is the Secretary General of Washington-based World Kashmir Awareness Forum. He can be reached at 1-202-607-6435 or firstname.lastname@example.org)