From western Africa to central Asia, Muslim countries are experiencing various degrees of political instability, turmoil, violence or civil war. A partial list includes Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon.
The circumstances in each country differ somewhat, but they all share two troubling similarities. First, to a large extent, the factor behind much of the violence and contentiousness is the struggle between militant, fundamentalist Islam and some more moderate version of the religion.
The second common denominator behind the ongoing strife afflicting these nations is the unfamiliarity or incompetence of their societies with the practices of democracy and, furthermore, the incomplete state of democratic structures and institutions within the countries.
If we look at an obvious example — Afghanistan — we see a country of 32 million, most of whom live in villages without connection to the central government, and for whom our notion of “big” democracy seems unrelated to their tribal or religious lives. In addition, their practice of Islam is being terrorized on the right by the Taliban, and on the left it is being challenged by the young, by modernity and by alien Western values.
The realities in Afghanistan — not least of which is the corrupt Karzai government — ensure that we Americans cannot alone create peace and democracy there.
In Egypt in February 2011, all of the opposition was united against President Mubarak. They wanted his authoritarian rule gone, and then they would create something more akin to a democracy. Today, Egypt is struggling to craft a democracy, and simultaneously fighting Islamic ideologues who would constrain Egyptian liberalism in the name of fealty to Islamic religious strictures. It is unclear where President Morsi wants Egyptian democracy to go.
It’s all a reminder — especially to Americans, who have historically known only democracy, and who are good at actually practicing it — of the incredible difficulty of harmoniously running a country with millions of diverse peoples, diverse religions, varying values, and differing economic and educational circumstances. It’s a reminder that a government in a democracy makes decisions, exercises power and provides order, but does it through representative institutions that respect the people — and conversely — the people respect and accept the institutions and their exercise of power. In any democracy, this reciprocal relationship is always simultaneously resilient and fragile.