Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Arab Democracy as Western-cum-Human Heritage?

An article craftily, albeit, subtly entitled 'Arab World Strive to Reclaim Democracy as Human Heritage' has left me with mixed feelings. The text, written by someone referred to as Dr. Gwynne Dyer, an independent, London-based journalist whose column is published in 45 countries around the world appeared in The Citizen on Monday 7 March 2011. It starts with a powerful critique of Western/Eurocentric analyses of what is currently happening in the so-called Arab world. However, it ends up subscribing to what Edward W. Said dubbed Orientalism.

Dyer's open salvo is a satire of the way the Western media is "struggling to come to term with the notion of Arab democracy" though "the Arabs themselves seem clear enough on the concept of democratic revolution." To the Western media, which Dyer seems to distance from at least in this regard, the "implied assumption, sometime flatly stated" is (and herein lie the satire):

"...whether Arabs can really build democratic states. After all, they have no previous experience of democracy, and it's basically a Western invention, isn't it? The Arabs don't even have Athens and the Romans republic up their family tree. Sure the revolutions are brave, and they're exhilarating to watch from afar, but in the end the military will take over, or the Islamist will take over, or they'll mess it up some other way."

Dyer then unpack, eloquently I may say, the orientalist discourse behind this assumption "that still underpins much of the outside comment and analysis of the Arab revolutions":

"The current rationale for this arrogant and ignorant assumption is the 'clash of civilizations' tripe that [the late] Sam Huntington and his pals have been peddling around the official circuit in Washington for almost two decades now."

The columnist continues to offer what he modestly calls "a little deconstruction" of this discourse that blindly lead the "Western media" to be in "astonishment and disbelief" when "when the Arabs start overthrowing their rulers in non-violent revolutions that are just about democracy, not about Islam or Israel":

"What makes the Arabs suitable candidates for democracy is their heritage as human beings, not their specific cultural or historical antecedents. Democracy didn't need to be invented; just resurrected".

What a seemingly benign little deconstruction! It can even remind us of this famous assertion made by Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere:

But, alas, Dyer summersaults and returns the orientalist discourse of the ‘western man’ as the prototype of the ‘modern man’ – the ‘democratic human’:

“Modern democracy first appeared in the West only because the West was the first to develop mass communications. It was technological advantage, not a cultural one – and as literacy and the technology of mass communications have spread around the world, all other mass societies have begun to reclaim their heritage too. The Arabs need no instruction in democracy from anybody else. They own it too”.

Oh yeah, Dyer, they are beginning to “reclaim” and “own” it “too” after waiting “a couple of hundred years while literacy spreads” even though they, like you, didn’t “have to wait for Facebook” when all they – and we – could have done is to “invent the printing press” and “presto” the “revolution revolutions begin”!

Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Batutta as well as Zheng He and Marco Polo, if one may reclaim again that famous adage, must be turning in their graves!

What a disappointing orientalist end for a promising humanist start Dr. Dyer!


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