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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Tree of Democracy [2]

A tree in the sun
What can trees teach us about democracy?

Part Two

"Democracy must be an organic thing; local to its soil, watered and pruned by its elected gardeners and checked by independent gardeners, all towards a common goal - so that it may bear fruit, and stand tidy and sturdy against the changing seasons and the passage of time. Only under such a tree will people of all persuasions be able to enjoy the protection of its peaceful shade, to sit and satiate their hunger for the accumulation of wisdom and knowledge consumed on the fruits grown from its progress."
Ali Yildirim (Read more quotes)

As we search for the meaning to democracy, on the issue of Egypt and the treatment of the Gezi Park protesters, is it a question of Islam, as the Islamophobes would have us believe, or do the failings go deeper, to the question of democracy itself?

If democracy only means the free election of governing representatives designated to protect the interests of those who elected them, then Erdoğan's stubborn backing of the brutal police handling of the Gezi Park protesters wasn't undemocratic by those limited terms alone. He was protecting the interests of his majority; the protesters - even when they went nationwide - still did not make up 1% of the population. If Erdoğan's party continues to enjoy widespread popularity he will get elected again - and whether we like it or not - the people electing him into power are as conservative and religious as any red-blooded, honest-to-goodness white, God-fearing Republican in America with a NRA clubcard.

Fascism, now Islamism - you can add an -ism to almost anything you're anti-to or that you wish to venerate. Pretty soon the enlightened among us realise we will have some of them at home. I'm sure in the upper echelons of American society, those leading lights of the Hollywood célèbre for example, there will be those who liken Republican "old world" views to the Nazism of the previous century - although I can't remember many countersigning letters to George W. Bush accusing him of Nazi overtones as he signed in the Patriot Acts in 2001, as they did with Erdoğan for rallying his party members in a national show of support during the park protests. It may be they are looking for a script sequel to "Midnight Express" - who can tell? - but as Hollywood celebrities do not speak as moral arbiters for an entire film industry, neither are Republicans - or their leaders like Bush - representative of the whole of America. Erdoğan and his supporters don't represent the entire of Turkey, either.

So, is the problem with democracy itself? It certainly seems to be an increasingly frustrating and disappointing concept for most of the demos, or people, ostensibly in charge of electing parties to govern on their behalf. Some believe this is the reason for the increasing low turn outs in elections carried out in (what we call with unbelievable arrogance) "civilised" nations. As governance of nations begin to mirror each other across the world, people are becoming more and more uncertain that their vote means something any more. The number of voters who show up at the voting poles in countries like America, Britain and Europe, has been slowly but surely decreasing, leading to the election of those representing the majority of those who voted, not of the voting electorate as a whole.

But isn't this the description of democracy we have been selling the rest of the "uncivilised" world? If in Egypt those in power have slaughtered their own people, and explained it away by labelling them as terrorists against the state, then some could argue it's a "democratic trick" learnt from the West. In even more democratic trickery, Erdoğan believes - if you listen to his aggressive speeches - that once you've been voted in by a large majority, it is somehow meant to give you free reign, bolstered by continual successes and a weak opposition, until the next elections come along. Is democracy simply an opportunity for people to freely use their vote every four or more years? Does the description of democracy, therefore, begin and end with the ballot box as a peaceful process of the people's will? Can the actions of those in power be excused away as long as it is done under the pretext of the people's will?

Although many of us in the West feel that Islam is the problem we hold against the failings of democracy, is the truth of the matter really that the Western style of democracy is the problem? The West has been working so hard on its policy to insert their version of democracy wherever they don't agree with the locals' political choices, that they have ignored their own ailing democracies. Naturally there is democracy in the West - we who live here all enjoy it - but due to its organic nature we have misunderstood it, and so believed we could simply plant democracies in different soils across the world for the people there to have similar enjoyment, and it would take root and spring up as if by magic.

But if democracy is not the ballot box, what is it? In 2009, the year US President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he made his first trip to the Middle East as president. Visiting Egypt, Obama spoke of a new approach to relations with the Islamic world. At a speech at Cairo University he told the world that he had come "to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

Let's give ourselves a moment for the pathos to set in - before we get back to the real world where unfortunately that mutuality never existed. Seen from an Eastern perspective - the bias that quickly took hold against Erdoğan over Gezi park, and the political treatment given to the crisis in Egypt - it looked as though the West subconsciously saw Western democratisation as a mass conversion to a tepid form of Judeao-Christianity. Christendom the Sequel: The white man's burden retconned as a peaceful movement as it were - when once billions of people were slaughtered throughout history to civilise the barbarian (and steal their resources) from their own homes, now they were being spoon-fed some re-imagined ideology for trade.

The West once conquered places full of Eastern promise of energy and metal resources, it now does indeed have a responsibility to the people in those lands, but if we in the West are quick to fall prey to our biases, then we are likely to be hoisted by our own petard. Was it our democracy that made us "civilised", or that we got rich off the "rape and pillage" of these lands and thus were able to pursue progress in areas of education, science and technology in the culture of freedom democracy afforded to the wealthy? If we don't come to a clear understanding, we will have Muslims distrust democracy and see it as some Western virus implanted to hack into their religion, rather than the OS programming within which all faith-based systems can peacefully co-exist. True democracy isn't an enemy of any one faith over another, it is the defender of all faith-based beliefs because it is the follower of none.

As someone who is a passionate believer of democracy, I get worried when supposedly rational people point to the tightening of alcohol legislation in Turkey as evidence of Erdoğan being "undemocratic", or that somehow democracy is viewed as a way to be more "Western", because democracy cannot be reduced to how restrictive or liberal its laws are, either. If we keep arguing on the subconscious bias that democracy is somehow pushing one culture, one belief or one faith, then we can't blame those Muslims who will see democracy as something that makes them forgo their religious piety, allows their children to get intoxicated on alcohol, or their neighbours to bear arms against each other in the name of democratisation. Democracy quickly begins to sound like the freedom of the black ghettos in America, where gun and alcohol shops were freely placed on "every street corner" to keep them uneducated and in their ghettos.

When Obama visited Egypt and spoke of a new approach to relations with the Islamic world, I'm sure he did not have this in mind. I am sure many believed that the Arab Spring could be a new beginning. I was worried because it lacked any vision of real democracy, and I was even more concerned that so many people really did not have a strong understanding of what democracy is meant to be - either in the East or the West. Why were we so surprised, when after the Arab Spring, Islamic governments sprung up in Muslim majority countries?

People do not adhere to the Islamic faith because they are uneducated or poor; Muslim adherents are as passionate about their beliefs as Jews, Christians, Buddhists and other religious people are, and if we somehow believed we could dissuade them from their beliefs via democracy, then we have a poor understanding of what democracy is from both sides. Democracy is not just some civilisation package touting the majority will, or one-size-fits-all pre-fit model that can be issued in America and shipped off to various countries. If we believe it is, then we have reduced democracy to simply a system of counting heads, or one that pushes a majority belief because of its voting power, to the detriment of dissenting minorities who have a right to enjoy the peaceful pursuit of their beliefs just as much as the majority.

When we reduce democracy to a system, than we have to realise that any system can become corrupted over time, or inflexible, so as to splinter and crack with inevitable change. It can be taken over and abused. When that happens, history has shown that even the most "democratic" institutions and laws can become a cage, especially when used as an excuse for the safety of the state.

People are first herded into this metaphorical cage temporarily, until their "safety" has been secured, and then they are told to remain in there so that the state can become more efficient and economically strong - and of course easier to control. The state is placed above its people, behind the pretence of defending the rights of the majority. It's labelled as the common good, not for all - this is where the sleight hand of fascism lies - but the state. The state is no longer the people, but the people running it, and if that is in the hands of one man or leadership - and if that leader happens to be insane - then you get the creation of such historical examples as Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler even had a term for it, the Führerprinzip, or Leader Principle.

The horrors of history always lurk in the shadows. If we bring them into the light, their shadows shrink back and we are left illuminated. Discussion tends to illuminate. When I taught law in Cyprus for a few a years during my stay there, I used to give a free-for-all question-answer session at the end of lessons where the students could ask anything they wanted to test me on, and it was there I formulated the idea of democracy being like a tree. On the island we knew the devastation that could be caused to the natural habitat by forcefully introducing a different genus of tree to the area; we also knew that trees were equated with life, and the best ones took time to grow in, and of their own soil.

Likewise, those Q&As gradually created a rapport where the students felt the situation between them and and teacher was sort of equalised - they weren't they only ones who felt they were being examined all the time. But it was also a good way for us to learn from one another, and these sessions became so popular we eventually had other students drop in to participate in the discussions. At one point, the group became too large for the study room, and we moved it to the university's indoor amphitheatre.

The talk would eventually get round to democracy, and as this was round about the time of the Iraq War, it was a central issue on the minds of my students. It wasn't too hard to see the endgame of the American-led war even before it happened; the shadows of that history stretch far across the Middle East. I wrote about it, and sadly the present day hasn't proven my fears wrong - as my posts show. There is no glory in saying "I knew it would happen"; there is only shame, because it's knowing and not being able to do anything. It's at such times you wish you're proven wrong with all your heart. But we often ignore the logic of history, and if we were more up on our history lessons, we would know that democracy works in strange ways. Sometimes the best intentions of its representatives pave all kinds of roads to political purgatory.

American interventionist foreign policies went through a time where those living outside their cultural boundaries weren't seen as "people" like American citizens were (a few exceptions notwithstanding), and could be (mis)treated accordingly. The year 1983 is a good example, and was one of the most dangerous years of the entire Cold War. The USSR was seen as "an animal at bay" that had to be either caged or terminated. In an article about how the world had come to the brink of nuclear war, this is how MSN UK News explains it*:

US president Ronald Reagan had enraged and alarmed the Soviets with his denunciation of the USSR as the "evil empire", his plans for a "Star Wars" ballistic missile shield in space, and the deployment of US nuclear cruise missiles to Europe ... When British prime minister Margaret Thatcher [held talks] with Mr Reagan in the White House, the president had railed against the "paranoiac" tendencies of the Soviet leadership. According to [notes] of the meeting, Reagan told Thatcher that it was "always necessary to remember that we were dealing with people who were not like us".

But for all her uncompromising reputation as the Iron Lady, the record shows that Mrs Thatcher was anxious to ensure Mr Reagan did not close off the possibility of future dialogue. "We all had to live on the same planet. We must then stay calm and make it plain that we still wanted to negotiate," she had told him."

There is also an interesting story that claims Reagan finally tuned into the realities of a nuclear war, not because millions of people around the world might die, but by a TV drama showing American citizens dealing with a nuclear outbreak on their very turf. It was called "The Day After", and if the rumours are true, we don't have common sense or some Christian belief in the sanctity of life, but dramatical fiction to thank for injecting some reason into Reagan. If true, it goes down in the annals of history as the TV film drama that helped turn the tide against nuclear warfare.

What exactly did Reagan understand by the term "democracy"? To speak of democracy as some rigid line drawn in the sand by a bloodied finger - with a "them versus us" scenario - isn't helpful let alone democratic. Neither is it helpful or accurate to see democracy as a line drawn between succeeding elects, who when they move an inch too far to the right of it are cast down as undemocratic, or to see those who inch too much to the left as a danger to state unity or cohesion. Furthermore, if Reagan was an inch too much to the right to the line of democracy, what of George W. Bush? If the libertarianism of Bill Clinton was to emphasise to the American public that, "Hey - everyone is human just like we are, we gotta understand the ones willing to listen", then this was maladapted when America had its epiphany with violence at the turn of the century.

When the effects of American foreign policy finally did show up on its home turf, those elected into power decided for reasons of national security that if everyone is human just like they were, all they needed was to be democratised (read that as Americanised) to be treated equally - and got it wrong again.

In wanting to sow the seeds of American democracy and make the world a better place (from what was effectively the results of their own interventionist foreign policies) Bush and his dictators of American foreign policy overcompensated. They went from one extreme to the other - from wanting to eradicate the enemy to forcefully democratising it with the red, white and blue.

This was eventually extended to voices of dissent in America, too. When you open a door, it opens both ways. Americanised came to mean "you're either with us or against us" - and anyone who spoke up against Bush was seen as unpatriotic if you were a citizen, and an enemy of the state either way.

An example that stands out in memory is that of American country music band the Dixie Chicks, who tried to criticise the politics of Bush. During a London concert ten days before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, lead vocalist Natalie Maines said, "we don't want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas". The positive reaction to this statement from the British audience contrasted with the boycotts that ensued in the US, where the band was assaulted by talk-show conservatives, while their albums were discarded in public protest.

The third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was wrongly attributed to have said, "dissent is the highest form of patriotism", but whoever said it, it would have been more accurate to say that dissent is only possible in the highest forms of democracy. Falling to an all time low, the world watched while Bush dragged America's through the mud.

Bush's democratic America had finally arrived, and its spiel went something like this: If you're with us, then you won't mind having your freedoms restricted for the sake of national security - so we'll pass the Patriot Acts. You won't mind if we torture detainees who are from countries we are not at war with just to gather intelligence, and imprison them in secret cells, and completely ignore the Geneva convention because this is not a normal war, but one against terrorism in the name of democracy and freedom.

Skimming on the surface of fascism, Bush had cast his stones far and wide. The most immediate inheritors of this legacy were the Guantanamo Bay detention camp detainees - held without due process in law, force-fed and mistreated, and conveniently forgotten because they are somehow lesser human beings. We can't call them guilty, for it's 2013 and still no trial has taken place (military or otherwise). What if some of these people are innocent? What if all of them are guilty? Has their inhumane detention stopped Al-Qaeda? Or has it just served as recruitment fodder to radicalise disenchanted people? Moreover, to those Muslims distrustful of democracy, it must seem as if democracy is no defence to liberty unless you are of a certain religious persuasion.

It also sent a message that as long as you labelled someone a terrorist against the state, and a danger to society, you could do anything you liked to them. To some of Bush's detractors in the West, during his "war on terror" he sounded more and more like the dictator he was trying to depose in Iraq - proving a point that in war you can ultimately become the monster you fight. Yet, he was re-elected on this précis; good friends of mine, who are some of the kindest most intelligent people you will meet, gave their vote to Bush on this premise.

Was this what democracy had come to mean? Despite those of us outside of America's cultural boundaries who had faith in its democracy - as one of the best working examples of its kind - Bush's vision was successfully sold to the majority elect, as rational minded people simply stood by and watched. Although some at the time (those great thinkers outside of Hollywood royalty) did compare this to the same sheepish submissiveness that characterised Germany after the burning of the Reichstag to initiate the beginnings of the Nazi state, I was not one of them.

Nazi Germany was the most efficient state to come out of 20th Century history - taking a country from economic collapse to a global power in a few years - it was also the most heinous and corrupt and murderous, because the good of the state was no longer the will of the people, but of one insane, racist individual. In Bush's America, it was simply disbelief and a misguided faith in the concept of democracy that kept groups of people from standing up - as well as growing economic decline and a myriad of other factors.

It possibly proved the sentiment that fear is a greater inhibitor of intelligence than ignorance, yet our inaccuracies (and self-importance) over what democracy means in the West helped Bush majorly.

The War on Terror was to achieve what some insane little man hiding away in a concrete bunker in Pakistan could never have achieved, and for those of us who realised this at the start of the Iraqi War, we knew that 9/11 was the day something other than innocent lives were lost in the world's most powerful democracy.

One of the most prosperous trees in the world had been cut down, and by the very gardener elected to defend it.

Part one | End of part two

Read more about the Gezi Park protests >>

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