Social Evolution is Painfully Slow

Should liberals bite the bullet and side with the right of a conservative society to govern itself?

The backstory of this is not without irony: the tribals and islamists of Kuwait who are so vehemently anti-freedom have been the ones pushing for an elected government and calling others to respect freedom of speech as they notch up their rhetoric against the regime. Both calls have only become of convenience to the two factions in recent times when their personal link to power, Sheikh Ahmad al Fahad, was shut off.

Seeing this local episode of Game of Thrones play out may be discouraging for many to meddle with its politics. “It’s not about democracy” and “we are wiser not to take sides” are words often repeated by those who seem to implicitly deny the evolution of politics in Kuwait. This passive group of people also includes intellectuals who take their time to poke fun at the many contradictions of the opposition. In my several attempts to engage them in the debate, they would quickly brush off the demands for reform by pointing that Kuwait is clearly skipping a chapter here. In the European book, the process starts with philosophers writing extensively about democracy. And because the opposition in Kuwait is nowhere near the intellectual movement of Europe, we should be skeptical. Sure, nothing would be more reassuring than a democratic movement with a solid foundation in liberal philosophy. But if we don’t have that assurance, where can we look for similar instances of revolutionary irony? Perhaps the world’s second largest democracy can tip us off.

When Americans called for freedom from British oppression, they did so while maintaining a slave society. And when they declared independence in 1776, the slave population had grown to 500,000, about one-fifth of the new nation’s residents. And while Americans experienced a fight against an oppressive government in the Revolutionary War, slavery continued to prosper for a century after the birth of a country built on egalitarian principles. So should I state the obvious, that slavery is the mother of all injustice and oppression? Or that America still ended up with a free society? Maybe they got lucky, but what’s for sure is that societal evolution takes different paths. And what’s promising is that many societies, despite the undeniable irony in their struggles, seem to have reached the same destination.

Many continue to confuse democracy (as a system) with the humanist values that have been attached to it, neglecting the fact that these values have mostly settled through democracy and accumulated over many generations. At its core, democracy functions as a basic set of rules to resolve political conflict in a civil manner. Its main benefit in the short run is in reducing the prospects for violence (and civil war) and sustaining longer periods of peace. Its real magic, however, lies in the long run as it engages society in other questions relating to freedom, like: should individuals be free to believe what they want and love whom they want?

Democracy effectively shifts the basis of power from dominance through force to influence through ideas. Those who are skeptical of the introduction of democracy in a religious society want to rid people first of the fundamentalist ideas before we make this shift. Their reasoning rests on the assumption that religious ideas are harder to fight when coupled with political power. Although I disagree with this opinion for reasons beyond the scope of this post, I would still concede that it’s plausible. But there’s irony in hoping to shoot the bad ideas down under the same status quo that made them flourish and forbids others from the license to operate and spread alternative ideas.

Still, I wouldn’t blame the skeptics for the absence of good options. But what if the last thing we want to happen - Islamists coming into power - turns out to be the one thing we need to happen? Consider the developing story of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the words of Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd in their analysis of Muslim-country modernization: “Political victory is inevitably followed by cultural defeat.”

We all agree that the journey to freedom is a long one. But could there be a shortcut? Yes. Consider a benevolent ruler who can unilaterally protect the freedom of individuals from their own society. Would that work? Not for long, no. Autocrats and minority-backed regimes are inherently fragile. Egyptians woke up to a Salafi parliament because their secular autocrat couldn’t last a month under popular protests. Three decades and more of secular rule with top-down enforcement didn’t help enlighten their society, either. On the contrary, every systemic failure of the secular regime seems to have provided a nice boost to their ideological enemy: Islamists. What I mean to say is that if you care for a free society, this approach has been proven to backfire. So again, if taming islamists with a secular autocracy didn’t work out for them, how do you think it’d play out for us, seeing how our leadership has pampered them for decades? Tell me, should I feel any safe that the Emir rejected the death penalty for blasphemy when, in my own household, I have a nephew who thought this is how it must be?

Society must seek to grow out of autocratic rule with a single priority: minimizing the prospects for violent conflict. It should then evolve itself in the same way everything else has: through trial and error. Let people make the painful mistake of electing islamists to office, and let islamists fail and try to cling to power. The faster we get to that point, the faster we can get past it. And if there’s a lesson to be learned from the Arab Spring, it is that inhibition of evolutionary reform demands will only lead to revolutionary acts, violence, and more sectarianism. Time is of the essence, and poking fun at an opposition facing imprisonment doesn’t reveal intellect. It reveals a lack of empathy at precisely the time we need it the most.