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Expert examines nations’ democratization

KYLE WITZIGMAN | Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Politicians often speak to democratization in the Middle East, but rarely about how the process works. On Tuesday, Dr. Ali Mazrui picked up where they left off, with his lecture “Democratizing Muslim Societies from Above and Below: Between Atatürk and Tahrir Square” in the Hesburgh Center for International Studies.

Before the lecture, Scott Appleby, director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies introduced Mazrui as “one of the leading thinkers about Islam politics and culture in the world.”

Mazrui, Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at Binghamton University and Senior Fellow at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, said his talk focused on Ataturk and Tahrir Square because these revolutions represented the most striking examples of democratization from above and below, respectively, in the history of the Middle East.

“The most spectacular [example] of democracy above is still the case of revolution of Atatürk in 1920s and 1930s,” Mazrui said. “The most spectacular [example] of democracy below is in Tunisia and Tahrir Square in Cairo – which ousted Hosni Mubarak in February of 2011.” 

Mazrui said the revolution of Ataturk, which brought democracy to Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s, is still remembered in Turkey and other Muslim nations. He said when visiting the Middle East he has seen images of the Atatürk Revolution all over the place.

Mazrui also said the Ataturk revolution in many ways “westernized” Turkey.

“Turkey’s democratization from above was simultaneously Turkey’s westernization from above,” he said.

This has led Muslims in other nations to wonder whether or not such westernization is an inevitable part of becoming more democratic, Mazrui said. Throughout the Muslim world people are asking themselves the same question, he said.

“Can we liberally democratize without culturally westernizing?,” he said.

Mazrui also said there was a strong link between education and modernity, as well as between empowering women and modernity, in Turkish society. 

Mazrui then transitioned to a discussion of democratization from below. His example for this form of democratization was the recent revolution in Egypt sparked by the Tahrir Square protests.

He said the Tahrir Square revolution as an example of democratization from below highlights one drawback of this approach.

“Democratization from below was effective in ending the old [regime] rather than starting a new [regime],” he said. “The Tahrir Square Revolution ousted the old empire, but it’s hard to tell the influence it will have later.”

The importance of women in the liberalization of the Arab world was also highlighted in Egypt’s revolution, Mazrui said.

“Women were very visible participants in the Tahrir protests,” he said. “Historically, Egypt led the way with women’s liberation.”

Mazrui said the main problem going forward in Egypt is the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, which has left Egyptians thinking they can remove each succeeding president.

“Egyptian populations feel if you have appointed a President and he has not delivered the goods that you want, then you should throw him out,” Mazrui said. “It is a ridiculous situation in Egypt because it has resulted in major reverses in the social liberalizations and the deaths of at least a thousand people since the uprisings took off.” 

Mazrui said the number of pro-democratic uprisings in the Arab world in recent years is unprecedented in the course of history. He also said this democratization in the Arab world can continue, especially if the secrets of revolutions like those of Ataturk and Tahrir Square are uncovered and employed.

“[The] empowerment of women to the top of the political scale is one such secret,” Mazrui said.