Nowadays, all the talks, activities, turmoils, and events occuring in the middle east seem to be centered around the idea of democracy and freedom of expression. People on one side demanding to receive democracy and their freedom, while other sides go around trumpeting that they have already given democracy to their citizens. In Iraq, democracy is the the hot word. In Lebanon, democracy is the hot word. In Bahrain, in Kuwait, in Egypt. Even in Saudi Arabia, it seems democracy is being discussed.
Which leads one to wonder, is democracy simply institutions, or do you also need the general mentality and atmosphere of democracy to prevail in all spheres of society? Is it enough to have a system of democracy when the people themselves don't seem to fully understand the basic tenents of democracy?
Let me explain. I'm currently living in what is considered the birthplace of modern democracy. This place has had nearly 1000 years with some form or another of parliament. Foreigners who come here always marvel at how well the machines of democracy are oiled here, even down to the most trivial aspects. AND IT IS TRUE. If you look at what is available here and ocmpare to what we have back home, all you can do is despair.
For example, the other day I was reading the mail. We had received a letter from our local council about our particular street. Apparently the street was being rennovated, and they wanted our opinion. There was a whole brochure painstakingly describing all the areas where changes were sought with the different options available, with boxes for us to tick our desired choice. There was the general outline of the street. Did we want it cobbled or just plane asphalt? How about the general decoration on the street? There was a hippy design, a green leefy design, and a more swanky modern design. Then there were the street lamps. Did we want a classical look or a more unorthodox design? How about the greenery decorating the place? Pine trees, flowers, or just plain shrubs? EVEN THE GODDAMN TRASH BINS had a choice as well. There was a classic wooden shape, a modern metallic artistic shape, or just plain old black.
And this was in some anonymous bland suburb on the edge of the city. Now I know that it will probably be bored housewifes or old people who are most bothered to reply , but imagine: you can have an input into how you want the street that you live on and pass by everyday to look. Now please can anyone tell me if they can imagine that in Bahrain? Can you imagine your local councillor or mayor coming down to ask you what kind of bricks you want laid out on the street? Can you imagine someone taking your opinion for A DUSTBIN TO BE EVEN INSTALLED, let alone what shape and colour it should be?
Then I get on the bus to go to college. Lo and behold, up on the bus is a sign from the city council. Apparently the locally elected bus committee is meeting to discuss improvements to the bus system. ALL THOSE INTERESTED COULD ATTEND. They were discussing everything from fares down to the tapestry design that should be in the buses. How many of you have ever heard of a local committe to look over AlNAKL AL 3AM?
Then I reach college. Now I have been elected to be social secretary of my college graduate community, which is made up of no more than 103 people with only 50 people being earnestly active. For this small amount, there is a general committee, a president, a treasurer, a secretary, social secretary, general representatives, academic representatives, social subcomittee, academic subcomittee, long term strategy committee, and even a bar committee. Being social secretary, I'm supposed to organize events, dinners, and parties for these chaps, and I get hassled down to the last minute detail about them. I even got hassled with a "constructive debate" about what type of linen I was ordering for the dinner! GODDAMN LINEN!
Now believe me, being from the Middle East, I was aching to reach out and blaze out my sword shouting, " I'll show you a constructive debate. NOW TELL ME ABOUT THAT LINEN WHILE I GO MIDIEVAL ON YOUR ASS."
But of course you can't. These debates are a matter of everyday life that people don't even give a second thought so. They are so entrenched in society and people's thoughts that people take them as a given.
Is this so in Bahrain? I'm yet to see evidence of it. We have lots of sides with each either demanding democracy or trumpeting the democracy they have already "kindly offered to their citizens." The government goes around the world espousing how it has one of the most developed democracies in the middle east, while in the meantime three webmasters are arrested simply for voicing their opinion on the internet. We have large segments of the opposition demanding that democracy and free speech be fully activated in Bahrain, while at the same time some of these very same people call for a boycott and court cases to be brought against a journalist for remarks agaisnt a religious figure (probably the court case, if activated, will use very similar charges to those being used agaisnt the webmasters).
In Bahrain and the Arab world in general, we still seem to find it hard to let go of this old trait that if you don't like what someone else says, your first instict is to make them shut up. The lashes of a tongue still seem to hurt more than the wounds of a sword. Why is it we still have this insecurity that whenever someone utters words we don't like our first reaction is to hit back and hit back with a vengeance? What is in a word that upsets us so much and makes us immediately reach for the nearest kitchen knife? What is it that makes us think our opinion are sacrosanct, above argument and should be held above everyone else's?
Why is it that having debates is something that's either a " generously given gift" or something that we have to fight for, and not an established tenant of everday life? It makes one wonder how healthy are the seeds of democracy in the region.