Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Taking a Sober Approach to the Arab Quest for Democracy
UENO Kagefumi  / Professor (non-tenured), Kyorin University

June 1, 2012
There seem to be endless reports of tragic violence in Syria, which has practically plunged into civil war, or Iraq, which is on the road to democracy. Frictions between the Sunni and Shia Muslim factions are beginning to creep into these conflicts, not only in Iraq, but also in Syria, where the government of President Bashar al-Assad is supported by the Shiite Alawite sect.
In Syria and in Egypt - the main stage of the "Arab Spring" movement, Christians continue to flee abroad from persecution by Islamic hard-liners and the situation is becoming increasingly chaotic.

It is highly disturbing that whereas autocratic rule has come to an end in Arab countries, religious dissent has reared its ugly head. Our eyes have been dazzled by the brighter aspects of an unfolding popular revolution, while the darker aspects have generally been ignored. We should follow the events of the post-autocracy period with a more sober eye.

Recent developments in the Arab world are reminiscent of events in the Balkans after the collapse of former Yugoslavia. The end of Tito's autocratic rule created a political vacuum that led to an eruption of religious and sectarian antagonism that had long been repressed and culminated in a bloody conflict. The memory is still fresh in our minds.

Generally speaking, in a country saddled with religious conflict, the early stages of post-autocracy democratization may give rise to a great number of victims once that fuse is set. This is the dilemma, or the paradox, that we face.

However, this dilemma is hardly recognized by the international community, notably by western societies. They cannot imagine the dark side overwhelming the bright side, or popular revolution losing its just cause as the number of victims grows too large. They cannot see that it may be wiser to delay the downfall of the autocratic government to limit the number of victims.

In Syria's case, the oppressive Assad government should by all means be condemned. Yet, we should pay more attention to the possibility that the collapse of autocracy and the subsequent political vacuum may lead to an escalation of religious conflict and generate victims many times more numerous than in the past.

In western societies, "democracy" is not only a principle, but often takes on religious connotations as an absolute justice. This makes “democratization” a process that must be pursued at all costs, regardless of the sacrifice it entails.

But we must deal squarely with the issue of to what extent sacrifice is morally justifiable, no matter how just the cause should be. In the case of Iraq, the conflict has resulted in 200,000 victims and 1.5 million refugees, and terrorist acts between opposing religious factions continue to this day. Is the hasty overthrow of an autocratic government – moreover meddled by an outsider – morally justifiable?

Incidentally, the Japanese are generally receptive to the "dilemma theory." In Japan, while democracy is a major principle, it is not quite a "religion" in itself. This enables us to take an approach that is detached and unbiased by ideology. We can see that if the move is expected to give rise to a great number of victims, we should wait until the time is ripe.

How the international community will deal with the period of post-autocracy that becomes increasingly chaotic, including the "Arab Spring"------this is an issue of paramount gravity. Accordingly, we should at least bear in mind the following two wisdoms.

One, we must squarely acknowledge the dilemma and paradox that the process of democratization may in fact invite more violence and division in a society.

Two, we must maintain a cool head when the expected cost – i.e. violence – of democratization is exorbitantly high, so that we can issue a warning: "Be patient in the pursuit for democratization and popular revolution," "wait until the conditions are right."

Japan should keep a cool head and stay clear of ideologies in seeking and fulfilling its unique role.

The writer is a civilizational essayist and former Ambassador to the Holy See. The article first appeared in the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper dated May 17, 2012.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

上野 景文 / 杏林大学客員教授

2012年 6月 1日

上野 景文   杏林大学客員教授














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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Taking a Sober Approach to the Arab Quest for Democracy