A Faculty of Islamic Studies professor has said that changes need to be made to the themes of school curricula and public discourse, such as the cult of personality that surrounds public figures, if democratic and liberalising reforms in the Middle East are to take hold.
Louay M. Safi, professor of political science and director of the Centre for Government and Public Policy - Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies at the Qatar Foundation, told an audience at a public lecture that while the structural base for a democratic society exists and is supported by the presence of much of the lexicon in the Arab world, these concepts are not present in the culture "because of the way they raised us in schools and our families.
We did not have these concepts, we did not have these terms, so in the books in school and the stories in school - they don't talk about the rule of law, they don't talk about citizenship and equality between citizens, about the national interests about public interests. In the curricula they talk about the hero, they were glorious and they did everything by themselves and they didn't need the people, they didn't need the grassroots."
Safi said that such appeals to the emotions of students and children are not constructive.
"They talk about wealth, about being famous, about celebrity, about authority. It is not wrong to think about authority and being famous...but the problem is that this is not linked to collectivity. When you talk about celebrity we did not talk about contributing to and improving social life.
We talk about wealth but we do not talk about the responsibility of creating job opportunities for others. When we talk about authority we do not link it to the social duty to improve the social structure, it's always linked to the glory of one person. And our Arab societies should solve this problem. Of course this was the basis of the political corruption, this strong linkage of the glory of the person, to the authority - and talk about heroes, how to worship them, this is the problem, this is what led to the corruption also."
In his lecture, Safi argued that in the late 19th Century to early 20th Century, Arab and Muslim heads of state began to deviate from traditional Sultanic rule. For centuries, regimes often separated the rule of the State by an executive body responsible for foreign policy and other affairs, and civil leadership by scholars who legislated over the affairs of the nation including labour issues and welfare.
Modern "extensions" of these Sultanic regimes, Safi said, combined these two distinct spheres under one ruler, ending a system where consent by civil society was usually required for a leader to rule.
The Arab Spring has shown these modern Sultanates to be failed systems, and now civil society must be prepared to take up the rights and responsibilities previously denied them.
Safi said that the transition to democracy has some key necessary components, including a holistic conceptualisation of citizenship, which is usually confined to the elite and the educated. A culture of respecting the rule of law and civil society is also required, although it is "not something we see applied by our youth in the Arab world."
While there are many things that people respect from their religion and from the Shariah, "to respect the law only for being a law is not something that is being discussed or taught in schools, this is not being explained to people to have a developed society where people, where citizens, respect each other and contribute to the improvement of social life." The professor also argued that respect for the choices taken and beliefs held by all members of society is also, regrettably, absent.
"Everyone has the right to practise their beliefs within the framework of the law and with respect to others. This is still weak in our world, so we should respect the differences in opinions - this is where the transfer to democracy will be a little bit difficult. We should not refuse others and say they are traitors simply because they have different beliefs," said Safi. He also stressed that "protecting minorities from the despotism of the majority" is also crucial, which is "even worse than the despotism of the individual."
The suppression of Shia minorities within Gulf countries is problematic in a transition to democracy, although Safi sees the development of elected Shura councils in the GCC as a positive development, acknowledging that these are developing societies with long-term visions.