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I have heard many Democrats and Republicans claim that the Bush Administration's goal of democracy in the Middle East has been proven foolish. After all, just look at Hamas in Palestine, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Dawa and SCIRI in Iraq. Islamist parties are taking over, we cry! First of all, George W. Bush and his administration have little credibility at supporting democracy--look at our military and economic aid around the world, we're supplying some of the most brutal and undemocratic regimes with weapons and cash. Egypt gets $2 billion in military aid every year from the US and we let Mubarak rig his "multicandidate" presidential election and we don't push for Ayman Nour, the liberal democrat who founded pro-democracy Kifaya in Egypt, to be released from his imprisonment on ridiculous charges. But on a larger point, we Democrats do support democratization around the world too (it's our dirty little secret), we just don't support democratization at gunpoint and we are more realistic about how fast we can democratize the world.

But what I am confused about is that many of the Democrats and Republicans and other smart people I talk to seem to criticize Bush's democracy agenda for 1) being naive about the Muslim world (Muslim countries will elect Islamic parties into power and that is bad) and 2) we can't force other countries to have democracy (if they wants Islamic government, that's their choice, the "relativist argument"). These two positions that I hear almost simultaneously from these critics are contradictory; either we support the right of Muslims to have an Islamic state or we want our style of democracy (the neocon dream). My problem with all of this is that there is little difference between a truly Islamic political structure and our conception of Western-style liberal democracy with republican virtues at its core.

What is a democracy? We in this country tend to believe that a democracy requires free and fair elections that are open and transparent, where everyone has the right to vote, and anyone can run for office. These elections should elect legislators and an executive who can make the laws and administer them. As a check on their power, an independent judiciary interprets the law and follows and unchanging document that prescribes what laws the legislators can make and what they can't. Religious freedom is protected in a democracy, each faith is to be governed by their own moral code. Free speech, dissent, protest, assembly, petition of government, and expression are mostly guaranteed. Strict laws protecting life and property are the only areas where individual freedom does not take precedence. So this prescription sounds just like the United States, right?

Well, actually, this is the Islamic, Quranic view of a political system. The Qur'an makes it clear, and the early history of the Muslim world supports, that the political system should have an executive, a caliph, who administers the laws of the state, and a shura, a legislative council, that advises the caliph, passes laws that do not deal with moral questions, and helps the caliph administer the laws. The caliph and the shura "must be elected" and the process for those elections, called abaya in Arabic, is not specified. Nearly all Islamic scholars agree that a free and fair election by universal suffrage between political parties is an acceptably Islamic way of holding the abaya. In an ideal Islamic state, religious freedom is well protected; Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and all other faiths, while subject to the laws of the shura and the caliph, are free to create their own moral laws. In the early Muslim caliphate, Jews and Christians set up their own moral court systems that had jurisdiction over members of their own faith and Muslims had a court system that judged Muslims by Quranic law. In these states, no one was forced to be Muslim. In fact, Jews and Christians held positions of great power in the early Msulim empire. The vizier, or prime minister, of the state was almost always Christian or Jewish.

If we want democracy in the Middle East, we should get behind some of these Islamist parties. If we don't like the idea of an Islamist state, we should get out of the way and let Muslims decide for themselves how they want to run their own states. Our biggest problem in the Middle East lies not in Osama bin Laden or radical Islamists in Palestine but with oppressive, secular monarchs or dictators in states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Islamic states are not perfect, but they are far preferable to the secular tyranny we see now in so many Middle Eastern nations.

However, I do not want to suggest that Islamic government works everywhere in the Islamic world. Progressive, constitutional monarchies like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan all have the potential to eventually look like modern day Japan or Britain, with a figurehead monarch, Western-style democratic principles, and progressive, capitalist systems. While religious, the people in these nations do not have the same sort of fanaticism inherent in other Muslim nations. We need to understand that the Muslim world is not monolithic, and the more we allow for different experiments with freedom throughout the Muslim world, we will see some fail and some succeed. Eventually though, with tenacity and a committed effort to democracitzation by assisting democrats of all types and stripes all over the world, we can spread liberty to the farthest corners of the Earth. Democracy is a bottom-up process, not a top-down program. There are secularists, Islamists, and democrats in every Islamic state; all we need to do is bring all these varying parties to a table and get them talking, and then have them work together to bring freedom to their countries. Once a country is free from oppression, these parties can fight it out amongst themselves to see how their society will be organized. Freedom is about choice, and we liberals and all Americans have to support whatever choice societies make, but we also need to give them to chance to choose first.


OrSkolnik said...

I don't think anyone is subjecting Jordan, Qatar, and the UAE to much criticism. The problem with democracy and Islamist parties isn't so much an Islamic problem as it is one of the dangers inherent in any democracy: the people can choose an extermist government if they so desire. There's no problem with a theoretical Islamic state just like there's no problem with England as a Christian state (I'm using a pretty broad definition of state-sponsored Church here). However, there is an enormous problem with extremist governments, no matter what.

If Iraq's fledgling "democracy" will result in an extremist theocratic government that allies itself with Iran, that's a problem. When the Palestinian territories have fully democratic elections and give a significant majority to a terrorist organization, that's a problem. There's nothing wrong with an Islamic state like the UAE, but there's plenty wrong with an extremist state like Saudi Arabia. I think it's a pretty easy line to draw.

The Bush Adminsitration's main failure of vision here is their belief that democracy magically means a pro-America government. This is a very, very outdated relic from the bipolar Cold War years. When a majority of a country's population doesn't like America, the government elected probably won't conform with our desires, and they might just do the opposite (see: Hamas). Democracy is a wonderful thing (or at least better than the alternatives, as per Churchill's famous quote), but if the goal is governments friendly to America, non-extremist education has to come first.