Democracy Is Only The First Step

Fareed Zakaria has a very insightful commentary on Islam and democracy in Newsweek. He argues that while it may seem like Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise with the election of Hamas and situation in Iran, the reality is that democracy is slowly but surely taking root. However, Zakaria also argues that we need to look beyond mere democracy if we’re to see a sane and sensible Middle East:

Elections have not created political Islam in the Middle East. They have codified a reality that existed anyway. Hamas was already a major player to be reckoned with in Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood is popular in Egypt, whether or not Hosni Mubarak holds real elections. In fact, the more they are suppressed, the greater their appeal. If politics is more open, these groups may or may not moderate themselves, but they will surely lose some of that mystical allure they now have. The martyrs will become mayors, which is quite a fall in status.

But to accept these forces is not to celebrate them. It is important that religious intolerance and antimodern attitudes not be treated as cultural variations that must be respected. Whether it is Hindu intolerance in India, anti-Semitism in Europe or Muslim bigotry in Saudi Arabia, the modern world rightly condemns them all as violating universal values. Recent months have only highlighted that promoting democracy and promoting liberty in the Middle East are separate projects. Both have their place. But the latter—promoting the forces of political, economic and social liberty—is the more difficult and more important task. And unless we succeed at it, we will achieve a series of nasty democratic outcomes, as we are beginning to in so many of these places.

This fight is not one the fundamentalists are destined to win. The forces of liberalism have been stymied in the Middle East for decades. They need help. Recall that in Europe for much of the last 100 years, when liberal democrats were not given assistance, nationalists and communists often triumphed through the democratic processes.

Zakaria is quite right here. As Glenn Reynolds is fond of saying, democratization is a process, not an event. Elections are the most visible part of a democratic process, but they’re also the most superficial. In order to have a lasting and stable society, it takes more than just elections, you need a sense of civil society.

For decades, civil society in the Middle East was systematically suppressed – except in the mosques. The only place where an Egyptian, an Iraqi, or a Saudi could talk openly was at Friday prayers. The authoritarianism of the Middle East wiped out civil society except for Islam which they dared not touch. It is only national that as the old authoritarianism is swept away in an Arab society, the first vestiges of civil society will be the religious groups.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood proclaims that “Islam is the solution” – which is the argument that forms the basis of the Islamist worldview. The fact is that given a free choices, the people of Egypt would very likely elect the Muslim Brotherhood into power instead of the corrupt and autocratic Mubarak regime – just as the elections in the Palestinian Authority elected Hamas rather than the corrupt and equally anti-Semitic Fatah.

However, that doesn’t mean that Islam really is the solution. As Zakaria points out, there’s a big difference between a martyr and a mayor, and groups like Hamas have flourished because they have positioned themselves as the great alternatives to the autocratic status quo. Yet once they’re in a position where they have to make good on their promises, the luster quickly fades. It’s one thing to paint yourself as a brave fighter for Islam against the Great Satan. It’s another thing to have to fix the potholes on the road and keep society running. In fact, Fatah is an example of just that – once Fatah had to assume real political power and get things done, they showed that they couldn’t hack it.

What is crucial is to support democratic civil society in the Arab world, but realize that it will take at least a generation, and probably longer for the region to go from autocracy to illiberal democracies to liberal democracy. The greatest threat we face is not Hamas, it’s that we’ll give up on the democratic experiment because of groups like Hamas. That would be a fatal mistake. The first step on the road to a sane Middle East is to ensure that the people there have an expectation that they can and should be able to elect their leaders. Elections are the first step. Once people have accepted a democratic system, it makes tyranny far less palatable.

At first, we should expect the people to elect governments that are not to our liking. The whole point of democracy is that there’s popular rule. There are very few people in the Middle East who are liberals in the classical sense. A democratic Iraq or Palestine won’t look like Switzerland or Vermont – at least not at first.

What is important is that there be boundaries. We can’t dictate who the people of the Middle East can vote for, but we should be setting institutions like the military as protectors of the democratic tradition. Turkey has suffered several democratic reversals, but the Turkish military has quickly come in to restore order and democracy. In Iraq, a strong military can serve as a bulwark against a government instituting true theocracy – which is why it remains important to have them trained well and given the mandate to protect democratic values in Iraq.

So long as the system remains democratic, the power of the radicals will fade. Zakaria is right, the radicals can’t win over the long term. A group like Hamas either has to morph itself into a political organization and lose its revolutionary zeal or end up discredited like Fatah.

The most crucial aspect of all of this is the willingness to realize that this is a long-term project. We can’t just wash our hands of the region and hope all goes for the best. The future of the region requires a long-term and worldwide commitment to democratic values. It requires us to keep engaged with Iraq even after our troops are gone. It requires us to support democratic institutions and groups that espouse the values of civil society.

Democratization is a process, not an event, and we are only 5 years into a long-term engagement that will make the Middle East a saner, more democratic place. However, we cannot expect easy answers or quick results. The path of democracy often involves two steps forward and one and a half steps back. There will be setbacks, reversals, and governments elected to office we don’t like. So long as our will remains strong and we continue to support democratization in the region for the long haul, democracy will win out in the end. Democracy is simply a superior system than tyranny or theocracy. However, it doesn’t come easily, which is why this war has always been a war of values more than a war of weapons and armies. We cannot fail to keep the pressure to democratize strong, even when there are setback and stumbles. Democracy in the Middle East will only fail if we allow it to, and our safety and the safety of the rest of the world depends on a more peaceful and democratic Middle East.

2 thoughts on “Democracy Is Only The First Step

  1. I am most impressed by the clarity of mind displayed here. One point I would like to make is that it is we who have had a change of heart. Ten or twenty years ago, we were more interested in limiting Soviet rule than extending democracy. That is why we treated with mini-Hitlers all over, Saddam being a prime example. It was we who were suffering from duality – whereas we sincerely believed in democracy, we were will to deal with these hideous people for the more important goal of preventing Soviet world rule. At this point, it is natural for the middle east to be suspicious of our “new” motives. And it is just as important for us to maintain the solicitation, to keep pressing for democracy, no matter how much we are disliked. The bottom line is, no one can really dislike someone who is trying to help you decide your own life. Eventually, the resentment will fade – so long as our own motives remain pure.

  2. I would contend that the Turkish military is partly responsible for some of the democratic reversals the country faced. The 1960 coup and subsuquent execution of president Adnan Menderes left the country’s civil bureaucracy in an intimidated and meek state. The 1980 coup was even more concerning. While the country was polarized between far left and far right at that time, Kenan Evren’s new constitution would be the most authoritarian Turkey had seen yet. Many of its interferences in civil society had to be undone in order for Turkey to be a proper EU candidate. The military’s commitment to secularism has been resolute, but proper democratic muslim societies need to have respect for civilian political activism in order to thrive. The commitment of the Turkish Military to civilian oriented democracy has not always been in evidence, though things are changing now.

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