Democratization Efforts

The Remaking of the Middle East

Behind the notion that an American intervention will make Iraq ”the first Arab democracy,” as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz puts it, lies a project of great ambition.

It envisions a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq — secular, middle-class, urbanized, rich with oil — that will replace the autocracy of Saudi Arabia as the key American ally in the Persian Gulf, allowing the withdrawal of United States troops from the kingdom. The presence of a victorious American army in Iraq would then serve as a powerful boost to moderate elements in neighboring Iran, hastening that critical country’s evolution away from the mullahs and toward a more moderate course. Such an evolution in Tehran would lead to a withdrawal of Iranian support for Hezbollah and other radical groups, thereby isolating Syria and reducing pressure on Israel. This undercutting of radicals on Israel’s northern borders and within the West Bank and Gaza would spell the definitive end of Yasser Arafat and lead eventually to a favorable resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.


The Bush vision is a vision of great depth and imagination: comprehensive, prophetic, almost evangelical. It means to remake the world, to offer a political answer to a serious global threat. It represents a great step on the road toward President Bush?s ultimate vision of ”freedom’s triumph over all its age-old foes.”

Perhaps most striking, this vision — drawn from an administration that has abhorred all talk of root causes and treats terror as a free-floating malignancy — acknowledges that for the evil of terror to be defeated, the entire region from which it springs must be made anew.

While the Bush Doctrine carries with it echoes of the earlier Wilsonian philosophy of ?making the world safe for democracy,? the remaking of the Middle East will not be any easier today than it was when Woodrow Wilson sought world peace eighty-three years ago.

Religion (Islam) has been a force in the Middle East for well over a millennium and reconciling it with freedom and the consequences of modernization will not be an easy task. According to a literal interpretation of Islamic theology, only two options exist: dominate or be dominated. As Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Like Christianity, Islam is a universal faith that envisions the ultimate transformation of the world in its image. But unlike……..Christianity in our time, Islam has yet to consider the option of religious pluralism based on the equality of faiths.” For normative Islamic theology, the very existence of a Jewish (infidel) state in the Muslim heartland is an offense. That is why Al Qaeda’s hatred of Israel does not refer to Israeli policies as much as to Israel’s very existence.

It has taken the West four centuries to reconcile freedom with religion. In England, what is now considered ?the democratic tradition? included a march toward parliamentary government that began with the Magna Carta in the 13th century and involved four centuries of persecutions and religious wars culminating in the separation of church and state, and the creation of an educated, free-thinking, secular middle class. In the end, a stable, progressive system of human governance was born.

But the evolution of the Middle Eastern Arab/Muslim nations was radically different. The fact that Islam never separated religion from state and prevented the development of a secular, educated, freethinking middle class accounts for the reason that the Arab countries of the Middle East today are about where England was in the 11th century.

A primary reason for the decline and stagnation of the Arab world today (according to the July 2002, Arab Human Development Report written by a panel of London-based leading Arab political and economic scholars) is that “from their schooldays onward, Arabs are instructed that they should not defy tradition; that they should always respect existing authority; that truth should be sought in the text and not in experience. Fear of chaos (fawda) and schism (fitna) are deeply engrained in modern Arab-Islamic teaching. The role of thought, wrote a Syrian intellectual, is to explain and transmit?. not to seek and question.”

Rather than blame the Arab condition on a lack of foreign and humanitarian aid from the West (as one might have expected), the Arab authors identified “the lack of democratic and efficient governance as a major obstacle to economic growth . . . the need for a transparent rule of law, and a fair and fast legal system with a professional judiciary.”

Unfortunately, traditional Islamic scholars continue to maintain that only the sharia (the Koran and the hadith which contains the vast collection of sacred laws developed in the 7th century) can govern men, even though it is impossible to manage a modern-day economy and sustain scientific development on the basis of unbending principles set down over a millennium ago.

The religion of Islam must find a way to live in the modern world. It cannot compel religious obedience through homicide and yet expect to emerge from the Dark Ages. As Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute wrote in the National Review, ”any faith that makes rote memorization of ancient texts, suppression of critical inquiry and dissent, subjugation of women, and a servile deference to authority the center of its existence, cannot create anything other than its own decline.”

So, Mr. Bush has his ?dream? cut out for him. Privatization and economic freedom, both necessary ingredients for modernization are meaningless if you do not have the rule of law. The Arab/Muslim nations of the Middle East have yet to acquire regimes in which one set of leaders can be peacefully replaced with another. These nations have not yet seen the evolution of a stable form of national government based upon parliamentary rules and the concept of a “loyal opposition.” In the Arab world, ?loyal opposition? is an oxymoron – which explains why most Arab opposition leaders are either dead or in exile.

Furthermore, ?legislation,? as it is understood in Muslim nations today, consists of clarifications of the orders of military or religious autocrats, whose power, though often justified in religious terms, comes from the barrel of a gun rather than from the teachings of the prophet.

The Middle East remains one of the most economically backward regions of the world, although it is unlikely that its leadership can keep the world at bay forever. In time, even they must feel the winds of modernity, by which one means education and economic growth – what we call progress. Progress in turn will inevitably bring with it, as it did for the West, the leveling of social status known as equality. That is the essence of democracy, and it is hard to imagine that Iraqis would not embrace it were we to offer it to them.

If there is to be an Arab democratic model followed for post-war Iraq, Mr. Bush might wish to consider Turkey. In that Moslem country, Mustafa Kemal (now known as Ataturk) came to power after World War I and argued that the Muslim world could not duplicate the success of the West simply by buying western arms, wearing western clothes and using western machines.

The nation itself had to become Western, and to do this, it had to be ?remade.

Over a ten year period, Ataturk proclaimed a new constitution, created a national legislature, abolished the caliphate and the sultancy, urged the study of science, created a secular public education system, abolished religious courts, imposed the Latin alphabet, ended the practice of allowing divorce simply at the husband?s request, gave women the vote, adopted the Christian calendar, did away with the University of Istanbul?s theology faculty, created commercial legal codes based upon the German and Swiss models, stated that every person was free to choose his or her own religion, authorized the erection of statues with human likenesses, ended the ban on alcohol, converted the mosque in Hagia Sophia into a secular museum, authorized the election of the first Turkish beauty queen, and banned the wearing of the fez which had previously conveyed social standing.

Although he created the machinery of democracy, he understood that a democratic tradition was lacking in his country. Therefore, he ensured that there would be no ?slippage? back to the ?old ways? by making the Turkish military the constitutional guardian of Turkish democracy – a role that it has occupied and never abused for over a century. In so doing, he made it clear that he wanted a thoroughly secular state.

Although some anti-Islam laws were modified after his death, to this day, no other Middle Eastern Muslim nation has undergone as dramatic a change, and the newly elected Islamic-based Justice and Development Party has already confirmed its intention to maintain democracy, sustain Turkey?s democratic institutions, and seek entry into the European Union. In fact, Reuters reports that Turkey has now agreed to open its air bases to U.S. warplanes to mount military operations against Iraq if Washington goes ahead with a possible war on Baghdad.

Last summer, while the rest of Europe slept, this same nation (within a matter of weeks) abandoned the death penalty, lifted draconian curbs on its press, and reached out inclusively toward the separatist Kurdish minority it had repressed for decades – the biggest victory for human rights in two decades. In the rest of the region, however, autocrats still rule and deal with religion either by buying it off or allowing it to dominate the spiritual order provided it has no real power.

In the absence of an Iraqi Ataturk or Sadat, Mr. Bush had better prepare himself for a challenging crusade. In the Arab/Muslim Middle East, there are no living heroes?.only dead ones. And he should also understand that even democracy is not perfect. Whereas the West reconciled religion with freedom, it did so by making the individual the center of Western society and the price that it has paid has been rampant individualism resulting in weak marriages, high crime rates and often a sense of personal insignificance and alienation from society. When Islam kept religion at the expense of freedom, it made the individual subordinate to society, and the price that it has paid has been autocratic governments, religious intolerance and little personal freedom.

The Arab world needs to overcome many challenges including its colonial legacy (that did nothing to transmit democratic concepts to the masses), socioeconomic factors (such as illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, education and food and water shortages) and Islamic fundamentalism – each of which represents a major obstacle to Arab democratization. But the fundamental issue remains the modernization of the Arab world, and this cannot come to pass without freedom.

Those who understand the history of the Middle East know that the task ahead will be difficult – but it is not impossible. Muslims must speak out boldly in defense of a dynamic, moderate Islam – an Islam that upholds the sanctity of human life, reaches out to the oppressed, respects men and women alike, and insists on the fellowship of all humankind. Islam, along with other faiths, is capable of adapting to changing circumstances. The Koran, like the Jewish Talmud and the scriptures of other major world religions, contains verses that reinforce religious exclusivity but also verses that can be summoned to justify a new Islamic pluralism. Religions grow subtly when their adherents begin emphasizing certain parts of scripture to support their new spiritual insights. That is precisely what happened after the Holocaust to the Catholic Church, which stopped citing the New Testament’s anti-Jewish verses and instead began emphasizing those verses affirming God’s love for the Jewish people.

Islam’s challenge is to balance its vision of itself as a faith that must dominate the world, with Islamic humility that concedes the need for religious restraint in a world threatened with nuclear destruction.

For America, the great risk in this new crusade is that the political will of the American people might falter before the task is completed – that the public, unprepared for the President?s democratic crusade about to play out in the Middle East, will quickly lose heart if the project comes to grief; that after the inevitable setbacks (and perhaps after further 9/11s at home), the struggle will grow unpopular, demands for isolationism from “foreign adventures” will arise again, and America will cut and run, leaving ruin and another enormous credibility gap in her wake.

Winning this war, then, requires a two-pronged approach. First, the silent Arab/Muslim majority must confront the demons who seek to pervert the humbler message of Islam, and the West must support those efforts. Second, the West must respond to these Islamic demons without sentimentality or self-recrimination. Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad – the most deadly of the fundamentalist organizations – must be crushed before they devour both Western civilization and any hope for a modern Islamic rebirth.

So, if America chooses to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy and new civilizations to build, it had better destroy them, and get on with the reconstruction of the Middle East. The Arabs must come to understand that we are not the Huns, the destroyers of civilizations, but that we come with the promise of a new and better tomorrow for the Arab/Muslim world.

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