2002 October 18 Friday
Pessimists on Muslim Democracy

Stanley Kurtz, Martin Kramer, and Adam Garfinkle all share my pessimism about the prospects for democracy in Arab and other Muslim countries. We start with Stanley Kurtz on the threat of greater radicalization in Muslim countries:

Clearly, the (necessary) attack on Saddam has the potential to set off a serious reaction in the Muslim world. Yet the real lesson of the Bali blast and the Pakistani election may be what they say about the aftermath of victory in Iraq. Proponents of democratization in the Muslim world may be right (within limits) to say that a bit of de-stabilization may be just what we need right now in the Muslim world. It's true that the status quo in the Middle East is unproductive and due for a change. But it may simply be wishful thinking to believe that, after all the Middle East's cards have been thrown into the air, they will fall down to earth in good democratic order.

If even Indonesia, home of the largest and most moderate democracy movement in the Islamic world, can be radicalized and thrown into economic chaos by the war (and by its own internal divisions), what will happen in a conquered Iraq? And the Pakistani's remind us that voters can use the ballot box to kill democracy by installing an Islamist dictatorship. Most disturbing, even wealth and middle-class status are no guarantee of immunity against Islamism's appeal.

Stanley Kurtz, in turn, advises a trip to Martin Kramer's blog:

Frankly, my eyes glaze over when I hear Condoleezza Rice, James Woolsey, and Tom Friedman wax eloquent on the coming "march of democracy" in the Arab world. (Woolsey to James Fallows in the current issue of The Atlantic: "This could be a golden opportunity to begin to change the face of the Arab world. Just as what we did in Germany changed the face of Central and Eastern Europe, here we have got a golden chance.") As a survivor of the Middle East peace process, which, we were told, would transform Israel, "Palestine," and Jordan into a Benelux, I smell snake oil. Of all the rationales for war, this one is the least substantial and the most ideological, and those who make it cast doubt on whether they fully understand the regional context in which an Iraq war might be fought.

Aside: Perhaps I overestimate Rice's ability but I am guessing she must realize that the odds of successfully installing a government in Iraq that will sustain an even modestly liberal democracy in the long term are slim. Whether or not Rice believes her rhetoric there certainly are within the ranks of the war camp many people who sound sincere when they claim that the US can transform the Middle Eastern regimes into secular democracies that respect the rights of individuals and that allow full freedom of speech and press. I think some of these people are naive ideologues.

Kramer has other excellent posts on his blog that are germane to the whole Islam and democracy debate. Click thru to his blog if you want to read more.

Martin Kramer links to a speech he gave at the 2002 Weinberg Founders Conference where he argues that Arab society does not embrace the beliefs that are necessary prerequisites for a successful liberal democracy:

The most basic building blocks are not elections, or political parties, or a free press. You can have elections in countries that are not free—the Arab world has them all the time. These countries have voting; they just don't have counting. Or let's just say they have selective counting, which produces those famous 99-percent votes in favor of the ruler. As for political parties, the Arab world also has them—mostly in the form of ruling parties. There are lots of those. And thanks to the proliferation of technologies, the press has never been freer in the Arab world—freer to disseminate hatred, lies, and incitement. These are not the building blocks of democracy.

The basic building blocks are attitudes—above all, a tolerance of political differences, indeed even a celebration of political differences, debated openly and decided freely.

Arab society lacks that tolerance. It is very sharing of many things—but not of political power. That power is like the honor of one's women: it cannot be compromised without being lost. And in the Arab world, historically, the loss of power has meant the loss of everything: honor, possessions. home, life itself. I do not claim here that the Arab world is imprisoned by Islam, as some might argue. I do claim that it is burdened by its history—history transmuted into memory, and preserved as a mindset. And I would summarize the mindset in a simple axiom: rule or die.

Hence, the dearth of what is called civil society. Civil society is that panoply of associations that are greater than individual, family, clan, and tribe. These associations organize people around shared ideas and interests; democratic societies are replete with thousands upon thousands of such associations, from the PTA to the Pac.

Martin Kramer, in turn, links to an excerpt of an article written by Adam Garfinkle in the Fall 2002 issue of the National Interest on the lack of liberal democratic beliefs in Arabic countries:

Not only are liberal democratic attitudes toward pluralism, majority rule and equality before the law mostly absent from the Arab world, that world counterposes entrenched attitudes that are their antitheses: concepts of monadic political authority, consensus forms of decision-making and natural social hierarchy. We know that attitudes acquired and reinforced over centuries maintain a grip on the patterns of any group’s social relations, for better or for worse, even long after the conditions that spawned them have disappeared; so it seems indeed a reach too far to expect Arab societies to become liberal democracies anytime soon--certainly not soon enough to supply us with help for the problem of apocalyptic terrorism. And though we certainly wish them well, there is little that even the best efforts of the National Endowment for Democracy, of the new White House Office of Global Communications, of Charlotte Beers marketing Uncle Sam as a brand name from the State Department, and of U.S. government-sponsored Radio Sawa, pumping out news in Arabic along with Jennifer Lopez and Lionel Ritchie music, can do about it.

These efforts, after all, are unlikely to change the contemporary Arab view of liberal democracy as an alien Western idea at a time when Arab societies are struggling to cope with Western-wrought modernity. They cannot erase the fact that most Arab societies tried but failed during the late 19th and 20th centuries to adopt Western ways to achieve wealth, power and respect, or erase the legacy of simultaneous envy and resentment created by that failure (explaining why many Arab youths who in the morning declare their enmity for the West in the afternoon express a desire to emigrate there).

For information about how consanguineous unions in marriage are a major obstacle to the development of secular liberal democracy in Arab and other Muslim countries see the links here to essays by Stanley Kurtz and the per country consanguinity data.

I think proposals for a post-war federalized democracy in Iraq have to be considered in light of a very basic fact: Even an ethnically homogeneous Sunni Arab subset of Iraq would be unlikely to sustain support for an even semi-liberal democracy. Add to that the strains of mistrust that would be inherent in a federal system based on 3 main ethnic regions (or even more) and the odds of long term success for building a better post-war Iraq drop considerably from an already low starting point. But breaking up Iraq brings with it a totally different set of problems. I don't pretend to have answers. I just think people should be aware of the magnitude of the problem we will face when trying to politically transform Iraq.

Update: See two Stanley Kurtz articles from February 2002 that expand on his views about the difficulty of creating stable liberal democracies in the Middle East. Kinship networks have survived urbanisation in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries.

But unlike the urban masses of Europe, the rural migrants powering the Middle East's urban population explosion have brought their traditional kinship networks with them. Those networks offer support to the common man where weak Middle Eastern governments cannot — while also making it impossible for a modern political and economic system to take root. Family connections get you food when neither government nor the economy can provide it. But the corruption fueled by the family ethos sabotages the government's distribution plans, undercuts the government's legitimacy, and blocks the path to societal liberalization.

Lack of success in establishing democracy in the Middle East will force continued US presence and increase in resentment toward the US.

Will we see model governments installed in Muslim lands, the growth of civil society, and eventual American withdrawal after the establishment of democratic bastions in the Middle East? Or will we, like the Israelis, be forced to deal with a series of anti-American "intifadahs?" Somewhere between those two scenarios is where the era of reluctant imperialism will play out.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2002 October 18 12:40 PM  Civilizations Clash Of

Roland said at September 18, 2005 8:11 PM:

mates, and chaps, the following attachments are spot on the target. It's the policy, stupid, not the people! Muslims can be democratic just like any chap from America, the UK, or Mother Europe.

Chris Zambelis provides our second article in this feature, “The Strategic Implications of Political Liberalization and Democratization in the Middle East.” Zambelis bases his thesis on the differentiation between democratization and liberalization.

"Popular outrage toward the Administration’s plans demonstrates the deep-rooted credibility problem the United States faces in the Middle East. Muslims are highly skeptical about Washington’s ultimate intentions, given the long-standing US policy of supporting authoritarian regimes in the region. Arabs in particular find it hard to believe that the United States is serious about promoting freedom. They tend to view US support for self-determination and human rights as disingenuous in light of Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and continued expansion of settlements on territory that Palestinians and the international community envision as part of a future Palestinian state—an issue that resonates deeply among both Muslims and Christians in the Middle East and one that cannot be wished away.24 Moreover, the US decision to oust Saddam Hussein by force confirmed regional perceptions of a militant America that is quick to use force against Arabs and Muslims to further its strategic objectives."


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