Thursday, March 11, 2004

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Is "Islamic liberal democracy" an unholy trinity?

Lee Smith has an provocative Slate essay on what Islamists are talking about when they talk about democracy. Among the highlights:

There is an ongoing debate in the Muslim world, American academia, and now also U.S. policy circles concerning the nature of Islamist democracy. Undoubtedly, Islam is as compatible with democracy as any other religion. But whether democracy comports well with a movement that has in the past advocated jihad and is responsible for thousands of deaths, 1,200 in Egypt alone, is another question entirely. Indeed, some of the Islamist movement's most influential ideologues have very specifically opposed democracy because it invests political sovereignty in the people—"We, the people"—rather than in God.

Nevertheless, recent books like Noah Feldman's After Jihad and Graham Fuller's The Future of Political Islam suggest that the Islamist movement may indeed be compatible with democracy. They find that while there are holdouts like Osama Bin Laden dead set against anything like democracy, there are many, perhaps even a majority of Islamists who favor free elections. Unfortunately, that's about as far as the Islamists go when it comes to democracy. Free elections are OK, since they see that they would do very well in polling places across the region. However, it's not at all clear that the Islamists have any interest in the broad array of liberties—like freedom of speech and equal rights—that most people, certainly most citizens of liberal democracies, associate with democracy.

Later on in the essay, Smith acknowledges that Islamists who actually understand/support what constitutes a liberal democracy may not say so publicly:

[D]issimulation is a well-established technique in the history of the 100-plus-year-old Muslim reform movement, even among two of its leading figures, Jamal al-din al-Afghani and his greatest disciple, Muhammad Abdu. Abdu once relayed to a correspondent that he followed his master in the belief that "the head of religion can only be cut with the sword of religion." The fact is, as another Muslim reformer, wrote, "We found that ideas which were by no means accepted when coming from your agents in Europe were accepted at once with the greatest delight when it was proved that they were latent in Islam."

So the $64,000 question -- what does Grand Ayatollah Sistani -- may be impossible to ferret out.

posted by Dan on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM


I’m utterly convinced that the majority of Muslims prefer a more moderate version of their religion. Heck, I’ve been saying that for at least the last two years. I also think that most Irish people, both Protestants and Catholics, are disgusted by the sectarian violence. The fanatics, however, are more than willing to murder you and your other family members. Keeping one’s mouth shut is therefore deemed the more prudent course of action. What do we need to advance peace and democracy in the Mid East? That’s a real simple question to answer. We must offer a certain degree of protection to the moderates. Why do so few people fail to grasp the obvious? That’s another very easy question to answer. The intellectual Left has conned the general public to believe that only violent folks are truly “authentic.”

posted by: David Thomson on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]

Great post Dan. Ultimately, it seems that that issue is what the debate on our GWT strategy comes down to. Those who think that Muslims are capable or desire democracy, and those that dont. Its funny how whats old becomes new. Remember all those folks pointing to the big Soviet parades as an example of how much the folks loved and embraced democracy? Remember Hussein strutting through throngs of cheering supporters? Remember the 'smiling' faces of Kim il Jungs people as they cheer on their 'dear leader'? I do. Some obviously dont. For the 1 millionth time, dont assume that people living under autocrats mean what they say. People say weird things when their is a pistol at the back of their head. Im starting to think this negativity regarding Arab democracy isnt so much about the Arabs as it is about democracy. Certain people's true ideologies are starting to show through.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]

Ughh, proofread.
"Remember all those folks pointing to the big Soviet parades as an example of how much the folks loved and embraced _Communism_? "

posted by: Mark Buehner on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]

As the author implies, it depends on what you mean by democracy. In the West, it is the idea people have a certain degree of autonomy in themselves and that there are limits on what the government (or society) can do. Most of the American founders thought of democracy as mob rule. It's probably fairly easy to install "democracy" in the sense of having some input by the population in selecting the rulers. However, this is a far cry from constitutionalism, which, in my opinion, involves not just a constitution and democratic institutions, but also a set of attitude that legitimize dissent and disagreement and recognize individual autonomy in thought. Without those attitudes, democracy IS mob rule that is likely to be manipulated by political elites, be they mullahs or whatever. I think it is quite problematic whether these attitudes currently exist in the Muslim world, quite apart from the Islamist view of the role of religion and state. Democracy is easy when things are going well, but without the attitudes I mentioned above, it is likely to degenerate into a tyranny of the majority. More importantly for us, such a democracy is not likely to curb the conspiracy mindset in the Muslim world, which sees an American-Zionist-Hindu plot behind everything that goes wrong. This doesn't mean that Muslims are "incapable" of self-rule and certainly not that we should continue supporting autocratic regimes, but we should not delude ourselves into believing that we can impose a western-style constitutionalism into such a different culture, at least not quickly. This is why I think the Bush doctrine (assuming that it is based on the idea that we can transform the Middle East by promoting democracy, by force if necessary) is a big gamble.

posted by: Marc Schneider on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]

"This is why I think the Bush doctrine (assuming that it is based on the idea that we can transform the Middle East by promoting democracy, by force if necessary) is a big gamble. "

Time for a reality check: this is an unavoidable gamble! We have no other choice. Of course, perhaps you can offer an alternative?

posted by: David Thomson on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]


Phoney democracies subverted by oligarchies, neo-fascist nationalists, socialists, etc. exist the world over. Chavez / Venezula anyone? Indeed, even genuine liberal democracies can possibly have very differing and antagonistic values and imperatives than us.

If democracy sweeps the Middle-east world look for an expansion of seeking nuclear weapons, increased oil prices (You can imagine the politicians promising higher oil export prices as an economic quick fix now), greater state-sponsored and allied nationalist movement terrorism, rises in anti-Western sentiment, and increased economic and military pressure on Isreal.

We could also expect well as increased defection of other countries such as the EU, Russia, and China as they realize they can leverage anti-American sentiment into influence and access in the oil fields.

Robert Kagan, recently wrote in The New York Times that the net result of U.S. policy since 9/11 has been that "America, for the first time since World War II, is suffering a crisis of international legitimacy. Americans will find that they cannot ignore this problem."

Robert Kagan is one of the editors of the Weekly Standard and was once considered an influential neo-conservative.

Nor is he alone. Henry Kissinger was recently quoted by the BBC as worrying about "This, he feared, was leading to a decline in America's legitimacy."

It's not a question of confronting terrorism and rogue states and WMD. Indeed I wish we would do that - in countries proven to be proliferating like Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea. I wish we would do it intelligently, forcefully, and with real Machiavellian realpolitk. What we have inadvertantly done now is woken a sleeping demon, spent our credibility, and have precipitiously driven our enemies to unify while at the same time alienating those who might help us.

And unless we correct our course it is going to be a significant problem in our future. Indeed we may create as self-fullfilling nightmares the very WMD-terrorism connections we have sought to destroy.

posted by: Oldman on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]


I suggest you read the National Security Strategy document more closely:

"... VII. Expand the Circle of Development by Opening Societies and Building the Infrastructure of Democracy ..."

Note the complete absence of any reference in the text to "the infrastructure of democracy". This can be taken in several ways, either that the Bush Administration hasn't a clue here, or that it does and chose not to say what that is because its revolutionary implications would arouse premature opposition, or that the Bush Administration hasn't finished its internal debate on the subject. I suspect it's really a combination of the second and third.

John Lewis Gaddis criticized the Bush Administration in his recent Surprise, Security, and the American Experience for not shifting fast enough from overthrowing the old system to fostering legitimacy of the new one. He gave an example of how Bismarck did the latter after he overthrew the prior European balance of power in three successive Prussian wars against Denmark, Austria and France.

Mr. Gaddis' erred in two ways - he assumes that we finished the revolutionary overthrow phase last April, and he assumes that there will be no further attacks on the American homeland.

Bismarck's strategy was not threat-driven, and he didn't stop with Austria. The Bush Administration's strategy here is threat-driven. The threat hasn't ended. The threat won't end for a long time.

We're in a race between our elimination of terrorist-supporting regimes and terrorist use of WMD in America. What Gaddis perceives as revolutionary transformation is nothing compared to what will happen should we be nuked at home. That is why the Bush Administration invaded Iraq, why Iran is next (North Korea will IMO go down by itself next winter) and why we won't stop there.

We're not in the democracy-building or legitimacy building phases yet. We're still doing threat elimination and revolutionary overthrow.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]

"If democracy sweeps the Middle-east world look for an expansion of seeking nuclear weapons, increased oil prices...greater state-sponsored and allied nationalist movement terrorism, rises in anti-Western sentiment, and increased economic and military pressure on Isreal."

That's simply not a forgone conclusion. Look, we know for a fact that the Arab autocrats have made it policy to either directly incite hatred and jealousy against the West and Israel, or to wink and nod at the Wahabis and their ilk as a proxy. I dont see how eliminating those tyrants will increase this tendency. We know one thing, democracy promotes meritocracy, and that promotes growth. And growth solves all kinds of problems. People with jobs dont spend their days plotting the downfall of Israel or America. As I pointed out elsewhere, its good to remember the anti-capitalist, anti-america rallies that happen in every communist or totalitarian country. People (NYT writers especially) made livings off of apologizing for guys like Stalin. Guess what? As soon as those guns are away from their backs those people drop the burning American flags and go do the things theyve never been able to do. Am I saying they become our best buds? Not necesarrily, but I can see no reason they become _more_ hostile to us. Now Oldman does rightly point out that a false or instable democracy leads to bad things. Check out DenBestes excellent appraisal of the Iraqi constitution for some reason why this happens, but why there is reason to belive it wont in Iraq I agree with Steve that its faulty _structures_ that lead to broken democracies, not deficiencies in the people.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]

David & Marc,

"Heads I win - tails you lose" is not a gamble. We can't lose. Failure to reform the Arabs' loser culture does not mean that Arab terrorists, and Arab-foster terrorists, will continue to attack us. Our failure here would only result in our use of other, more drastic and final means of eliminating the loser Arab culture which causes terrorism against us.

Dave, we do have other alternatives. We choose not to use those yet, and won't until all feasible lesser means are exhausted. We're not trying to reform Arab culture so it can live in peace with us for the Arabs' good. We're doing it for our own safety.

Likewise our forebearance from the alternative is for our own good, not theirs. We have to live with ourselves afterwards. We don't have to live with them.

Certainly it would be awful. Worse, it won't be a single horrendous spasm -rather there will be repeated escalating pulses. We'll go to hell on the installment plan. But we won't stay there provided we make a good faith try at a win-win solution first, which we will because we're Americans. That's also why we will do that if nothing else works - it's a question of attitude as much as means.

Success here would be a win for everyone concerned. But we don't need that type of success to secure our own safety. But they need that type of success because we'll get along just fine without them, and will if we have to.

"It came to pass - long ago - that a thief was caught stealing food from the storage rooms of the Caliph's kitchen. When he was brought before the Caliph, The Caliph sentenced him to be beheaded at dawn.

"Wait!" cried the thief, "I will make you a wager."

"Go on..." replied the Caliph.

"Give me a year, and I will train your best stallion to sing surahs!"

"You amuse me. Very well, you have your wager. Take him to the stable and find him a place!"

As the guards were leading him to the stable, the cheif of the guards asked "What's your game, Thief? You can't train a horse to sing the Koran! You've never even been NEAR a horse before, have you?"

"No," replied the Caliph's Personal Horse Trainer, "but yesterday I was a beggar living on the street who had to steal food to live. Today I am a member of the Caliph's retinue. And a lot may happen in a year: I may die. The horse may die. The Caliph may die.

And perhaps the horse will sing."

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]

Lee Smith's Slate article was "provocative" mostly of rolled eyeballs. He conflates Sunni Islamism with Iraqi Shias' resurgence, talks of the obstacles facing democracy in Iraq as if they were typical of those facing democracy in other Islamic countries and manages to overlook completely that Iraqis must see the alternative to government based on Islam most clearly not in American ideals they understand only imperfectly but in decades of experience with Baathist secularism, the principles and consequences of which they understand only too well.

You don't have to be accept the statement of faith with which Smith begins his unimpressive survey ("Undoubtedly, Islam is as compatible with democracy as any other religion") -- and I don't, not without a lot more evidence than we have -- to understand that the salient fact about Iraq today is its emergence from an historic trauma. There isn't anyone in the whole country who can consider questions of governance in the same way we can, because they have seen government used to strike at all that they have and cannot believe that they will never see this again. I've been struck by how many commentators with impressive credentials talk in an informed way about, for example, Sistani's maneuvering in the context of his thinking about democracy in Iraq, as opposed to his concern that he and his followers could be murdered now for sounding the wrong tone and could be persecuted in the future by any government they do not control.

There can be very few Iraqis now who do not have very similar concerns. Before we get too carried away with theorizing about Islamic democracy we need to acknowledge that these more elemental factors are its first and greatest obstacle, that they will take many years to overcome, and that the American army will not for most of those years be in Iraq to keep the country together. Making all allowances for the exceptional difficulty of Paul Bremer's position and the many demands on his time I could wish he spoke more loudly and more often about what Iraqis fear from each other, and less about freedom -- an important concept to be sure, but one that resonates much more with American audiences than it is likely to with Iraqi ones. Too much talk about the blessings of freedom from an American in Bremer's position is likely to generate hopes among Iraqis that he is the one to confer them, and consequently disappointment when it is shown he cannot do so. To some extent this has already happened. More frank talk about the obstacles Iraqis face as the direct result of their recent history would not remove all difficulties, but would focus Iraqis' attention on their relations with each other, the thing that will determine whether post-Saddam Iraq succeeds or fails.

posted by: Zathras on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]

5{have to live with them.”

Sorry, but your isolationist attitude is naive in the 21st Century. The world is far too small. More importantly, some Americans did live next door to the hijackers of 9/1! I guess you forgot that fact.

posted by: David Thomson on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]


I am also “for” democracy. I think it’s a great thing. I don’t see, however, that the Iraqis will clamor to its banner, so to speak.

Iraq is a country with three major fault lines, the Sunni who have been running things in the central part of the country, the Shia, who make up the majority of the population of the country and who are primarily in the south, and the Kurds, who have been running their own mini-state in the north under our no-fly zone protection. These groups have widely different goals and agendas, and should act more like groups than individuals that exercise the franchise. Democracy too fast will inevitably lead to civil war.

Look at our own experience. In 1787, the states ratified a constitution that joined the states into a union with one major fault line – the institution of slavery. Despite the best efforts of some of our greatest American statesmen, that fault line eventually led to the greatest failure of American democracy – the Civil War. Even we, with the advantages of a tradition of western thought, failed. The Iraqs have no such tradition, and will therefore have a much longer road to travel, even if they agreed on the ultimate destination.

Even if Tom Holzinger is not correct and we have no “agenda” beyond Iraq, we are going to have to stay there for a very long time.

posted by: TexasToast on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]

The real question: Is democracy compatible with any religion as the fundamentalists see it. Islam and Christianity are both Abramhic religions. Any group that accepts the inerrancy of Abramhic Law in the scriptures cannot accept a secular democracy. We are seeing that in the US with the pressures from the religious right.

posted by: Ron in Portland on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]

Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world. Its a democracy. As is Turkey. The premise that Islam is incompatible with democracy is demonstrably wrong. Catholicism could be argued to be incongruent with democracy by the same logic, but somehow it gets along. This is a cultural, not a religious issue, although they do intertwine. Traditionally, Islam made no distinctions between religous and political leaders. Ones knowledge and wisdom in the Qua'ran made one a leader, period. For instance, the Sultan was nominally the highest religious 'authority' in Islam during most of the middle ages. Nominally. Now this may be true in theory, but look around the Arab world, do any of these leaders (barring the Persian Ayatollahs I suppose) seem particularly well versed in Islam? Of course not, they are monarchs and generals, almost to a man. Yes, there are sects that wish to go back to the old ways, but the rank and file Arab and Persian is a lot more worldly than we give them credit for. I love how people judge the entire Muslim world by the raving of their fringe. Do be fooled, Arabs havent lived by the Islamic prototype in thousands of years. THey are clearly fed up with the fascists theyve been living under. I see no evidence that they wish to jump back to some type of fascist Islamic state by and large (again there is always the fringe). What they want is change, they look at the west and see the success of democracy, they look at Iran and the Taliban and see what their other choice is. Why in gods name are you people assuming theyll choose the latter? And again, please dont take the 'protests' of people with guns to their skulls as proof of their hatred for the west.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]

"thousands of years"
Well, a thousand anyway.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]

Sistani, Sistani, Sistani.

Juan Cole and Riverbend are doing a nice job discussing him, and his influence in Iraq. Cole, esp. points out that Sistani has influence over the UN and how he's manipulated it against the CPA. Riverbend points out he's not Iraqi, but Iranian. And frankly Iran can't stand him, so they kicked him out and sent him to Iraq.

Sistani has consistently taken opposite positions to the CPA. He doesn't even need to plan what he's going to say. He lets Brenner say it and then he denounces it. At best, he gives backhand compliments to the governing council.

He's also a demagoue within and without Iraq. He's built up a Shia base, and made political deals with other Shia leaders, not the least of which is al-Sadr. He's made nice with the UN, and by refusing to talk to the US directly and only through them, he's given the UN a realpolitik wedge to get back into Iraq. That's why Bush started kissing up to the UN again.

The CPA screwed up by the numbers by lacking a clearly articulated plan to create an democratically elected iraqi governement, by ignoring the existing Iraqi consitution, and by failing to coopt local leaders the opened the door to anarchy and backroom politics. If the CPA had taken the high ground from day 1 rather than treat Iraq like Afghanistan, this would have worked out better. Instead, by trying to convene an Iraqi loya jurga and by getting in bed with the INC, the CPA managed to annoy most of the people living in Iraq and given idealogues like Sistani plenty of fodder. What good the CPA does is out weighed by that fact that so much is bad. They would have been better off not powersharing for the first year, and then holding elections. Then, maybe, they would be able to accomplish something. By kissing up to a guy with no real power (i.e. military) they've given him the illusion of power.

What does Sistani want? An Iraq he controls. How isn't important, just as long as he gets to call the shots and hand out the plumbs. Alot like Ahmad Chalabi when you think about it. Beyond that, I don't think he really cares.


posted by: Carolian on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]

"... And perhaps the horse will sing."

Where does this tale originate? It's too short for 1001 Arabian Nights.

posted by: mabs on 03.11.04 at 02:22 PM [permalink]

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