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God, Man, and the Ballot Box

From the Magazine: Monday, November 24, 2008

Why, despite everything, George W. Bush was right about democratization in the Middle East.

In the summer of 2002, you could have filled the conference halls of Washington’s largest think tanks with people who were in favor of advancing democracy among Middle Eastern Muslims. Few then would have disagreed openly with Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, former counterterrorism officials in the Clinton administration and the authors of The Age of Sacred Terror, who saw the spread of representative government as an essential tool in the battle against jihadism. A wide array of American liberals and conservatives backed the U.S.-led war in Iraq partly because they believed that the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime might give way to a more liberal, democratic order.

Although the “realists,” who preferred maintaining the authoritarian status quo in the region, still wielded considerable influence, especially in the State Department, the pro-democracy forces had greater momentum—and, in George W. Bush, they had the first American president who believed sincerely in Muslim democracy. For many democracy advocates, Iraq was going to be the great test. Iraqis were supposed to be the most secular of Muslim Arabs, this being perhaps the only positive byproduct of decades of Baathist tyranny. Freed from Saddam’s horrors, thankful Iraqi Arabs might even be able to do the unthinkable: help other Arabs see that there are far worse things in this world than Israelis.

There is probably no more pressing issue among Middle Eastern Muslims than the increasingly vibrant marriage of Islamism and democracy.

Today, few in the Washington policy community want to talk about bringing representative government to the Middle East. Our military travails in Iraq and Afghanistan; the triumph of religious “sectarians” in Iraq’s 2005 national elections; the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories; and the realization that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the intellectual mother-ship of Sunni fundamentalism, would probably win in unrigged balloting—all of this has extinguished the Bush administration’s enthusiasm for promoting elections among Middle Eastern Muslims. Although the president still believes in a freedom agenda, it seems that nobody around him wants to spend time discussing the future of democracy from Rabat to Tehran.

Senior Bush administration officials aren’t alone. Most of the former democracy enthusiasts in unofficial Washington now focus their attention on human (especially women’s) rights unconnected to the ballot box. Many either dismiss or forget what they said earlier. Liberals seem little different than conservatives; indeed, such disparate figures as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, Joe Klein, Fareed Zakaria, and Charles Krauthammer say similar things:

We should go slowly in promoting Middle Eastern democracy. Casting ballots should come at the end of a process that begins with building the secular institutions that sustain representative government. Whatever the West did from Runnymede until the foundation of true democracy in Europe and the United States, Middle Eastern Muslims must somehow do, too—before fundamentalists have a chance to vote.

Although critics of the democratization agenda rarely praise Arab dictatorships, they essentially argue that secular autocracies, regardless of their sins, are better than illiberal “Islamic democrats” who hate America and who will either abort or render meaningless future elections once they gain power. In the critics’ view, democracy could easily become a tool of Islamic extremism, rather than an antidote to it. Therefore, we must hold our noses and support, if necessary, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the West Bank’s Mahmoud Abbas, and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, because après eux, le déluge. In just seven years, we have entered a post-post-9/11 world.

This is a mistake. There is probably no more pressing issue among Middle Eastern Muslims than the increasingly vibrant marriage of Islamism and democracy. Indeed, the coming years will likely see large numbers of Islamists and ordinary Muslims demanding the right to vote. The more one studies Islam’s historic peoples—the Arabs, Iranians, and Turks—the more convinced he becomes that democracy is the only serious, legitimate political ideal on the Muslim horizon, as fundamentalists and Middle Eastern autocrats alike are realizing.

Middle Eastern regimes didn’t amplify their democratic rhetoric in 2004 and 2005 just to appease Washington. It is questionable how much the region’s rulers feared a U.S. administration humbled by Iraq, whose words rarely matched its (punitive) actions. The autocrats were probably more wary of their own populations: the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon briefly captivated the Middle East, as did the Iraqi national elections a few months earlier.

In the summer of 2007, long after the Bush administration had given up any effort to encourage democracy and protect democratic dissidents in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood released a political platform, the first in its history, designed to help the organization gain ground among the Egyptian people and introduce more philosophical coherence to internal Brotherhood debates about representative government. Slowly but surely it has become the most popular political and cultural force in the country. The publication of its platform indicates that the Brotherhood sees an opportunity to boost its profile in a changing Egyptian political environment— an opportunity that never existed under Gamal Abdel Nasser or Anwar Sadat.

Slowly but surely the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has become the most popular political and cultural force in Egypt.

Both American liberals and conservatives, like Middle Eastern autocrats, have been hopeful that the ongoing debate among Muslim fundamentalists about al-Qaeda’s sanguinary zeal—a zeal that has led to far more Muslims being killed than Americans or Israelis—signals the beginning of the end of al-Qaeda’s appeal to the hearts and minds of young Muslims tempted to kill and die for the faith. This hope is probably well founded. A consensus has developed among Arab Muslim fundamentalists that Islamic militants went too far in their embrace of violence in Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Muslims who once condoned the slaughter of innocents as acceptable collateral damage in a righteous cause are now wondering whether God will damn all those who kill believers, even infidels, in his name.

This reconsideration of God, man, and holy war is likely to reinforce fundamentalists’ growing conversation about God, man, and the ballot box. Both discussions revolve around what actions make men and their societies righteous. An increasing number of devout Muslims reckon that democracy is the only means of returning Islamic society to a more virtuous state. Where secular dictatorships have sullied the community’s mores, democracy will aid religion and allow more virtuous men to lead society.

A Vehicle for Expressing God’s Will

The Islamic state is a civil state, which means that political offices and roles are filled by elected citizens who are responsible through constitutional mechanisms for all conduct and behavior in governing [with the aim of] achieving the true popular will. The people are the source of authority leading to the maintenance of society’s security ….

Although we can easily find scary commentary and actions by many important members of the Muslim Brotherhood, we can just as easily find deeds and words like the quote above, from the organization’s political platform. We must consider the strong possibility that these men are not simply theocrats-in-waiting. Rather, they are religiously and politically evolving, marrying as best they can, sometimes in a highly contradictory manner, Islam and the West.

A similar process has occurred in Turkey. When I first arrived there in the mid-1980s, the Islamist slice of the electorate was hovering just under 10 percent. Most U.S. officials thought this represented a popular ceiling. They were wrong. The Islamist segment is now somewhere between 30 percent and 40 percent. Repeatedly, the Turkish military and the courts have gone after fundamentalists, banning their politicians and dissolving their political parties. This “proctoring” may well have obliged the Islamists to evolve intellectually and spiritually. It has not damaged their popularity.

If we assume that Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other senior members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym, AKP) are engaging in a democratic charade, and that their ultimate goal is to shred Turkey’s secularist constitution, then it is a charade that a large number of Turks support. Those in the West and in Turkey who would like to see AKP disbanded are effectively asking for dictatorial rule by a secular minority.

An increasing number of devout Muslims reckon that democracy is the only means of returning Islamic society to a more virtuous state.

If free elections were held in Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia, we would likely see Islamist parties develop a following that rivaled that of AKP. The same might be true in Jordan and Morocco, where tradition-loving monarchies are careful to give Islamist parties sufficient leeway to play politics (and thereby damage their popularity) but not enough freedom to challenge the regime electorally. Even in Saudi Arabia, where the enormous royal family extends into the center of tribal and religious power, Islamist movements could challenge the regime at the ballot box. Saudi Arabia is more diverse than many people realize. Its most populous region, the Hijaz, has historically been a land of pilgrimage, trade, and deep intellectual contact with the outside world. By contrast, the Nejd region—the heartland of the Wahhabis—has been more insular and suspicious of foreigners. It is highly possible that the oppressive intensity of religious politics in Saudi Arabia has made the Wahhabis and their royal protectors unpopular. A free vote could reveal this.

The arguments against “rapid” democratization in all of these countries—we must not rush what took the West centuries to achieve, the cultural barriers are still too high, etc.—are philosophically quite similar to the arguments that American and European conservatives once used to justify white-minority rule in southern Africa. Morally, this position is hard to sustain. Politically, it is a train wreck.

Despite all the modern Western ingredients in its brew, contemporary Islamic fundamentalism is an authentic, deeply historical expression of Muslim anxiety and anger. What the central lands of Islam are experiencing is a rediscovery of the need for some religious charisma in politics. This charismatic impulse—a frequent occurrence in Muslim history when society is in shock, feels both threatened and more vigorous, and sees itself drowning in injustice—can lead to profound intellectual agitation and political mobilization: witness the Muslim Brotherhood today. It can also lead to violence, as it did with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden.

In times of stress, Muslims naturally try to find a vehicle for expressing God’s will. It is probably fair to say that at no time since the early years of the faith have we seen a period in which so many Muslims believe they are living in an illegitimate era. For the most devout, this can be literally a question of salvation: how do they, as a community, maintain their goodness when their rulers lead the community into sin?

More and more Middle Eastern Muslims—not just holy warriors like bin Laden—feel it is increasingly difficult to live as good Muslims under today’s regimes. What we are seeing now is the “routinization” of this search for Islamic inspiration through the embrace of democracy. Any legitimate form of government in the Muslim Middle East must be viewed as complementary to the Prophet Muhammad’s legacy and the Holy Law. Any secular political system that makes a frontal assault on the clergy, the guardians of Islamic traditions, has virtually no chance of gaining sufficient popular support to be deemed legitimate.

Islamic ‘Values Voters’

The democratic idea is triumphing among devout Muslims for two reasons: democracy is the only alternative to dictatorship, and it is considered a vehicle for protecting “Islamic values.” This view is enormously strong among senior Shiite clergy in the Iraqi city of Najaf, who appear to believe quite firmly that the majority of Iraqi Muslims are good Muslims, and that a democratic Iraq has to be morally superior to what came before.

If Arab Muslims want to vote for their leaders—and the evidence from the highly Westernized and urbanized countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, and Iraq indicates that they do—the clerical establishment is unlikely to fight a successful rearguard action against it. Sunni Arab legislatures probably will not have severe competition from their respective clerical establishments. The competition will be more vigorous among Shia Muslims. Their clergy have enjoyed greater independence from government, and thus wield greater moral authority. But the Iraqi example is illustrative. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the clerics of Najaf have seen that politics is a double-edged sword: if they support a legislative project or political party, they can get blamed if the project goes awry or the party does not perform well. Meanwhile, the Iranian dictatorship has shown Muslim clergy everywhere that repressive theocracy can generate widespread popular opposition.

As Sistani has pointed out, the only way to restore a more organic relationship between political leaders and the rest of society is through the ballot box. In the beginning of the democratization process, Muslim communities will likely organize and vote as communities, not as a collection of individuals allied together by their selfish interests (the Madisonian way). Historically, Muslims identified themselves as an umma (a community) and sought salvation together. The communitarian disposition—the need to separate the world between believers and unbelievers—is still enormously strong. Democracy offers the possibility for the umma, as a community, to safeguard Muslims against attacks by religious or secular extremists.

Osama bin Laden and his more intellectual chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are savagely opposed to democracy among Muslims, especially Iraqi Muslims, because they know what it represents: the end of an ethical order in which their violence makes sense. Bin Laden and Zawahiri can cite many rebellious Islamic theologians who depicted a virtuous Muslim community being led astray by impious rulers. But if they or other radicals try to prevent Muslims from voting en masse in the big Arab states, they will be either exiled or killed and consigned to philosophical irrelevance.

Democracy Promotion After Bush

With or without us, Middle Eastern Muslims are moving in a democratic direction. We don’t know whether their experiment with representative government will succeed or fail. Majoritarian democracy, which is what we are likely to see at least in the early years of fundamentalist-dominated governments in the Arab world, can always crack up in wild swings of passion and suspicion.

Unlike the autocracies we see in the Middle East today, democracies express the will of the people, and thus have the power to change fundamentally.

Devout Muslim democrats are not likely to be fond of the United States or Europe or Israel, and they will resist strongly Western criticism of illiberal Islamic democracy. But unlike the autocracies we see in the Middle East today, democracies express the will of the people, and thus have the power to change fundamentally. As long as Muslim women are allowed the right to vote—and no serious fundamentalist movement with street power has proposed disenfranchising them—the impact of the female vote on the future of Islamic societies will be profound and healthy. Muslim women may not vote the way Western women want them to, but they will surely vote in ways that increase their own security and the security of their children.

Political evolution will begin when Muslim men and women start voting. A basic respect for the dignity of Muslims ought to prevent Western officials from indulging the Middle East’s ruling elites, who have shown so little regard for the people below them. These autocrats offer only an illusion of progress and security. Since World War II, they have, with only a few exceptions, made their societies miserable.

The promise of Islamic democracy offers something different. It holds out the possibility that, for the first time since the early caliphs, there will be an organic, reciprocal relationship between Muslim leaders and their communities. This could end Islam’s long history of rebellious violence and redirect the faith’s unrequited struggle to produce more virtuous men. It could give Middle Eastern Muslims some of the elemental, non-threatening pride and self-confidence that Americans, the oldest modern democrats, have in spades.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His next book on democracy and the Arab world will be published by AEI Press in December.

Image by Getty Images/Ghaith Abdul-Ahad.

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