Monday, August 02, 2004

Can Democracy Take Root in the Muslim Middle East?

On a day dominated by fear of an al Qaeda attack on American financial institutions and reaction to actual attacks on Christian churches in Iraq, it was interesting for me to finish reading a set of articles assessing the prospects for Middle East democracy in the Spring, 2004 issue of The Wilson Quarterly. Five articles---from Martin Walker, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Daniel Brumberg, and Haleh Esfandiari---tackle the subject from diverse vantage points.

What emerges, especially from Ibrahim's article, the one I most enjoyed, is a feeling that prospects are surprisingly upbeat for democracies that have respect for human rights to emerge in the Middle East.

One reason for such an assessment, as Ibrahim points out, is that the region has experienced flourishing democracies before. But the failure of those democracies to extend economic opportunities, along with military defeats incurred by moderate and democratic governments---most notably in 1948 and 1967---have hurt the development of democracy in the region. People have instead craved the security---financial, military, psychological---that they've felt democracies in the past have been unable to provide.

It appears to me that this multifaceted insecurity, along with the revulsion at western-supported royalist regimes like that in Saudi Arabia, have played a key role in fueling al Qaeda-style hostility to the United States.

But, according to Ibrahim, there is great desire for democracy in the Middle East today. He claims that the repressiveness of post-Shah Iran has turned many Muslims off to a radical Islamist approach to government. He writes:

What made the Islamic alternative especially credible was the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. The event gave a great moral boost to advocates of the Islamic vision in several Arab countries, who then posed a serious challenge to the entrenched populist regimes of Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, and Sudan. Only in Sudan did they manage to seize power, through a military coup in 1989. But the blood shed during the Islamists' challenge to regimes in Algeria and Egypt, and the harsh and backward implementation of sharia by the Islamic Salvation Front in Sudan and the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the 1990s, disillusioned many who had been hopeful. Even the revolution in Iran quickly ran out of steam, its version of the Islamic vision discredited by a reign of terror at home and adventurism abroad.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Ibrahaim says, Americans may have been inclined to envision a Muslim world virtually united in its hostility to democracy and to America. But he points out events that Muslim nations were as revolted by the attacks as Americans and that in three countries---Turkey, Morocco, and Bahrain---moderate Islamic parties committed to democracy, pluralism, and tolerance won election in late 2002.

He also mentions a World Values Survey showing widespread acceptance of democratic ideals among Jordanians. More than 70%, for example, believe that Islamic leaders should not influence political decisions.

It appears to me that one reason the terrorists working under the banner of Islam would attack churches is to promote this notion of a holy war between Islam and Christianity. And, as Ibrahim and others point out, the radical Islamists legitimize repression, violence, and an anti-democratic ideology by an appeal to Muslim notion of shariya. Shariya demands that governments and every citizen of the nation be forced to abide by strict observance of Islamic law. It simply forbids any other religion. Because of this idea, Osama bin Laden and other radical Islamists have expressed horror at the Western notion of "separation of Church and state," regarding it as a tenet of atheism.

For most Christians, the idea of the separation of Church and state is not a daunting thing. There are several reasons for this.

One is that Christians believe that faith is a voluntary proposition. Each person must for themselves decide whether they will acquiesce to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It's contrary to the teachings of Jesus and of the Bible for anyone to be coerced, whether by law or violence or other means, into a faith commitment to Christ. (Of course, that doesn't mean that some misguided pseudo-Christians haven't or don't try such tactics.) The New Testament insists that it is the kindness of God that brings people to repentance, not coercion.

Another is that embedded deep within Judeo-Christian history is the experience of being a marginalized people living under the dominion of governments whose religions, social systems, and basic assumptions about life were different from that of Jews and Christians. Ancient Israel was overrun and overtaken by foreign rulers. Judea in Jesus' time was under Roman rule. The early Church was often persecuted by that empire. Yet, for all the differences with ruling authorities, believers in the God of the Bible were encouraged to obey their rulers, so long as those rulers didn't ask them to violate God's holiness. (To see how these two elements are held in tension, you might want to read Romans 12 and 13 in the New Testament.) So, long ago, most Christians embraced the notion that while people of faith can live and function faithfully within a society with whose values they don't entirely agree, certainly an attitude necessary for the proper functioning of democracy.

According to Ibrahim's historical survey anyway, Islamic nations have in the past shown the flexibility necessary to make democracy work and done so in a way consistent with their heritage. He feels they can do so again and really want to do so. From what little I know, I'm inclined to agree with him.

Whether the American war in Iraq, arousing and feeding the anger of the region's most well-organized political and terror organizations, the radical Islamists, is going to prove a speed bump or facilitator to the development of democracy in the Middle East remains to be seen. I recommend getting this issue of The Wilson Quarterly. Then, write your comments here and tell me what you think.

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