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Community forum: No magic wand for the Middle East

There is a persistent call here in the United States, particularly in today’s politically charged campaign season, for democracy to take over in the Middle East. We hear it from virtually every quarter — from the White House, from Republicans of almost every hue, and from pundits who write on Middle Eastern affairs. Clearly, America wants democracy to prosper in that region.
And it certainly would be nice. But just how likely is that to happen?
Today’s Middle East and North African national borders were established or codified under European colonial rule in the 19th and 20th centuries for the advantage, convenience and profit of those colonial powers. Those borders ignored or cynically exacerbated many sectarian, tribal and ethnic differences that were of major importance to local populations.
The virtual ignoring of tribal and sectarian issues, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the discounting of the importance of ethnic-identity issues for Kurds, Persians, Arabs, Central Asians and Turks in virtually all of the post-World War II states that emerged out of the European colonial era, stand as examples of the indifference of the colonial powers to issues that ultimately would create the major divisions and difficulties that exist today.
Much of America has long believed that we have the world’s best existing economic (market) and governmental (liberal democracy) systems. This belief has been often been the cornerstone of our foreign policy. Coupled with an inherent American tendency to evangelize, we have often sought to spread our systems around the world and to combat those systems that were not compatible with it.
The problem with this approach is that it does not sufficiently take into account already existing governmental, economic and belief structures. It never asks, as can be seen in our recent Middle East policy, whether the ground abroad is sufficiently fertile for the cultivation and establishment of democracy.
The unfortunate fact is that the region has virtually no experience with liberal democracy. The region is mired in tribalism, sectarianism, brutally imposed secularism or Islamic law, dictatorships and monarchies. None of these are steppingstones to liberal democratic governance. We have tribes almost everywhere, significant military power in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran and Jordan, to name but a few, and Islam everywhere.
Democracy doesn’t simply spring up, particularly in populations with little to no history of self-rule. Democracy has certain preconditions: It must have the active, unfettered participation of the people as citizens in politics and civic life; national and regional tolerance of pluralism; a general and equal right to vote; free and fair elections; the rule of law; and a guarantee of basic human rights vis-à-vis the state and its authorities, not just for individuals but also for all social groups, particularly religious ones. Not least of all, it must have a constitution to codify all these preconditions.
Muslims tend to believe in and be content with Islam. Islam may have glaring deficiencies from our point of view, but by and large our view is not shared by Muslims. Islam provides the believer with a complete blueprint for life. An essentially content group of Muslim believers cannot be viewed as ripe for conversion to democracy as many of democracy’s basic tenets are diametrically opposed to the teachings of the Koran.
In this regard, the Koran states “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient and guard in the husband’s absence what Allah orders them to guard.”
Issues involving women’s rights, violence against women, divorce, dress code, education, employment, rape, sexuality, etc., etc., although they do vary from country to country, do not recognize women as even vaguely equal to men or deserving of the same rights. On the issue of women alone, democracy and Islam have little in common.
Almost all of our politicians and pundits, both past and present, speak glowingly of a transition in the Middle East to democracy. However, there is nothing in past history or contemporary reality that could logically argue that the region is ready for such a transition. Unfortunately, when American politicians speak of democracy this way, their American audience assumes this to mean that we will see a democratic Middle East in the near future.
There is no magic democratic wand for the Middle East. The absolute best we can hope for are moderate Islamist regimes. The worst result will be fundamentalist regimes of the type supported by the Salafis and Wahhabis, or any other group that a calls for a return to the fundamentalist practices of the early Muslims, or for renewed dictatorships. We need to get the notion of a democratic Islam in the short term out of our heads and focus on supporting moderate Islamists. Only they have any possibility of successfully confronting Islamic extremists and ultimately evolving into liberal democracies. The timelines for that kind of change are likely to be measured in decades at best and centuries at worst.
In the interim, we might want to concentrate on proving to a skeptical Middle East and greater world that our systems work for us Americans, let alone anyone else. What has happened to John Winthrop’s “shining city upon a hill”?

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