Does President Bush have a realistic plan for bringing democracy to the Middle East?
By Robert Spencer
March 28, 2003
No: Insisting that the nations of the Middle East choose between Western-style democracy or the terror state will do more harm than good.
The president believes that democracy can succeed in Iraq, and in the Islamic world in general, because human nature is the same everywhere on earth. “It is presumptuous and insulting,” he told the American Enterprise Institute, “to suggest that a whole region of the world — for the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim — is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life. Human cultures can be vastly different. Yet the human heart desires the same good things, everywhere on earth.”
One of those good things, according to Bush, is democracy. “In our desire to be safe from brutal and bullying oppression, human beings are the same. In our desire to care for our children and give them a better life, we are the same. For these fundamental reasons, freedom and democracy will always and everywhere have greater appeal than the slogans of hatred and the tactics of terror.”
Yet, are those really our only choices? Human history is full of regimes that were neither democratic nor terrorist. In the world today there are Muslim regimes that are not democracies or terror states, and their existence points to a third possibility. Many in Saddam’s Iraq will want his secular regime to be succeeded by one that more or less conforms to the dictates of Islamic Shariah law. The president is correct that people want to be free from oppression and to seek a better life, but the particularities of what makes for that better life may differ markedly from place to place. As Bush himself notes, human cultures are different.
Bush, however, has nothing but harsh words for those who claim that Middle Eastern culture is so different as to rule out democracy. “There was a time,” he reminded his audience at the American Enterprise Institute on Feb. 26, “when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken. The nation of Iraq, with its proud heritage, abundant resources and skilled and educated people, is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom.”
The post-World War II parallel is gaining wide currency. Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya recently was surprised to find, according to George Packer in the New York Times Magazine, “the chairman of the Iraqi National Congress reading a thick tome on the reconstruction of postwar Germany.”
However, warns Packer, “Anyone seeking historical lessons for a democratic Iraq has to face the fact that Germany before Hitler was liberal compared with Iraq before Saddam.” And not only that. After all, in postwar Japan the emperor told his subjects that contrary to what they had been taught all their lives, he was not divine. He formally renounced the religious justifications that had fueled the drive to war. In postwar Iraq, will anyone renounce the radical Islam that Saddam skillfully has purveyed to bolster his regime since the Persian Gulf War?
In light of Islam’s unique characteristics as a political and social system, as well as an individual faith, the models of Japan and Germany may be less revelatory about the prospects of democracy in a Muslim nation than that of Iraq’s neighbor to the North — Turkey.
Historically, democracy has had a hard time in Muslim countries. Things started off on a bad foot when, in order to establish the first Western-style democracy with a largely Muslim population, Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk virtually declared war on Islam. Ataturk, an open admirer of the West, looked upon his Muslim homeland and saw a benighted nation held back by its religion. He dealt the entire world of Islam a body blow in 1924 when he abolished the caliphate.
The caliph was the successor of the prophet Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community; the great Islamic empires of the Middle Ages were governed by various caliphs whose names still resonate with Muslims today. Although the caliphate had declined significantly in power and influence by the time Ataturk administered the coup de grace, the caliph was still an enormously important element of the Islamic intellectual and theological landscape. For one thing, most Sunni Muslim legal scholars taught that only the caliph could declare a jihad, a struggle to defend the house of Islam from its enemies. Without a caliph, in the eyes of many Muslims, the Islamic world was left defenseless before its foes.
Osama bin Laden and other radical Muslims trace the oppression of the Muslim world by the West and other ills that the umma, the worldwide Muslim community, is suffering today to the abolishment of the caliphate. The radical British-based Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad laments that “the Muslim umma has never before been in a position where we are divided into over 55 nations each with its own oppressive kufr [infidel] regime ruling above us. There is no doubt therefore that the vital issue for the Muslims today is to establish the Khilafah [caliphate].”
Ataturk extended his war against Islam down to the most minute details of daily life in Turkey. “The civilized world,” he declared, “is far ahead of us. We have no choice but to catch up. It is time to stop nonsense, such as ‘Should we or should we not wear hats?’ We shall adopt hats along with all other works of Western civilization. Uncivilized people are doomed to be trodden under the feet of civilized people.” Ataturk labored to establish a strictly secular state with no participation in government from any Muslim group.
The result? The French historian Paul Dumont wrote that Ataturk’s reforms created “a shock wave through the country which has not yet died out.” Pious Muslim Turks blamed every setback the country suffered on the enforced secularization. According to Ataturk’s biographer Andrew Mango, the average Turk believed that “misery was the fruit of impiety, prosperity the reward of obedience to the law of Islam.”
Pressure on the regime mounted steadily until by the 1950s Turkish governments started to play up Islamic sentiments in order to maintain their grip on power. The politician Necmettin Erbakan led Islamic opposition to the secular government for more than 30 years, culminating in a year as prime minister in 1996 and 1997, during which then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright wrang her hands about the “drift of Turkey away from secularism.” Erbakan was removed by Turkey’s military but, in November 2002, Turks again voted Islamists into power. What will come of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that if anyone is on the defensive, it is the secularists.
Turkey’s experience may be unique, but there is no reason to think that any secular democracy established in an Islamic country will escape pressure from Muslims who want to restore Shariah. None has so far. Even Muslim reformers have recognized that an Islamic democracy would be quite different from the polity designed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The great Muslim thinker Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935), for example, began his career as a disciple of the modernist Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), who attempted to redefine traditional Islamic concepts to make them compatible with secular Western ideas. But after World War I even Rida grew progressively more disenchanted with the West. Ultimately, he insisted that “the affairs of the Islamic state must be conducted within the framework of a constitution that is inspired by the Koran, the Hadith [sayings of the prophet Muhammad] and the experiences of the Rightly Guided Caliphs [the four leaders of the Islamic community after Muhammad].”
This jibes with the assessment of the Tunisian theorist Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi, author of an intriguing essay entitled “Islam and Liberal Democracy: The Limits of the Western Model.” In it, he opines: “The heart of the matter is that no Islamic state can be legitimate in the eyes of its subjects without obeying the main teachings of the Shariah.” Rather than looking to Western models, Islamic states should look to their own tradition: “Islam should be the main frame of reference for the constitution and laws of predominantly Muslim countries.”
Within that frame of reference freedom means something quite different from what it does in the West. Governments that follow it in whole or in part generally have a poor record on women’s rights. Women suffer restrictions that are quite severe in some parts of the Islamic world; in some places they cannot even leave their homes without their husband’s permission. Their testimony is disallowed in cases of a sexual nature, even if they are raped.
Shariah law also sets penalties, some of which have become quite notorious: amputation for theft, stoning for adultery. Can this structure be modified? Some countries already follow a modified, modernized version of Shariah law. But all suffer the same pressures that have nearly destroyed Turkish secularism: A sizable number of Muslims regard the Shariah not as a man-made construct but as the eternal law of God. As such, they maintain that such modifications are illegitimate — as are elections and parliamentary debate. One does not vote on the will of Allah.
The radical Muslim writer Abdul Qader Abdul Aziz explicitly rules out Western political models in lauding the Shariah: “The perfection of the Shariah means that it is not in need for any of the previous abrogated religions [that is, Judaism and Christianity] or any human experiences — like the man-made laws or any other philosophy. … [I]n kufr, or disbelief, is the one who claims that the Muslims are in need for the systems of democracy, communism or any other ideology, without which the Muslims lived and applied the rules of Allah in matters that faced them for 14 centuries.”
In view of opinions like these, which are widely held within the Islamic world, the question is not so much whether the president’s vision is realistic, but whether he can convince the majority of Muslims that it is. Certainly he will find proponents of democracy in Iraq and elsewhere. But the primary opponents of these democrats will not be terrorists, but those who hold that no government has any legitimacy unless it obeys the Shariah. Even if they lose in the short run, they will not disappear as long as there are people who take the Koran and Islamic tradition seriously. And that spells trouble for any genuine democracy.
Spencer is an adjunct fellow with the Free Congress Foundation and author of Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World’s Fastest-Growing Faith. He is working on a new book, Onward Muslim Soldiers: Jihad Then and Now