In his speech today on democracy in the Middle East, President Bush said: “Some skeptics of democracy assert that the traditions of Islam are inhospitable to the representative government. This ‘cultural condescension,’ as Ronald Reagan termed it, has a long history. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, a so-called Japan expert asserted that democracy in that former empire would ‘never work.’ Another observer declared the prospects for democracy in post-Hitler Germany are, and I quote, ‘most uncertain at best’ — he made that claim in 1957.”
I have been skeptical in print about the possibilities for democracy in Iraq. As such, two questions:
1. Is it “cultural condescension” if the skepticism about democracy in an Islamic context that the President derides comes from Muslims themselves? In the article I linked to above I quote the radical Muslim writer Abdul Qader Abdul Aziz, who explicitly rules out Western political models for Islamic societies: “[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.”
This man is not alone. Muslim theorists throughout the world have derided democracy, declaring it a Western import, foreign to Islam. See Onward Muslim Soldiers for profiles of several of them, notably the influential Egyptian radical Muslim writer Sayyid Qutb. Does this mean that democracy must fail in Iraq? Certainly not. But Mr. President, I hope you are aware that skepticism about the compatibility of Islam and democracy comes not only from those who indulge in “cultural condescension,” but also from significant elements within Islam.
2. Japan’s state Shinto and Germany’s Nazism were discredited and repudiated ideologies after World War II. What real evidence is there that radical Islam is today in Iraq or anywhere else a discredited and repudiated ideology, or that it will come to be one because of any actions by Americans or others in the future?
I share Bush’s hope that democracy will take hold in the Middle East. But with all respect I believe that to gloss over the real obstacles it faces only sets us up for disappointment and worse.
(Postscript: As readers have pointed out, Bush also said this: “It should be clear to all that Islam — the faith of one-fifth of humanity — is consistent with democratic rule. Democratic progress is found in many predominantly Muslim countries — in Turkey and Indonesia, and Senegal and Albania, Niger and Sierra Leone. Muslim men and women are good citizens of India and South Africa, of the nations of Western Europe, and of the United States of America.
More than half of all the Muslims in the world live in freedom under democratically constituted governments.”
Granted. I think it would be as asinine as the President suggests it would to say that Muslims can’t live in democracies. But the problem with the states he mentioned, although each is quite different from the other, is that none of them are “Islamic democracies.” That is, none are constituted as democracies by means of Islamic principles. All have stepped away from Sharia in varying degrees in order to establish, insofar as they have, democratic rule. That being the case, each is under pressure, again in varying degrees, from elements within each country who believe that the government is illegitimate on Islamic grounds. And the ideology of those people not only has not been discredited, it is quite widespread today, notably in Iraq.
So what I wish the President would address, since he has brought up the subject, is how he intends to deal, and how he thinks Muslims ought to deal, with the Sharia and with those who think that it must be the foundation of any Muslim state. Because those people are not outsiders being condescending, they are insiders in Muslim society and they are not going away.)