Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Democracy in the Islamic Middle East - a scary prospect for American policy-makers

[Published in Today's Zaman, February 1, 2011]

I understand “realpolitik.” I am familiar with the driving concept of “national interest,” as espoused by Hans Morgenthau of the University of Chicago in the 1950’s that has been at the center of American foreign policy ever since. It is a policy that often leads the U.S. to make “friends” with dictators, kings, and other nefarious people to sustain a strategic partnership, regional defensive effort, or stability that supports U.S. interests abroad.

When no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, the Bush administration changed its discourse and switched to “democracy” as its justification for the invasion in 2003. After all, Saddam Hussein was a “bad guy” anyway, even if his role as a “war on terror” target made little sense. Ironically, the unfairness of the invasion led to more terror in the world and more need for the Western alliance to lend support for undemocratic and unjust regimes to protect its interests.

The Winds of Democracy

Now, in the Middle East, an area of the world with many repressive regimes and long-term leaders who have remained in power by suppressing democratic representation by means of military power, constrictive constitutions, sham parliaments, lack of free speech and individual rights, and systems that have hard-wired support for the government’s party making it impossible for an opposition to take hold, something amazing is happening: from Tunisia to Yemen, to Egypt, to Jordan people have awakened from years of subjugation by being pushed to the brink by political dysfunction and economic destitution. They have started to express themselves by means of the only option left for them, and the only venue they know: taking to the streets.

America’s response is telling, and disappointing. Not long before Ben Ali fled Tunisia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that her government was “not taking sides” in that conflict. Last Friday, in the heat of the street demonstrations and battles all over Egypt, she pressed for non-violence and “reforms,” once again not taking sides against a close personal friend and long-time U.S. ally, President Mubarak, seen as a key to “stability” in the Middle East. The American news anchor of CNN International could not help asking, “Who is behind the demonstrations in Egypt?” a question which expresses a mindset suspicious of the genuineness of democracy and welfare demands of the masses in the streets. In a similar vein, he said that the U.S. would be very interested in knowing if the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups were involved in these demonstrations, which “would change things substantially.” Really? This is the same old Cold War mentality, which we can now call the War on Terror mentality, which believes that if it is organized by Islamic groups, the demands of the masses in the streets are not genuinely democratic and not on “our” side. The reports of Al Jazeera were refreshingly free of this perspective, reports that are not seen in the U.S. That network knows the difference between Islamic and Islamist, and also that the latter term can mean any type of political movement, not simply the “bad” one in the minds of the West.

Democracy at the Expense of Stability

How sad. Earth to America: the vast majority of people in the Middle East are Islamic. Their political parties and organizations come in many variations but for the most part are simply made up of people who have not had a voice in their various countries and have suffered politically, economically, and socially. Freely expressing that voice comes with democracy.

During the Cold War, for those of us old enough to remember, the world got used to America’s defense of “the free world” against the scourge of communism. Radio Free Europe and other information organizations constantly spread the word, until it seems the Soviet Union, our “evil empire,” succumbed to the words of Ronald Reagan and the Berlin Wall fell. Was the defense of democracy just rhetoric?

Democracy in the Middle East is a volatile concept. It’s unpredictable, has an unforeseen path, and hardly breeds stability and peace. At Davos, Tony Blair called for an “orderly” path of change in the Middle East, reminding us once more that the magic words “orderly” or “stable” are the only safeguards for protecting strategic, economic and political interests of the bloc he represents amid the sea change that is bound to take place in this part of the world. Blair forgets that “stability” is a precious concept only when it nourishes, protects and cherishes democracy, not dictatorships.

“Democracy We Can Believe In”?

That is not the only reason that word – democracy -- is no longer heard from American and Western policy-makers. The main reason is that the West has a very hard time grasping two concepts together: democracy and Islam. When those concepts are mixed together, eyebrows wince and lips are tightened or become silent. It might work, perhaps in Iraq, in a purely secular way, via elections, as long as Islamic-centered parties are not involved and Islamic traditions do not conflict with an American view of democracy.

But democracy is not simply an American concept. The Greeks gave birth to the concept before America existed, when London was barely farm land, before the rise of nation-states. The concept of a people deciding on how they shall govern themselves does not impose hard and fast rules on a particular form of representation or government or how religion is practiced. It simply enables people to decide for themselves, which sometimes may differ from the values and cultures of others and which sometimes produces unhappiness given that democracies have different trajectories in different conditions.

Democracy in the Middle East can be very messy and bring instability. In many ways it is a dangerous concept. This is particularly the case when political institutions in a country have not been allowed to develop, when participation has been repressed for decades, when political power originates from the end of a gun and not the support of a people. It takes some struggle, instability, uncertainty, ups and downs and time to develop civil and political institutions; rules on how polemical discourse is resolved; and how the transition of political power takes place without violence.

On the other hand, democracy is the answer to terrorism and the best solution to terrorist groups who have been rewarded with too much notoriety and press coverage by the West without due consideration given to the average person who struggles each day to find work, make a living, raise children, and hold a family together in peace. In the long run, it would be nice if America and the West could manage to place that concept within the context of countries where Islam is the main religion, allowing them to define on their own how Islam and democracy are manifested.

*Richard Peres is a writer and journalist living in Istanbul http://richperes.blogspot.com rich.peres@gmail.com

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