TCS Daily

Liberty and the Arab World

By Ken Adelman - July 4, 2002 12:00 AM

The 4th of July prompts reflections on democracy.

As we celebrate our national holiday, we Americans, as a people, assert that there are "certain inalienable rights -- among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," which apply to all people, and not just all Americans. Such inalienable rights make a person fully human, able to realize everything she or he can be, anywhere and everywhere.

Even in Arabia.

Ah, there's the rub. Last week in a stunning step, President Bush demanded an open, democratic Palestinian Authority without Yasir Arafat: "I call upon them [the Palestinians] to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty." He envisioned Palestine with "a vibrant economy where honest enterprise is encouraged by honest government."

But why advocate liberty and honest government just for Palestinians? Why not hold out the same standard for all Arab countries?

Now that would really be a radical departure. Not in rhetoric, since the President said a few weeks ago at West Point: "The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation. And their governments should listen to them."

Yet right between these two pro-democracy/anti-corrupt dictator pitches, Bush graciously hosted the anti-democracy, corrupt dictators from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. These two Arab states, the richest and the biggest, notably lack vibrant economies, honest enterprises, or honest governments.

An expanded Bush push for liberty and honest government is not just a moral preference. It has become a national security requirement.

For radical Islam will continue to spread through madrasses, universities, and media - fostering hatred against American and other decent civilizations - unless some decent regimes arise in Arab states, and more generally throughout the Islamic world.

As measured by the nonpartisan, highly respected Freedom House, the Arab world is unique for its undemocratic ways, and all the trends have been going the wrong way:

  • Arab League meetings are the only official international meetings held without one single legitimate, elected government. This hasn't happened among other governmental groups since the Warsaw Pact met under Moscow's dictates.
  • Of the 17 Arab countries, not a single one is deemed "free" in political rights and civil liberties;
  • Among all Arab states, not one is considered an "electoral democracy;
  • Of the 47 Islamic-majority countries, merely one is deemed "free" - and that's (no, you couldn't guess it!), Mali, which is really no big deal;
  • A huge "democracy gap" exists between Islamic and non-Islamic states, as "a non-Islamic state is nearly three times more likely to be democratic than an Islamic state;"
  • Worse yet, the trends are going in opposite directions - towards more democracy in non-Islamic states vs. towards more repression in Islamic states.

The president Freedom House, Adrian Karatnycky, explains a stunning contradiction: "While the countries of Latin America, Africa, East-Central Europe, and South and East Asia experienced significant gains for democracy and freedom over the last 20 years, the countries of the Islamic world experienced an equally significant increase in repressive regimes." Such "opposite trends," Karatnycky goes on to explain, "have contributed to a growing gap between the Islamic world and the rest of humanity."

Besides moral motives for spreading inalienable rights into Arab and Islamic states are compelling national security interests for the U.S.

Non-democratic regimes lack legitimacy. Hence, non-democratic regimes often rely upon force, frequently resorting to varying degrees of terrorism at home. Consequently, such regimes are far more likely to use, sponsor, justify, and host terrorism abroad.

Moreover, a functioning democracy must practice -- and hence teach -- tolerance and respect for people of different races, religions, genders and cultures. It is far more likely to practice abroad what it preaches at home.

So now, U.S. security imperatives dictate what the U.S. should hold all Arab nations to the same standards of liberty and "honest government" now prescribed for Palestine.

What if the Palestinians, in a democratic vote, choose Yasir Arafat? Well, they can make their choice. Then we can make our choice on whom to trust. A vote for Arafat would be a vote against democratic principles, just as clearly as where the 1933 votes for Adolph Hitler in Germany's last democratic vote in two decades.

Twenty years ago this summer, President Reagan delivered a spectacular speech on how, eventually, the Cold War would not be decided by "bombs and rockets, but a test of wills and ideas." In that now-famous Westminster Speech, Reagan pledged to "foster the infrastructure of democracy - the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities - which allows a people to choose their own way."

It's time for President Bush to pull a Reagan. It's time for him to give a Westminster-type speech, pledging moral, political, and financial support to spread throughout the Arab world, even throughout the Islamic world, those inalienable rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" we're so lucky to be celebrating this summer.



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