TCS Daily

Elections and the Muslim World

By Stephen Schwartz - October 1, 2004 12:00 AM

We are approaching a cycle of elections that will have a decisive effect on the U.S. and the world. Aside from the obvious international significance of the American voting in November, Afghanistan will hold a democratic election this month, and Iraq will carry out its balloting in January.

Critics of America's experiment in exporting democracy to the Islamic world have repeatedly offered two objections to its continuation. The first embodies the charge that our alleged intrusion into the Muslim global community has stirred greater resentment of our power, and worsened the terrorist threat. The second holds that elections in Muslim countries are fated to produce more Islamist regimes.

The obvious link between these claims is, broadly, the belief that the Muslim world is impervious to democratic change and that any action by us to implement it will only raise greater obstacles to progress. One must first understand that this stereotypical conception of global Islam is grossly ignorant and prejudiced. It much resembles the common Western apprehension that all Muslim countries live under exclusive sharia law, that none is pluralistic, and that Islam is universally jihadist. None of these views is accurate.

Let us begin with the issue of American invasion and the purported reaction to it. It has become a cliché of Bush-haters to assert that Islamist terrorism has grown since the intervention in Iraq, but even a superficial examination of Islam worldwide reveals a much better situation than many Westerners imagine. In Iraq itself, the Saddam regime exercised murderous terrorism against the Shia majority and the Iraqi Kurds, but with Saddam gone, that can hardly be said to have increased. The rebellion of Moqtada ul-Sadr has been neutralized and Iraqi Kurdistan is essentially pacified. The Saudi-inspired terrorists in Falluja have already begun to alienate their base by their attempt to transform the city into a fundamentalist redoubt.

In Afghanistan, remnants of the Taliban have more influence with Western media than on the ground. As for Islamist terrorism elsewhere, the worst of it is hardly new. The atrocious, bloody Wahhabi interference with the Chechen, Ingush and Daghestani Muslims, and especially with the Chechen movement for autonomy in the Russian Federation, began in 1999. The main series of attacks most symbolized by September 11, 2001, actually began in East Africa in 1998. Bombings in Saudi Arabia began in 1995. Similar incidents in Indonesia, Morocco, Turkey and Spain have been sporadic. Attempts to launch a Wahhabi jihad in Uzbekistan have failed. In Israel, the Saudi-financed terror campaign by Hamas has actually diminished in scope.

Pakistan is the sole country where slaughter by the global Islamist conspiracy continues freely; there the Wahhabi colonization of the country, and assaults on non-Wahhabi Muslims, began decades ago. The conflict in Sudan, as abominable as it doubtless is, reflects a confused, local situation of endemic injustice, more than the impetus of international terrorism. While the blood of all the victims in these dreadful attacks cries out for justice, were many of the world's Muslims really stimulated to join the ranks of the extremists, there would have been many more such horrors. Muslims in Francophone West Africa, the Balkans, Turkey, India, and Malaysia have proven overwhelmingly indifferent to the jihadist appeal. Believers in Morocco, Central Asia, and Indonesia have made clear their rejection of it.

Meanwhile, the Islamist regime is in retreat in Iran, and even in Saudi Arabia the need for liberal reform has been acknowledged, if little has been done to implement it. The Saudi kingdom is now surrounded by a crescent of countries, from Kuwait to Yemen, that although far from resembling Western democracies, have at least achieved the civilized normality symbolized by the right of women to drive, which the Saudis still deny. Calls for change now resound throughout the Muslim world, including these and the other core Arab countries.

Elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, even if marred by clashes, controversies, and other challenges, can only contribute significantly to the advance of what is best described as a bourgeois revolution in the Muslim world. Entrepreneurial transformation must precede political reform; but that process is already underway. Malaysia, a Southeast Asian tiger, represents an outstanding example of its success. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia now boasts the largest middle class in the Arab world, and the pressure of that social stratum for rational movement forward is the real basis for conflict in the kingdom. Saudis now have the internet and satellite television; but how can they live middle-class lifestyles when so many have been educated in nothing more than Wahhabi bigotry, and, above all, when women cannot drive?

Islam itself in no way presents an obstacle to the bourgeois revolution; the Prophet Muhammad was a caravan merchant. Historically, Arabs and Iranians were among the world's great trading peoples, along with the Jews, the Greeks, the Nordics, and the Chinese. If anything, the Confucian and Buddhist traditions, which discourage individual initiative, are far more problematical for capitalist development; yet Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are free market success stories, notwithstanding the Japanese addiction to protectionism. Islamic capitalism was blocked by two centuries of Western imperialism -- there is no way to deny this -- and then by the mirage of socialism. With imperialism and socialism both now fully discredited, and with technological globalization increasing apace, bourgeois development is accelerating.

As I have often argued, the time it takes countries to enter capitalism and the world market, which leads to stable democracy, is decreasing. Only Britain, Holland, France, and these United States were spared the long way to prosperity and freedom. Of the leading economies, Spain required 150 years; Germany and Italy 100; Japan 80; South Korea 40; Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary 10. Kazakhstan is rushing ahead of Russia; Malaysia has outstripped Myanmar, which once possessed the richest population in Southeast Asia.

Obviously, Afghanistan and Iraq represent very different scales of development. The former is the poorest and most backward Muslim country, while the latter enjoys immense resources, which were sadly squandered by previous governments, both economically and intellectually. But the elections there represent major steps toward full participation in global civilization.

But will they, as some complain, produce Islamist rule? That depends on how we define Islamism. Nobody sane in Afghanistan wants to return to a Taliban regime, and the country will not. It may produce a government that accepts sharia on its least restrictive, Hanafi form, alongside Western civil, criminal, and commercial law -- a system such as obtains everywhere in the Muslim world except Saudi Arabia, at one extreme, and Turkey and the Balkans, at the other. A political order like that of Turkey, or Connecticut, cannot be imposed in Afghanistan overnight. But Afghans want revived commerce, improved education, and technological progress. They will not vote against these advantages.

The situation in Iraq is more complex, and requires an understanding of the country's religious traditions that is almost completely lacking in the American journalistic and political class, although not among the neoconservatives, the whipping-boys of the neofascist left and antimilitarist right. The latter now resemble each other more than they have since the dark days of the Stalin-Hitler pact, with an unfortunately new feature of the American political environment: in 1939 few in America doubted that the worldwide advance of democracy was a beneficial and necessary expression of our country's destiny. The manner in which the left/right "antiwar" agitators have spit on democracy is appalling, and seduces an alarmingly large audience.

As one among the neoconservatives I agree with American Enterprise Institute scholar Reuel Marc Gerecht in believing that the outcome of the Iraqi election will probably be the triumph of Shia religious parties. I do not believe these parties will establish clerical rule over the country, for several reasons; mainly, because Iraqi Shias always rejected the Khomeini scheme for such a form of governance, which was and remains an innovation and even a heresy in Islam. Throughout most of Islamic political history, wise scholars advised the rulers; they did not rule directly. In addition, the Arab Shias of Iraq have never warmed to interference in their local affairs by Iranians, no matter how much they respect the latter country's theological personalities and centers.

To make elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the rest of the Muslim world work, we have to show that we are not afraid of their outcomes. Better not to hold elections at all than to offer the people ballots and then deny the expression of their will; such policies led to bloody civil wars in Algeria and Tajikistan. Wahhabis and other fundamentalists generally do not believe in elections and will not participate in them, except in trying to disrupt them. (Pakistan represents an execrable exception, in this as in many other things; there some of the worst terrorist sympathizers have used the ballot to gain spurious legitimacy.) That elections could produce anti-American regimes is a risk worth taking; Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who supported the removal of Marcos in the Philippines, notes that it was followed by the demand that the U.S. take its military out of the country. But to support democracy is to learn to live with its difficult consequences.

At the same time, before any country can enjoy freedom, it must vanquish the enemies of freedom. The enemies of freedom have suffered serious defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq, even though they are fighting to retain a hold in both countries. The solution is not to withdraw in disillusion, but to maintain the commitment.

Many Muslim nations have lived through the disheartening experiences of Communism, variant forms of state socialism, and wholesale corruption. For some of them, a moderate Islamic option is naturally attractive. Syria, under the Ba'athist dictatorship, is not an Islamist state. Nor is Algeria, or Egypt, or Turkmenistan. Yet their citizens are sick of oppression. When ordinary Muslims in Turkey vote for a religious alternative in politics, they do so because they have lived with militarist secularism too long, and have seen all its promises of prosperity and enlightenment betrayed by graft and repression. Turkish citizens vote for Islamic politicians for exactly the same reason that Mexicans vote for the "Catholic" party of Vicente Fox, and, for that matter, Japanese vote for the Buddhist Komeito; as an alternative to entrenched interests, to demands for bribes, to public theft and malfunction. Turkish voters do not want to be whipped into mosques, in the Saudi style, any more than Mexicans want to be forced to attend mass; but after decades of secularism turned sour, they look toward political representatives they feel are motivated to civic service by their spiritual values. Certainly, a country like ours, which has seen the rise of Christian conservative politics, should have little basis to reproach Muslims for making similar choices.

The arrival of a single world market, and the global triumph of bourgeois revolution, have not been sudden phenomena. The Communist bloc, Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Muslim world, and Africa were left outside the process. But the barriers have fallen, or are disappearing, in all these regions, and their definitive end is inevitable. The Muslim world is no more impervious to the future than Poland, Taiwan, or Mexico. The visionary capacity of the Bush administration to perceive this reality should be appreciated, not condemned.


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