In insisting upon democratic elections in Islamic countries and demanding that we abide by the results, we suffer a profound disconnect from reality; in effect, we let the genie out of the bottle. And this is a genie with its own wishes to satisfy. Jihadist author Said Hawwa put the question concisely when he asked in his influential book Min Ajl Khutwa (English: For the Sake of a Step): “How can Allah’s will triumph if Muslims do not control decision-making in Islamic lands?”
For many Islamic parties and organizations, whether at war with their own governments or with the Western jahiliyya powers, the best way to control decision-making is under the auspices of Western-style elections, which are easily manipulated and may then be set aside when they no longer serve their purpose. As Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said, “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off” (Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2006). And it was not so long ago that a Hamas spokesman, Farhad Assad, thanked America for the “weapon of democracy” (New York Times, February 15, 2006).
Turkish author Mehmet Metiner, in a book entitled All-Green Sharia, All-White Democracy, explicitly details this process: “our purpose was to establish an Islamic government and Islamicize the society through state power…we believed…this goal could have been accomplished via a political party.” We in the West seem to have forgotten that elections in themselves do not constitute democracy. In the Arab world, they are only mechanisms for regulating the balance between competing tribal, ethnic, sectarian and religious blocs intent on political domination, social coercion and economic exploitation—to be suspended the moment it seems opportune to do so.
In blindly imposing the democratic idea upon the Muslim Middle East, Western democrats excavate the terrain on which IslamoFascist dictatorships will build and consolidate their rule. IslamoFascism, says John Myhill, author of Language, Religion, and National Identity in Europe and the Middle East, “can’t be stopped with democracy. When the whole nationality is sick, democracy doesn’t help…Attempts at democracy in the Arab world have just made things worse.” Can we responsibly deny that he is right? “Unfortunately,” he continues, “the great majority of Westerners won’t recognize that their faith in democracy is misplaced until the level of catastrophe is so great, with millions of people dead, that there is no alternative and it’s too late to save the lives that will have been lost.” Though Myhill may be overstating his case, his prediction is more than a mere presentiment, as even a cursory glance at recent developments in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and especially Iran should make clear.
Here the neoconservative conviction, as articulated by George Bush in an address delivered in Hungary in the summer of 2006, that “The desire for liberty is universal because it is written by our Creator into the hearts of every man, woman and child on the Earth,” is no less utopian than the universalist beliefs of his Left critics, and can lead only to a more dystopian world than the one in which we live. The muddled American foreign policy of exporting democracy to historically and culturally unprepared regions troubled by disruption and endemic violence, where terror groups run rampant and fundamentalist parties vie for power, is a strategy which generally leads to even greater mischief than the autocratic control we affect to deplore.
It is rather astounding that current American foreign policy has learned nothing from the folly of Woodrow Wilson who, in the sequel to WW I, worked to create a congeries of instant democracies in Eastern and Central Europe which became the breeding ground for WW II and the expansion of Communism. Better French philosopher André Glucksmann’s “humanism of Bad News” with its modest objective not to change the world but to prevent the worst excesses of totalitarian repression than the Wilsonian simple-mindedness of good intentions.
Yet the European Left, which has consistently mocked this naïve American effort, continues to insist that we support “democratic” parties, such as the Palestinian Authority and even Hamas, despite the fact that we create more problems than we solve in the process. Worse, we undermine our own security in helping to create what Fareed Zakaria in The Future of Freedom called “illiberal democracy”: “Democracy is flourishing,” he wrote, “liberty is not.”
The US and European (and Canadian) recognition of the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo is just another instance of this global shortsightedness that is rapidly becoming the soupe du jour on the Western political menu: the unshaded enthusiasm for “democracy” will produce another Islamic stronghold and terrorist haven in the very heart of Europe, empowering rogue organizations like the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army). Similarly, the newly pluralistic society, so-called, in Bosnia-Herzegovina is starting to unravel. According to ib (Bosnian Institute) online for September 16, 2008, Wahhabism is “a growing tendency” which, if it is not stopped, “will have serious implications for the rest of Europe.”
Misapplied democracy can easily become the Typhoid Mary of the political world, as in countries like Turkey and Pakistan where the rise of the Islamic parties through democratic means threatens disaster. The riskiness of the franchise in an Islamic context was fully understood by the government of Algeria in its crackdown against the fundamentalist parties poised to assume power in national elections. Elections in Egypt, suspect as they may have been, led to the quadrupling of the number of seats held by the Muslim Brotherhood. In Kuwait, the national elections of May 2008 handed victory to the Salafist party, that is, to the “Islamists.”
Indonesia is widely considered as an illustration of the compatibility between democracy and Islam and as proof that a Muslim nation may cohabit peacefully with the West. In order to maintain this Indonesian fiction certain inconvenient facts need to be ignored. To mention only two: the release of Abu Bakar Bashir, spiritual leader of the Jemah Islamiyah terrorist outfit responsible for the Bali bombing of October 2002, after serving only 26 months of his sentence; and the recent decision to allow Hizbullah’s Al-Manar television station to use an Indonesian satellite to broadcast propaganda across Asia and Australia. The fantasy of a political symbiosis between two such irreconcilable systems as secular democracy and credal authoritarianism is only a form of willed obscurantism whose consequences will have to be defrayed in the future.
As for Iraq, I would argue that the reasons for attacking it were entirely legitimate: to topple a bloodthirsty dictator with designs on regional hegemony, to prevent his acquiring WMD (which he had already done at Osirak), and to take the country out of the terrorist equation. But to expect a functioning democracy to emerge in an Arab setting, amenable to rational policies and actuated by a higher global vision, is entirely daft. Consider the fate of parliamentarian Mithal al-Alusi, one of Iraq’s very few enlightened legislators, who was stripped of his immunity and threatened with execution for having attended the International Institute for Counterterrorism conference in Israel in September 2008.
The recent, rather farcical shoe-bomber episode at a press conference in Baghdad, in which an Iraqi journalist hurled both his shoes at the visiting American President, is a reminder of how dubious the experiment of exporting democracy to the Islamic market can be. It does not seem to have occurred to the aggrieved journalist that he was able to do so only because of regime change. Under Saddam, he would have been tortured and executed. The lesson to be gleaned from this performance and, more importantly, the instant glorification of its perpetrator throughout the Arab world, is that democracy is not something the Arab world particularly appreciates—except, as we have seen, as a weapon to be turned against democracy itself.
The West, whether the European Lilliput or the American Brobdingnag, has not yet realized that Middle Eastern-style autocracies are categorically different from Western-style democracies. It has not absorbed the lesson that the franchise comes in the final stages of the democratic process, not at the beginning. It does not appreciate the role of culture and history in forming the folkways, attitudes and presuppositions of a people. It has not understood that the Islamic world does not play by our rules and that it lives by an entirely different code of conduct from that which we have long taken for granted—a code in which reciprocities, trade-offs, standard negotiating parameters and the dialectic of mutual advantage do not signify.
We refuse to see that we are dealing with a culture that is fundamentally alien to ours and that does not accept the axioms, postulates and expectations of politically pragmatic discourse or the procedures of reasonable accommodation. It is a culture whose institutional basis has almost nothing in common with the civic armature of Western civilization that has allowed the latter, albeit at great cost and in far too desultory a fashion, to resist its own homegrown tyrannies. In the 21rst century the Leviathan that would swallow us rises from another sea than our own. Western Christendom and post-Christendom are based on a completely different “symbolic order”—Jacques Lacan’s term for the way symbols are used unconsciously by a culture—from that of the Islamic world, especially with respect to the notion of individual autonomy, the modalities of personal salvation, the idea of participatory citizenship, the concept of the State as a “legal person,” the rule of established law and the binding force of international accords.
When a set of cultural assumptions rooted in an alien scripture and a traditional worldview which repudiate what we have come to understand as social and political evolution is added to these factors, the task before us takes on dismaying and redoubtable proportions. We really have little idea how foreign the Islamic mindset is to our way of thinking and feeling.
As Lee Harris argues in The Suicide of Reason, in a prolonged standoff the rule of law is no match for the rule of the jungle, the individualist “rational actor” cannot hope to triumph against the collectivist “tribal actor”—at least, not until he adapts his strategy to meet the challenge—and the “myth of reason” in which we have come to believe, if we are unable or unwilling to refocus our attitude to the world, will see to our defeat at the hands of those who do not recognize the “normal rules of engagement” and “cannot take a moral stance outside the perspective of [their] tribe.” The democratic option we hold so dear is only a snare and a delusion when deployed by these tribal actors who are far shrewder than their counterparts in the West. Both know what they want, but only one knows how to get it.
There are no immediate or foreseeable solutions to the predicament posed by the Islamic world. Certainly, ready-made, Western-style electoral democracy is not one of them. Realistically speaking, the West will have to rely on military vigilance, cutting-edge intelligence gathering, domestic control and occasional pre-emption to blunt the force of a theocratic civilization on the march. Such a response will be almost universally decried by a vast political and cultural constituency swayed more by the dream of mutual understanding and pastoral resolutions than by a sober appreciation of realpolitik. Nevertheless, if we regard survival as something worth striving for, there is no alternative.
In a January 2008 interview with the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, liberal Syrian intellectual Georges Tarabishi stated: “There can be no democracy without secularism, since only under secularism can one free oneself from religious or sectarian mentalities, and as a consequence think and choose with one’s mind. For this reason…democracy depends not just on the ballot box, but also, and primarily, on the box called the cranium.” This is well put. The cranium, however, may also confine and inhibit as readily as it may liberate, depending on whether it is closed or open to the world. Unfortunately, Western politicians, diplomats and intellectuals have not yet learned how to think outside the cranial box.