Dealing with the consequences of democracy

In a symposium on “Defending and Advancing Freedom,” sponsored by the neocon magazine Commentary, the writer Reuel Marc Gerecht raises a number of provocative questions for those of us who support Western efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East.

He makes an important point about the effect of the liberation of Iraq, regardless of the outcome there.

The fall of Saddam Hussein has already accelerated convulsive democratic debates in Arab lands and in their more combative and open expatriate media. The region’s dictators and kings may have a difficult time stuffing this discontent and dissent back into the tried-and-true shibboleths—principally anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism—that have consumed the intellectual energy of so many and offered the autocrats a safety valve for popular dissatisfaction with the regimes in place. Arab left-wing intellectuals seem today less domesticated than they were just a few years back, when they eagerly turned most of their venom toward Israel and Ariel Sharon. Muslim fundamentalists, especially in Egypt, still the lodestone among Arab nations, seem much less likely to play along, and are increasingly backing the popular push for more open political systems.

But then he raises this question:

Let us suppose that, regardless of what happens in Iraq, the democratic movement among Arabs pushes forward, but, as is probable, with Muslim fundamentalists in the lead. Will the administration shy away from democracy promotion if and when it becomes clear that Muslim fundamentalists will initially do very well in most Arab lands where free elections are allowed?

Is he right that Muslim fundamentalists will lead the push for democratization in the Arab world? And if so, how should those of us who support a more secular democratic alternative react? In the end, I think those of us who support democracy must accept the results of free and fair elections, even if they produce governments we don’t like. Senator John McCain made a similar point earlier this year.

As for those in the administration who believe that Muslim liberals, progressives, and moderates are the real key to democracy’s future in the region—a view that I find in error, but certainly an estimable aspiration—have they troubled to explain how we are going to locate and support such individuals over the heads of the present dictators and kings? Will we endorse open elections where fundamentalists can compete with liberals and others, or will we advocate banning fundamentalists from the election process even when liberals in these countries tell us that doing so will undermine them and us? Should we treat Muslim fundamentalists as beyond the pale, or even as Nazis, as some have argued?

I think (and hope) Gerecht is too quick to dismiss the importance of “Muslim liberals, progressives, and moderates.” If they aren’t the key to the spread of democracy in the region, they certainly are a key. And they are worthy of whatever support we can give them. Perhaps the first real test will come in the Iraqi elections next month, when secular coalitions like the Iraqi Nation Party will be on the ballot.

But again, we must be prepared to accept that– initally at least– Islamists (hopefully not the most extreme kind) may be voted into power in some Muslim states.

Finally Gerecht raises a question that every advocate of democracy in the Muslim world ought to face:

[A]re Muslim democracies that restrict women’s social rights in practice morally superior to Muslim dictatorships that advance them in theory? I think the answer is an emphatic yes, but the administration has so far shown little desire to argue this possibility, thereby allowing the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to suggest that Saddam Hussein, who was the first Middle Eastern dictator to institute rape as an official means of mind control, was more pro-woman than the democratically sanctioned constituent assembly that drafted Iraq’s proposed constitution.

I agree, on the condition that democracy is more than one person, one vote, one time. That is, women must be guaranteed the right to protest freely any restrictions on their rights and to advocate their cause to the public. Women must always have the right to run for office, organize politically and vote for candidates who represent their views. And there must be no Iranian-style supreme religious councils which can overturn actions of elected governments.

With such conditions, I’m not terribly worried about women’s rights being suppressed for very long.

(Hat tip: Clive Davis.)