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Monday, March 03, 2003
The Secret Life of Arabia

Is democracy possible in the Middle East? I certainly think so; I think that to assume Middle Eastern culture or Islam is incompatible with democracy – as some on both sides of the political spectrum have suggested, although in an attempt to further widely different points – is to do a disservice to the many good (and often oppressed) peoples in that region who desire self-government but are denied the means to achieve it. The long-suffering citizens of Iraq, for example.

I respond to this point largely to bring attention to the excellent series of articles that Amir Taheri, an Iranian-born author, has been writing for the Wall Street Journal Europe (many of which have been reprinted on National Review Online). Taheri has done an excellent job of calling attention to the true desire of the Iraqi people: they don’t want to be pandered to by France or the U.N., they don’t want to be Americanized – they just want someone to defend them, liberate them, and give them the chance to pursue freedom.

And democracy is not a foreign notion to the Middle East. As Taheri notes:

“By the start of the 20th century the constitutionalists had won in both Constantinople and Tehran, establishing the first Western-style parliaments in the Muslim world. A Martian visiting the Islamic world in the final years of the 19th century would have noticed the almost unanimous support that the democratic ideal enjoyed among Muslim elites.

“Muslim writers, scholars, and reformers in British India, the czarist empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Persia tried to understand why it was that Islam, once a global civilization that ruled in three continents, had become what the reformist leader Jamaleddin Afghani described as ‘an abyss of misery and terror.’ By the end of the 19th century only three Muslim nations, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, were independent, and then only nominally.

“Muslim thinkers who pondered what had happened concluded that the answer lay in centuries of despotic rule that devastated civil society. ‘A nation whose government does not depend on its people is bound to become a slave of other nations,’ wrote Ismail Agha, a Muslim reformer from the Crimea in the 1880s. His near contemporary Mirza Agha Kermani was more specific: ‘The rise of the Western powers as masters of the world, and the decline of Muslim nations into abject servitude, are due to one fact only. In Europe, governments fear the people. In Islam people fear the government.’”

It is one of the great tragedies of history that this emerging democratic movement was squeezed to death before it could take off. In the early twentieth century Muslim democrats became trapped between the opposing forces of communism and Islamic fundamentalism; these two ideologies waged a battle for control of the Middle East, but both were hostile to democracy, which was pushed aside and marginalized.

But is the Middle East lost to democracy? Far from it. New democratic movements are emerging in even the most fundamentalist Islamic nations – perhaps highlighted by pro-democracy student demonstrators in Iran and the new, pluralistic government in Afghanistan. Taheri concludes:

“In every Muslim country, including the still hermetic Saudi Arabia, the democratic discourse is finding growing audiences. The West, understandably focusing on monsters such as Khomeini, Saddam, and bin Laden, has persuaded itself that democracy is a lost cause in the Muslim world.

“But it is not. The West would do well to get to know ‘the other Muslims,’ those who are trying to revive the democratic tradition within Islam, often at the risk of their lives. The world of Islam is certainly the last area of despotic darkness in the contemporary world. But some light is penetrating.”

The “light” of democracy could hardly come at a better time.