Arab Spring, Democracy Fall?

Way back then, when the world was neatly divided between Cold War capitalists and communists, the Middle East was a minor battleground in that narrative. It mattered most whether the autocracies signaled allegiance to the capitalists or the communists. It mattered little whether their regimes acknowledged rudimentary human rights.

Given the unanimity of Arab police states, it was easy to conclude, mistakenly as it develops, that Arabs were somehow naturally disposed to police states, that democracy was alien to their sensibility. “Islam” somehow had something to do with this — it being, allegedly, a religion grounded in conquest and imposition of some misdirected notion of rigid Sharia law (though most of the regimes were secular).

But listen to this statesman at his best:

Some skeptics of democracy assert that the traditions of Islam are inhospitable to the representative government. This “cultural condescension,” as Ronald Reagan termed it, has a long history. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, a so-called Japan expert asserted that democracy in that former empire would “never work.” Another observer declared the prospects for democracy in post-Hitler Germany are, and I quote, “most uncertain at best” — he made that claim in 1957. …

It should be clear to all that Islam — the faith of one-fifth of humanity — is consistent with democratic rule. Democratic progress is found in many predominantly Muslim countries — in Turkey and Indonesia, and Senegal and Albania, Niger and Sierra Leone. Muslim men and women are good citizens of India and South Africa, of the nations of Western Europe, and of the United States of America.

More than half of all the Muslims in the world live in freedom under democratically constituted governments. They succeed in democratic societies, not in spite of their faith, but because of it. A religion that demands individual moral accountability, and encourages the encounter of the individual with God, is fully compatible with the rights and responsibilities of self-government.

That was George W. Bush in November 2003, in remarks on the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy. At the time, there was the Bush administration’s abiding faith, but little direct evidence, to contradict the “cultural condescension.” How times have changed.

It turns out that Arabs are no more disposed to police states than any other people. We’re witnessing that common Arab distaste for dictatorship in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, with perhaps more to come.

But here’s the kicker: in not a single one of these countries is democracy, as we understand that term, yet a given, even assuming the overthrow of tyranny that has already happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. We just don’t know. We know there are brave citizens in each of these countries committed to the rule of law, religious and speech freedom, the end of secret police repressions, and democratic reforms. We just don’t yet know whether they will prevail.

People power doesn’t always win. In 1956, Hungary people power was brutally crushed by Red Army tanks. In 1989, Chinese people power was brutally crushed in Tiananmen Square. Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution was brutally crushed by the Basij. Sometimes the bad guys win decisively.

Sometimes, even when the Bad Guy gets deposed, other very bad guys sometimes win the day — as with the French and Russian Revolutions. If, as Brent Scowcroft has suggested, the Arab Spring uprisings are about a “yearning for dignity,” then perhaps dignity is served by something short of democratic freedoms. The brutality of the dignity-yearning French Jacobins and the Russian Bolsheviks is instructive. Their ideological heirs may yet prevail in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen.

Our Western eyes are best riveted on core democratic values, whether or not they look “Western” in the execution. Democracy, by definition, reflects the attitudes of the people, and if those popular Arab attitudes are, as they appear to be, overwhelmingly hostile to America, Israel, Jews, Christians, basic women’s rights, basic gay rights, and basic religious freedoms, then the new regimes may look disturbing in some ways. President Bush spoke in 2003 to this reality as well:

As we watch and encourage reforms in the region, we are mindful that modernization is not the same as Westernization. Representative governments in the Middle East will reflect their own cultures. They will not, and should not, look like us. Democratic nations may be constitutional monarchies, federal republics, or parliamentary systems. And working democracies always need time to develop — as did our own. We’ve taken a 200-year journey toward inclusion and justice — and this makes us patient and understanding as other nations are at different stages of this journey.

There are, however, essential principles common to every successful society, in every culture. Successful societies limit the power of the state and the power of the military — so that governments respond to the will of the people, and not the will of an elite. Successful societies protect freedom with the consistent and impartial rule of law, instead of selecting applying the law to punish political opponents. Successful societies allow room for healthy civic institutions — for political parties and labor unions and independent newspapers and broadcast media. Successful societies guarantee religious liberty — the right to serve and honor God without fear of persecution. Successful societies privatize their economies, and secure the rights of property. They prohibit and punish official corruption, and invest in the health and education of their people. They recognize the rights of women. And instead of directing hatred and resentment against others, successful societies appeal to the hopes of their own people.

It behooves us, as we watch the unfolding of the Arab Spring, to stay focused on, and encourage with every tool at our disposal, these “essential principles common to every successful society.”


6 Responses to Arab Spring, Democracy Fall?

  1. lbwoodgate says:

    “Democratic nations may be constitutional monarchies, federal republics, or parliamentary systems. And working democracies always need time to develop”

    Be this George Bush’s sentiments or someone else’s this is what typically transpires in any fledging democracy whose culture, religious or secular, has been primarily paternalistic and reluctant to allow scientific realities to challenge customs and traditions there.

    Provided that any mid-eastern country can overthrow their autocratic rulers, we must allow them time to dismantle their deeply held convictions about women as second class citizens and their mistrust of western powers and as you say “encourage with every tool at our disposal, these ‘essential principles common to every successful society.’”

    The other part of the battle entails dealing with those Islamophobist in our own society who would circumvent this patience and encouragement with a will to always view Muslims as evil and someone who needs to be eradicated. It’s a battle for us with two fronts

    • I thought this was one of Bush’s best speeches. I wanted to highlight it in the context of the Arab Spring. President Obama is clearly the better orator of the two, but he hasn’t said anything nearly so profound about the Middle East as Bush said in that speech.

      I disagree — though it’s probably merely a matter of degree — with your two-front battle metaphor. I do not see “Islamophobia” as a crisis in this country. Anti-Muslim bigotry certainly exists, and must be combated vigorously by people of good will. But Muslim-Americans are not a victim class in America. They have thrived, thanks in part to our unique First Amendment traditions of free religious exercise and free speech. I don’t equate our “battles” (literal and figurative) to promote democratic traditions in the Middle East with a “battle” here at home against Islamophobes, who enjoy virtually no credibility. I make this point because I believe the “Islamophobia” narrative actually ends up hurting Muslim-Americans by casting them as victims and promoting suspicion and mistrust across communities at a time when our Muslim and non-Muslim American communities need to connect on a basis of mutual respect, without the baggage of victim status and reckless racism charges.

  2. Steve Ball says:

    Kendrick, I agree with what you say I think. Before I know for sure we would have to have an operational definition of democracy. Most of us think we live in a democracy when in fact we live in a republic. There are profound differences between the two. Every morning I pledge allegiance to the flag, and the republic for which it stands. Above I have provided a link that may provide clarity on the issue. Thanks for your thoughts and the words that share.

    • You’re absolutely right Steve. But we still commonly speak of “democratic values,” “democratic traditions,” and “democratic reforms” — all of which could point to either democracies or, as you note, much more commonly, republics. It’s an interesting semantic question: why don’t we commonly speak of “republican values,” “republican traditions,” and “republican reforms”? Why, in fact, is the only thing “republican” commonly modifies a manifestly fascist military organization, i.e., the “Republican Guard”? It would be more precisely accurate to speak of “republican traditions,” etc., because we’re promoting formations of healthy republics in the Middle East and elsewhere, not, strictly speaking, “democracies.” But “democracy” has become almost interchangeable with republic. Also, as I’m thinking out loud here, I suspect “republican” didn’t become a common modifier because, unlike “democracy,” “republic” also means a nation-state (Republic of China, Republic of Ireland, USSR, etc.).

  3. Paul Grubbs says:

    Where are the 20% of the people when great harm and repression is happening to their Muslim brothers by their Muslim brothers? Most people want freedom but few are ready, willing, and able to make the sacrifices necessary to have and to keep their freedoms. Am I my brother’s freedom keeper? So far freedom for all is still only a dream.

  4. Terrance H. says:

    Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. … Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters. ~ Edmund Burke

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