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Leveraging Islam

Leveraging Islam

by Author(s): Amitai Etzioni

FOLLOWING THE implosion or removal of totalitarian regimes of the secular (communism, Saddam's state socialism) and religious (Taliban) varieties, we have witnessed an explosive growth in numerous forms of antisocial behavior. The resulting instability endangers the interests of the peoples involved, undermines their support for democratic regimes and harms U.S. foreign policy.

The champions of global democratization must recognize that when security is poor and antisocial behavior rampant, citizens tend to favor the introduction of strong-armed government, as seen in Russia, most former Soviet republics, Iraq and Afghanistan. And this is one key reason why people are supportive of strong (and non-democratic) governments in China and elsewhere.

Recruiting and training security forces helps combat antisocial behavior by laying the foundations for a stable state, which any democracy requires. However, building such forces is woefully insufficient; a moral culture is at least as important. A moral culture is a set of values and norms that defines what types of behavior are expected. It relies not on laws but on traditional religious or secular precepts based on ethical notions, for instance, an expectation that differences should be resolved peacefully. Moral cultures work only as long as they are undergirded by informal social controls, in which "significant others"--family, friends, co-workers--frown and even chide those who ignore established norms and praise those who live by them. When a moral culture is intact, it serves to ensure voluntary compliance by most people most of the time with the dos and don'ts on which all stable regimes are based. The police cannot provide law and order if most people will not obey most laws without enforcement by the authorities. No state can field enough cops, detectives, border guards, customs inspectors and accountants to provide a reasonable level of order if most of the billions of transactions among a population must be surveyed and controlled. Moreover, the law enforcement agents themselves are likely to violate the law if they are not imbued with a sound moral culture. The American experience with Prohibition and the war against drugs has shown that when there is no widespread voluntary compliance with the law, based on a conviction that the law at hand ought to be observed, effective compliance cannot be sustained.

The second reason a viable moral culture is essential for a stable state is that there is a set of responsibilities that citizens must assume for their children, parents, community and nation that are not enumerated in any law and hence are supported only by moral precepts and informal social controls. For instance, the law does not require most of what parents in an orderly society do for their children. And most of what children do for their elderly parents is morally and socially driven, not legally mandated.

At stake is nothing less than our basic assumptions about human nature and the sources of social order. Many champions of liberty assume that once the yoke of a Taliban-like or communist government is lifted from people's shoulders, their self-interest will lead them to pro-social behavior. Many others assume that democratization merely requires a set of political institutions and processes, such as regular and fair elections, separation of powers, a free press and such. Others add the elements of a civil society, including a rich fabric of voluntary associations, a growing middle class and proper civic education. All these are of merit but far from sufficient. People have a darker side that must be curbed. Hence, as the totalitarian or authoritarian sources of order are removed, new ones must be fostered.

In free societies, most people "behave" most of the time because they have internalized a set of moral values and encourage one another to abide by them. In free societies, most people do not defecate on the sidewalks, abandon their children or toss garbage out the windows--because they believe it is wrong to do so, and because the people they care about would be scandalized if they did behave this way. This is exactly what is missing in most newly liberated states.

The explosive growth of antisocial behavior in former police states is rarely mentioned in deliberations about the future of these societies because it is implicitly assumed that these behaviors are merely transitional, that establishing proper policing will take care of them, or that a measure of such antisocial conduct is the price one must pay for liberty. Such assumptions ignore the fact that antisocial behavior has been persistent after the fall of authoritarian regimes around the world, in some cases for 15 years.

Russia provides an especially telling example. In the period immediately following the fall of the communist regime, from 1989 to 1993, the total crime rate in Russia increased by 72 percent, or an additional 1,180,000 reported incidents. Especially indicative of the breakdown in the social fabric was that a friend or relative of the victim committed 63 percent of reported physical assaults. Eleven years later the situation has shown no improvement; nearly 2.9 million crimes were registered in 2004. The number of drug addicts in Russia has also skyrocketed. Between 1991 and 1995 the number doubled and then over the next five years quadrupled. Dramatic increases have also been seen in alcohol consumption and suicide rates. The situation does not seem much better in many of the former Soviet republics. Even China, whose movement toward democratic reform has been even slower than that of Russia, has witnessed increases in antisocial behavior as the regime has liberalized its controls. The authoritarian regimes of Afghanistan and Iraq have been among the most recent to fall and, just as elsewhere, have been followed by sharp increases in antisocial behavior.

The low level of social order is one major reason there are strong anti-democratic tendencies in many of these nations. These tendencies are most evident in Russia. (My Russian colleagues suggest that the recent decline in support for Putin is not due to the fact that he is too anti-democratic, but that he has not fashioned a strong enough government.) The same is true about a large number of former Soviet republics. A weak social order is a major reason that tribal warlords continue to dominate most of Afghanistan and a major reason I predict that if the Iraqi government stabilizes, it will be at least as authoritarian as Putin's regime. Gaza provides another case in point.

Building democracy has become the battle cry of U.S. foreign policy. If democracy is discredited by failing to provide even a safe life--as we have seen in the many nations that have held fairly free elections and then been labeled "democratic" by the ever-eager-for-victories White House--America's normative and political credibility will be undermined and support for its policies diminished.

Facing Up to Religion

ONE MAY well wonder--given the great difficulties involved in changing societies, especially from the outside--whether there is anything the United States can do to foster moral cultures and the informal social controls that nurture them in recently liberated countries?

First and foremost, the U.S. government and American policymakers have to recognize that religion is a major source of moral culture. This is true for the Catholic Church in Poland, for the Orthodox Church in Russia, for Islam in large parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, for Confucianism--and increasingly Christianity--in China. Continuing attempts to foist the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution on other societies has hindered us from enlisting faith communities in our efforts to stabilize democracy.

Essay Types: Essay