The Impossible Imperative? Conjuring Arab Democracy

The Impossible Imperative? Conjuring Arab Democracy

Mini Teaser: Arab democracy is no oxymoron, but expecting it in time to remedy our 9/11 problem is unrealistic.

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

Finally, equality before the law, which we commonly summarize as one man (and woman), one vote. This fundamental principle establishes the equality of all citizens as far as basic social status and political rights are concerned. Like nearly all traditional authority templates, however, Islam mandates inequality and hierarchy. Men are inherently "more equal" than women, the educated more than the illiterate, the noble or Sherifian more than the commoner, the pious more than the reprobate, the elder more than the youth. Theology aside, social custom in the Arab world is such that most people find offensive and absurd the idea that the vote of a 19-year old illiterate peasant woman should be equal to that of a respected 70-year old qadi. The presumption of natural hierarchy in society is neither a parochial nor a ridiculous view, merely a pre-modern one; it was, after all, true of typical Westerners only an historically short time ago.

The advancement of the social equality of women has special resonance in the Arab world. The emancipation of women, in legal and broader psychological terms, is the most revolutionary social change afoot in the Arab and broader Muslim world. Though its progress has been uneven within and among societies, it frightens many a male, for it threatens his social status and self-esteem like nothing else-and to these fears has recently been added a totally unexpected economic edge. In societies as different as those of Egypt and Malaysia, men's school curricula still stress religion, literature, law and the "old" engineering tracks; women, because they are considered too feeble-minded or otherwise vulnerable for such pursuits, have for decades been "shunted" into medicine, business administration and computer technology-imagined by men to be just glorified clerking, since it involves a typewriter keyboard. Guess what has happened? Exactly: as the world economy has become more integrated, the relative market value of female labor in most of these countries has soared, women have moved increasingly into the work force, and the structure of home life has been altered in consequence. It is difficult to describe to someone who has never studied such societies the magnitude of social stress these changes are causing. The last thing that most educationally inferior, insecure Muslim Arab males want is "democracy", which they associate with utterly frightening changes in the status of women. Rather, such fears have tended to drive many into the fold of traditional or fundamentalist religion, and no doubt these stresses also help explain the troubling rise in "honor" killings in recent decades.

Not only are liberal democratic attitudes toward pluralism, majority rule and equality before the law mostly absent from the Arab world, that world counterposes entrenched attitudes that are their antitheses: concepts of monadic political authority, consensus forms of decision-making and natural social hierarchy. We know that attitudes acquired and reinforced over centuries maintain a grip on the patterns of any group's social relations, for better or for worse, even long after the conditions that spawned them have disappeared; so it seems indeed a reach too far to expect Arab societies to become liberal democracies anytime soon--certainly not soon enough to supply us with help for the problem of apocalyptic terrorism. And though we certainly wish them well, there is little that even the best efforts of the National Endowment for Democracy; of the new White House Office of Global Communications, of Charlotte Beers marketing Uncle Sam as a brand name from the State Department, and of U.S. government-sponsored Radio Sawa, pumping out news in Arabic along with Jennifer Lopez and Lionel Ritchie music, can do about it.

These efforts, after all, are unlikely to change the contemporary Arab view of liberal democracy as an alien Western idea at a time when Arab societies are struggling to cope with Western-wrought modernity. They cannot erase the fact that most Arab societies tried but failed during the late 19th and 2Oth centuries to adopt Western ways to achieve wealth, power and respect, or erase the legacy of simultaneous envy and resentment created by that failure (explaining why many Arab youths who in the morning declare their enmity for the West in the afternoon express a desire to emigrate there). They cannot change the reality that societies which undervalue scientific education, restrict the flow of information, simultaneously educate and oppress women, maintain bloated public bureaucracies, avoid real privatization and free trade, and base economic relations on primordial affiliations of ethnic or religious identity will never be able to compete with the West, the states of East Asia or--most frustrating for them-- Israel. Nor can these efforts stem the rise of identity politics that is reducing the appeal of liberal democracy in much of the Arab world, or persuade the rentier elites who own and run that world to take an interest in resisting that trend. To put it mildly, then, Arab antipathy toward the West and Western ways, including democracy, is not mainly a public relations problem.

Does this mean that Arab democracy is an oxymoron? Of course not. Other cultures need not become Western in order to become democratic; it is vapid historicism to point to the cultural particularity of the Reformation and the Renaissance and then wave one's hands in despair over the supposed authoritarian fate of others. There is nothing "wrong" with Arabs, either cognitively or morally, and there is nothing indelibly "wrong" with Islam. There certainly are theological and cultural predicates for democracy within Islam--and they are neither minor nor obscure--should anyone wish to use them. Some do: there are genuine Arab democrats, and they deserve our support. The problem is that there are too few of them and, in the end, there must be widespread indigenous interest in democracy for help from abroad to "take."  Unfortunately, one will do best looking for such interest in self-exiled communities of Arabs in Europe and North America--or in Egyptian jails--for it is uncomfortable these days to be a democrat in Araby.

Forcing the Issue

SO WHERE does this leave us? Our attitude toward promoting Arab democracy should be likened to playing the lottery: it's no sin to wager, but it's unwise to rely for one's future on winning the jackpot. Meanwhile, the materialist approach--poverty alleviation--is a double-edged sword. Reducing poverty may help drain the proverbial swamp of terrorism's sympathizers, but it may simultaneously increase the number of apocalyptically-minded terrorists as the angry and upwardly mobile seek out means of personal empowerment and expression.

The same double-edge goes, potentially, for military action. A protracted and sporadically very bloody use of American force, particularly to the extent that it appears to be unilateral, may well generate more resentment and terror attacks over time. That some people still discount the potential for the counterproductive use of American military power is dismaying; such innocent bloody-mindedness ignores Raymond Aron's famous warning that "there are ways of conquering that can quickly transform victory into defeat." But it is even worse to use force without a commitment to victory within pragmatically defined limits. When the United States uses military power, as it must under current circumstances, it invariably elicits resentment and the chance of consequent violent reaction; all the more reason, therefore, to use force ruthlessly and conclusively, to kill or disable the vast majority of those who have conspired to murder Americans and are plotting to murder still more.

It bears special emphasis in this regard that definitions of "ruthless" and "conclusive" are not ours to make, but our enemy's. Westerners were much impressed with the technological virtuosity of the campaign in Afghanistan, but Al-Qaeda members and their sympathizers, most of whom lack the capacity even to understand the technical feats we achieved, were not. What they understand is that most of AI-Qaeda's leadership survived. They "understand", too, that the U.S. military used proxies to fight in Afghanistan because it feared direct engagement. They think this explains why the U.S. military does not attack AI-Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. They "understand" that streams of bellicose public statements about Iraq, accompanied by no action, shows American timidity. So, they understand, does first denying and then apologizing for civilian casualties in Afghanistan. And in this fashion, too, they understand the American effort, to restrain India from attacking jihadists in Kashmir, and its w illingness to watch the Al-Qaeda-Hizballah liaison come to maturity in the Beka Valley.

Now, it is true, as many argue, that a hallmark of successful great power diplomacy is the knack for creating common security goods for one's allies, thereby to gather friends, forestall balancing coalitions and, in present circumstances, to maximize critical intelligence and police cooperation in the war against terrorism. It is less often remarked that another such hallmark, especially in wartime, is a capacity to inspire awe in one's adversaries. The Bush Administration has been widely criticized for its deficiencies on the first point--maybe too much so. It has not been criticized enough on the second. A more ruthless and time-compressed use of force, within a tightly circumscribed target set, would have served better over the past year than the so far inconclusive approach to a wide but ill-defined "enemy"--an abstract noun, no less--that we have followed instead. While the administration works to turn Arab countries into democracies, it will have plenty of time to make the appropriate adjustments.

Adam Garfinkle is editor of The National Interest.

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