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Forget Democracy Promotion, Go for Democracy Preservation

After decades of failing to reform Arab and Muslim societies, the U.S. should focus not on exporting democracy, but on bolstering it wherever it already thrives.

by
Youssef M. Ibrahim

Bio

May 30, 2008 - 6:30 am

Democracy may have been a paradigm once aspired to in the Arab-Muslim world, but the dominant reality today is the religious ethnic militia. In some places like Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, these armed entities displaced central authority altogether.

Ironically it may be the pursuit of force-fed democracy that cleared the way for its confiscation by those men in turbans and ski masks and potentates who color the landscape.

A prime model was the Iranian revolution of the late seventies, a supremely democratic movement to those of us who watched it grow to immobilize scores of cities, with millions on the march bearing tulips to soldiers and braving the Shah’s bullets until his army folded and he fled.

Iran’s revolution was a communal democratic exercise of the will of a people choosing to vote with their lives and bring a seemingly wholesome, just rule by mullahs to power. Westernized Iranians quickly fled after they saw little in common with those masses of religious aspirations. But the grand majority of Iran’s 70 million continue to this day to defend their revolution, fighting two decades ago, for example, in the eight-year war with Iraq to protect it by the millions.

Similarly, Islamist Hamas came to the fore with a certified free vote among Palestinians, under the gaze of Western observers. A majority elected the veil and bearded sheikhs to lead them in a new way of life. We don’t know if there will be free elections again as Palestinians appear to have crossed a generational Rubicon onto enduring Islamism, not lasting democracy.

It is wrong to assume the will of the people will always be freedom.

Should Hosni Mubarak ever extend free elections to those outside his family, every poll shows the fascist Muslim Brotherhood — which believes in one vote, one time, under one religious supreme leader and Sharia law — to be the overwhelming choice of a majority of 80 million Egyptians. The only opposition will come from the 10 million Christian minorities and a few million secularist Muslims, all destined to be served for breakfast by the incoming “brothers.”

There will be similar “democratic” swings in Jordan or Morocco should these monarchies permit free choice. In Pakistan military dictatorships all the way back to General Zia ul-Haq and an alternate feudal collection of civilian parties opted for over 30 years to make nice with the Taliban, empower turbaned preachers, and expand Sharia laws, surrendering so much that any talk of freedom is superfluous.

Over in the Arabian Gulf, where Bedouin culture never met an election it liked, the only refinement oil money brought are chic burqas and furtive looks modernizing oppression. Religious stupor in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and nearby is the operative social project with state-of-the-art mosques and TV networks drawing thousands to have their minds impounded.

Most dramatically, in “liberated” Iraq, where American troops overthrew a despotic regime, the people chose tribal tyranny to replace it. The elected are a Shiite coalition of armed militias whose priority project is ethnically cleansing Iraq of Sunnis and Kurds and a greater ascendancy of Shiism in tandem with Iran. In the mountains of Kurdistan where Western protection guaranteed democracy for Kurds since 1990, the militias there are not struggling toward multiculturalism but to throw the Arabs out.

In poll after poll a grand majority of Muslims and Arabs tell us they believe individual freedom, liberalism, and secularism — those enduring values of Western democracies — are rotten and the West decadent.

So if democracy is not a worthy American pursuit out there for the next administration, what is?

Obama says he wants to talk to the bad guys while McCain wants to fight them, but neither outlines a goal. Hillary wants to do a little of both fighting and talking, with no goalpost altogether. A clearer objective for an incoming administration may be not exporting democracy, but supporting it wherever it thrives.

Is this a quest for new isolationism? Far from it. It is a quest for a rational strategic common realignment. Outside the neurotic self-obsessed Islamo-Arab arena with teeming militias and wars to revive some mythical Islamist ummah, there is a huge growing democratic world of greener pastures in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. Instead of leading recalcitrant horses to drink from wells they wish to poison, let in those who want to partake in a redefined community.

The more you think of it, the more Senator McCain’s idea of a “Democratic League of Nations” sounds like the 21st century strategic substitute to the furtive, aging NATO or the haplessly compromised United Nations. Indeed it sounds like a worthy new paradigm.

Youssef M. Ibrahim, a freelance writer and risk consultant, is a former New York Times Mideast correspondent and Energy Editor of the Wall Street Journal. He can be reached at ymibrahim2004@yahoo.com.
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