If anyone believed a Muslim could be president, it was probably George W. Bush. After all, GWB got the lion’s share of the then-new Muslim voting bloc in the 2000 presidential elections. ”According to a CAIR poll released after the election, [the final results] were 72 percent for Bush, 8 percent for Gore and 19 percent for Nader.” The events of September 11, 2001 did not change GWB’s mind. In a landmark speech before the National Endowment for Democracy in 2003, the year Bush invaded Iraq, he committed himself to the fatal goal of a decades-long effort to bring democracy to the Middle East.
As the 20th century ended, there were around 120 democracies in the world — and I can assure you more are on the way. (Applause.) Ronald Reagan would be pleased, and he would not be surprised.
We’ve witnessed, in little over a generation, the swiftest advance of freedom in the 2,500 year story of democracy. Historians in the future will offer their own explanations for why this happened. Yet we already know some of the reasons they will cite. It is no accident that the rise of so many democracies took place in a time when the world’s most influential nation was itself a democracy. …
Our commitment to democracy is also tested in the Middle East, which is my focus today, and must be a focus of American policy for decades to come. In many nations of the Middle East — countries of great strategic importance — democracy has not yet taken root. And the questions arise: Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom, and never even to have a choice in the matter? I, for one, do not believe it. I believe every person has the ability and the right to be free. (Applause.)
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. Seventy-four years ago, The Sunday London Times declared nine-tenths of the population of India to be “illiterates not caring a fig for politics.” Yet when Indian democracy was imperiled in the 1970s, the Indian people showed their commitment to liberty in a national referendum that saved their form of government.
The Democratic Party and then-candidate Barack Obama decisively convinced the American electorate that Bush had embarked on an impossible mission. Obama came to power largely by pushing the notion that bringing democracy to the Middle East was a fool’s errand. By 2010 it had been dropped altogether. Francis Fukuyama, in a Wall Street Journal dated 2010 titled, “What Became of the ‘Freedom Agenda’?” argued that the United States was better off working with dictators because if one actually gave Muslims a democratic choice they would choose Islamism more often than not.
It does mean working quietly behind the scenes to push friendly authoritarians towards a genuine broadening of political space in their countries through the repeal of countless exceptional laws, defamation codes, party registration statutes and the like that hinder the emergence of real democratic contestation.
The longstanding risk that true democratization will lead to takeover by radical Islamists remains real; our ideals do not require us to commit suicide in this manner.