The laudable Bush project of democratizing the Middle East took a major hit when, in January 2006, the Palestinians elected the Islamist movement Hamas to lead their government. Given the choice of free elections for the first time in their lives, they chose what amounts to the repressive religious war party. Granted, their other choice was terrorist Fatah, but they chose the more radical option. It was just five months later that Iraqis, freed from secular despotism by American arms, wrote Islamic sharia law into their constitution. In their 2005 and subsequent elections, Iraqis have chosen to empower Islamist political parties. The Islamists don’t have absolute or even majority control in Iraq, and as long as American troops are in country they will not. But our trajectory there is to draw our troops out. What will Iraqis choose when we leave?
One of the core ideas of the Bush democratization project, a project with which I was fully on board at the time, is that people everywhere yearn to be free. That humans are all liberty minded at heart. That’s a nice idea, but the paragraph above suggests that there are at least two fundamental ideas at constant war in the human soul. One, true, is a longing for freedom. But another is a longing for something else. Call it the longing for acceptance, or the need to be right, or the hope to belong — to something greater than the self. In most times and in most places, that longing produces mostly humane outcomes. The drive for acceptance leads to mainstream and productive individual behavior even when the individual is free to do what they like. The hope for acceptance causes us to want to find ways to please or help others. It can create pure-hearted altruism and genuine selflessness. If your belief system holds individual conscience and freedom at its core, the system is likelier than not to foster productive behavior among its adherents whether they are free or enslaved. But not all belief systems hold the same view of individual autonomy.
This drive to be right can also create a dynamic in which the individual subordinates their drive for freedom to the hope for acceptance. What the individual does with that depends on the nature of the one doing the accepting. The individual wants to be free, but not as much as they want to be right, so that they will be acceptable. And in the case of a religio-political ideology like Islam, it appears to create the very environment in which people choose with their vote to give up freedom and empower radicals they believe to be holy or spiritually driven, even when the choice means a loss of personal freedom and increases the chances of war and death. The past five years have been quite instructive on this point: Honor killings in the free West, the creep of sharia worldwide, the empowerment of Hamas in Palestine, the slow but steady Islamization of Europe and Canada, and so forth. People who have been fed a steady diet of this religio-political ideology will not suddenly turn into Jeffersonians in a snap. It hasn’t happened in London; where is the evidence it will happen in Cairo?