Around this time of year in 2005, the media toyed with a catch phrase to describe the budding signs of democratic reform in states throughout the Middle East. They called it the “Arab Spring,” but it was an unprecedented time for America too. Hawks were downright chipper, aloft in “I told you so” heaven. Liberals were contrite.
None of it lasted. Not the democracy, not the hawk happiness, and not the liberal contrition. In the first category, the setbacks have been numerous and horrifying. As for hawks and liberals, they’ve both spent increasingly less time arguing about Arab democracy and more time arguing about military viability. It’s now assumed by many that the best we can hope for after the heavy loss of blood and treasure is a lessening of the carnage and a staggered exit from the region, politics be damned.
This will soon change.
The famed and failed Arab Spring of 2005 was, I think, only delayed—and is due to arrive right about now. There are several recent indications that what many thought was happening in the spring of 2005 is occurring in 2008, but in a slightly different form. In fact, with sharia being rejected in Iraq and embraced in, say, London, it seems the “Arab spring” may work out just fine; it’s the Western fall that we have to worry about.
Three years ago, even the harshest critics of America’s democratic mission in Iraq were acknowledging the possibility that the War had set a kind of political reformation in motion. The Toronto Star’s Richard Gwyn, for example, declared, “It is time to set down in type the most difficult sentence in the English language. That sentence is short and simple. It is this: Bush was right.”
The evidence was compelling. Iraqis had just participated in their first general elections since the U.S. invasion, sticking a purple thumb in Ba’athism’s eye; Afghanistan—Afghanistan!—saw the election of its first female governor; Saudi Arabia put together municipal elections that bore a passing resemblance to the workings of consensual governance; and Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak passed a constitutional amendment permitting multi-candidate presidential elections. Additionally, there were various regional pro-democracy demonstrations, including a march for women’s suffrage in Kuwait. And after Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad blinked in a stare-down with the advancing forces of reform, and pulled some of his occupying troops from Lebanon, Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt offered, “It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq.”
It’s one thing to hear a member of the Council on Foreign Relations talk about bringing democracy to the Middle East and quite another to hear a man of Jumblatt’s regional credibility praise the U.S. for its effort.
Finally, in the midst of Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution,” former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel pronounced, “Now with the new Bush administration we feel a stronger determination in liberating Lebanon and in promoting democracy in the Middle East.”
April is of course the cruelest month. The Arab Spring didn’t even endure long enough to earn a Wikipedia entry. One barely needs to recount the dispiriting and bloody turnaround. Iraq fell to sectarian violence and al Qaeda terrorism, and the government lapsed into coma (if not paralysis). Afghanistan got locked into a Sysyphusian stalemate with Taliban fighters who descended from mountains every year to be killed or chased back up by Afghan and Coalition forces. Saudi Arabia’s elections proved to be a kind of PR offering to George W. Bush and achieved a mere handful of quasi-appointments to meaningless offices. When Egypt’s multi-candidate elections arrived, all aspects of the electoral process remained in the hands of Hosni Mubarak—who was reelected. Bashar Assad continued to assassinate Lebanese leaders and support terrorism within Lebanon’s borders, and between that and the diplomatic complications that grew out of Israel’s ongoing conflict with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, that revolution was stopped in its tracks.
It is April again, and you may call me a fool but this time we are likely on the verge of a genuine, if less sexy, Arab Spring—one that will continue to bloom.
Yes, the 2005 case for the Arab Spring was overstated and made too soon. No, this does not mean the case can never be made again. The argumentum ad traditio is after all a logical fallacy. The fight for abolition, for example, failed—until it didn’t. This goes for any number of revolutions occurring throughout world history. There’s no reason not to assume the same when thinking about the struggle for Arab democracy.
To paraphrase Talleyrand, the Arab Spring of 2005 was at once too weak and too strong. It’s now obvious that back then we found evidence for political reform in what proved to be either superficial gestures of democracy or frustrated bursts of the real thing. But today we witness a slow-moving, organic galvanization of the democratic spirit in the Muslim world. We just have to know where to look.
In Iraq today there’s more than a day’s worth of purple fingers to demonstrate citizens’ commitment to statehood and consensual government. It’s been over a year since Sunni Awakening groups first took up arms against Sunni terrorists in Anbar, and the intra-sectarian battle has led to nothing less than the viability of a legitimate Iraqi state. The relative calm allowed the business of government to move forward, and in February the Iraqi Parliament passed three laws vital to the survival of a federalist Iraq: the 2008 budget, an amnesty for many prisoners, and, most crucially, a law outlining provincial powers.
Recently, Iraq has seen fighting in Basra and elsewhere, but properly understood this is also compelling evidence of the Maliki government’s commitment to a pluralistic state. The Shiite Maliki’s willingness to wage war on Shiite militias in the interest of nationhood demonstrates that the country is not the crude sectarian powderkeg many detractors describe. Additionally, a March 4 article in no less an anti-war bastion than the New York Times details how young Iraqis rejected Islamic extremism in favor of a secular approach to law and order and government. This wholesale denouncement radicalism by the upcoming generation is as spring-like as one could dare hope for.
In February elections were held in Pakistan. That country’s most extreme Islamist parties got crushed. With Pervez Musharraf’s power fading and moderate opposition groups such as the Pakistan Peoples Party permitted to run, Islamists went from claiming 17 percent of the seats in the National Assembly to just 1 percent. In the country’s North-West Frontier Province, where Islamist government had proved particularly disastrous, the secular Awami National Party was voted in. The Pakistan election was a massive undertaking with months of genuine campaigning behind it, not a public relations spectacle to be undone when no one’s looking.
Then there’s the curious example of Turkey. Turkey’s ruling AK Party has a confusing relationship with Islamism. It was founded in extremism and today still retains some signs of its roots. However, recently AK Party leaders have proposed the mother of all “clash of civilizations” paradigm shifts: a modernized non-literal reinterpreting of the Quar’an and the Hadith. Here’s the BBC on this development:
“According to Fadi Hakura, an expert on Turkey from Chatham House in London, Turkey is doing nothing less than recreating Islam – changing it from a religion whose rules must be obeyed, to one designed to serve the needs of people in a modern secular democracy.”
Finally, there’s Saudi Arabia. People often claim that the problem with reforming Islam is that there’s no clerical hierarchy that functions like that of the Catholic Church. But, as Mark Steyn has said, Saudi Arabia is doing a pretty convincing imitation of the Vatican of Islam. Which is why the following is so significant. Recently Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has called for “representatives of all monotheistic religions to sit together with their brothers in faith and sincerity to all religions as we all believe in the same God.” This kind of group-hug interfaith dialogue stuff wouldn’t mean much coming from some good Western liberal, but from the Saudi King—even if it proves to be a PR gesture, it’s not an insignificant one. That kind of talk in a country where the observance of religions other than Islam is outlawed could cost a ruler dearly. Furthermore, the Vatican has confirmed that it’s in negotiations with Saudi Arabia to establish the first Catholic Church inside the Kingdom.
Islamist societies in the Arab world are, somewhat predictably, imploding. Unable to achieve satisfactory levels of governance, services, and safety, radical Muslim leaders are being rejected by citizens who simply want a livable existence. Some politicians see the writing on the wall and are attempting to recalibrate their versions of Islamic rule. Nations such as Iran will find themselves less favored by neighboring democracies and under increasing pressure to bend toward the will of their people. However their weapons programs may necessitate Western military intervention in advance of any such shift.
The only places we’re faced with renewed Islamic radicalization are in the Muslim enclaves of the West. The Archbishop of Canterbury speaks about the inevitability of sharia in England; France is at a semi-permanent boil of ghettoized Islamic discontent; last month a week of cartoon-inspired riots in Denmark was capped off by a (shockingly unpublicized) bomb in Copenhagen; Canada’s courts are clotted either by alleged terrorists or by “human rights” violators who dare criticize the alleged terrorists; and in Lodi, California more and more Muslim families are home schooling their daughters so that they may “clean and cook for [their] male relatives” and also “to isolate their adolescent and teenage daughters from the corrupting influences that they see in much of American life.”
As Qur’anic government has been a demonstrable failure everywhere it’s arisen, the West is becoming one of the last places in which fanatical Muslims are safe enough and comfortable enough to indulge in the decadence of their caliphate fantasies. In the terror age irony supposedly died, but how then do we classify the contention that we’re fighting them “over there” so that we don’t have to fight them over here?
Abe Greenwald is the assistant online editor at Commentary.