The Muslim world needs democracy and economic reform — on that, almost everyone agrees. As Rami Khouri, columnist for the Daily Star of Beirut, recently complained: “Arab countries . . . have spent nearly a century developing themselves and have so little to show for it. Not a single credible Arab democracy. . . . Not a single Arab society that can claim to have achieved a reasonably sustainable level of social and economic development.”
But when we talk about democracy and economic reform, do we share a common understanding of what those terms mean? I’m skeptical.
Start with democracy: To some, the word simply implies majority rule. I’d disagree: Without individual and minority rights, majority rule establishes a tyranny of the majority — not much improvement over other forms of tyranny. What we should mean by democracy is liberal democracy — a system in which the government guarantees basic freedoms. Because majoritarianism doesn’t provide that, I’d argue that it should be seen as counterfeit democracy.
There also is the experience of Iran, which has hardly become democratic since voting there began shortly after the 1979 revolution. There’s been voter fraud for years — 2009 was only the most egregious example — and, in any case, candidates for high office must be approved by an unelected cleric who holds the grandiloquent title Supreme Leader. Then there is Turkey, which has become decreasingly free despite nearly a century of voting. In Egypt, elections brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood, whose first order of business was to destroy all possible rivals. A military coup was the consequence.
Economic reform is, if anything, a thornier issue. A little history may be instructive. From the 15th century to the 20th century, the Muslim world meant the Ottoman Empire, which became wealthy the old-fashioned way: through armed conquest, plunder, and taxing subjugated peoples. In 1453, the Ottomans captured what had been the Christian capital of Constantinople and made it their own capital, eventually to be renamed Istanbul. The spread of Islamic imperialism and the growth of Islamic power appeared unstoppable. What changed the course of history? In Europe about this same time, Johannes Gutenberg developed a printing press that allowed for the mass production of books. That led to what we now call mass communications. And that, in turn, gave birth to what came to be known as modernity.
In his landmark 1998 book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Daniel S. Landes wrote:
Islam’s greatest mistake was the refusal of the printing press, which was seen as a potential instrument of sacrilege and heresy. Nothing did more to cut Muslims off from the mainstream of knowledge. As a result of this intellectual segregation, technical lag, and industrial dependency, the balance of economic forces tilted steadily against the Ottomans. . . . This self-imposed archaism dissolved the loins of empire.
Over the centuries that followed, Europe would continue to advance technologically, culminating in the Industrial Revolution. The Ottoman Empire, despite many military conquests, would sow seeds of internal decay until, in the aftermath of World War I, both the Empire and the Islamic caliphate it incorporated would be dismantled. (In their place, the Turkish military hero, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, established the Republic of Turkey, today led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan — an Islamist, rather than a secularist.)
As one door closed, another was opening — for some Muslims. The internal-combustion engine, one more revolutionary Western invention, transformed oil into a valuable commodity. Those who had seas of petroleum under lands they had conquered would soon become fabulously wealthy — without having to embrace modernity, without having to master scientific methods, without having to relinquish pre-modern attachments to religious dogma and to those who claimed to be conduits for the Divine will (e.g. “Ayatollah” means “sign of God” and Hezbollah means “party of God”).
These rulers were lucky in one additional way: In antiquity, they would have been threatened by predatory warriors from afar. But by the second half of the 20th century, most Western nations had developed an aversion to imperialism and a commitment to “property rights.” That ensured that Middle Eastern oil would be purchased rather than seized. And that has led to the largest transfer of wealth in history — a transfer that continues.
The Muslim lands without oil have been left behind. What are they to do? Writing about Egypt after the recent military coup, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman advised: “Our job is to help the new government maximize the number of good economic decisions it makes.”
Easier said than done: If we were to pick two economists — say one from Berkeley and one from the Hoover Institution — what are the chances they’d agree on what qualifies as a “good economic decision”?
Add this to the mix: Many if not most secular intellectuals in the Muslim world are socialists of one stripe or another. (I shall never forget speaking in the Noam Chomsky Auditorium at a Pakistani university some years ago.) They favor what is called “the socialist path to development.” Can you name even one third-world country that has taken the socialist path to development — and actually developed?
One step down from full-blown socialism is European welfare-statism. Germany, whose population is highly educated and productive, has been able to provide a wide range of entitlements over many decades. But less dynamic economies — Greece is the most obvious example — can do so only if other members of the European Union are willing to foot the bills. What are the chances that, in the foreseeable future, Egypt, Tunisia, or Pakistan can establish an economy resembling Germany’s rather than Greece’s?
Finally, there is this: No matter how many “good decisions” Westerners recommend, at the end of the day, it will require Muslim democrats and economic reformers to create and sustain democratic and economically reformed Muslim nations. There are such people — but they are still few, far between, and largely powerless.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.