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Democracy in The Middle East
President Bush and the "realists" are both wrong.


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The success of Hamas in the January 25 Palestinian election gives new urgency to the longstanding need to rethink the whole question of democracy in the Middle East. President Bush and his most influential foreign-policy adviser, Condoleezza Rice, argue that to be safe, we must democratize the whole of the Middle East, and that to do that, we must press for free elections in all the countries of the region. His critics on the Right, self-styled foreign-policy “realists,” see the idea of democracy anywhere in the Middle East as a fool’s dream. The only real choice in this part of the world, they say, is between tyranny and chaos, and tyranny is the lesser evil.

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But both sides–call them the “neocons” and the “realists”–are wrong, and for the same reason: Both rely on one-size-fits-all theories that fail to do justice to the complex realities of the region. Both ignore critical differences within and between states that make democracy a longstanding reality in two of them, a possibility in at least three more, and a fool’s dream in most others for at least the next few decades. The initial mistake, common to both sides, is to view the Middle East the way the Sunni Arabs, who currently rule much of the region, do-that is, as “Arab lands.” In fact, two of the three most populous states in the region–Turkey and Iran–are non-Arab, and many of the other states have large non-Arab or non-Sunni populations (or both) of indigenous natives–victims of Sunni Arab imperialism in centuries past, who are still treated as dhimmis by the ruling Sunni Arabs.

If you define democracy as a balance of forces in which no group’s rights may be trampled with impunity, the importance of these population differences begins to emerge, at least in an abstract way. To see what they mean in concrete, practical terms, come down from the lofty heights of theory and join me in taking a close look at the actual inhabitants of six Middle Eastern lands. In three–Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian state that President Bush and Secretary Rice are trying to create–democracy in this decade is not possible, and the pretense that it is can only harm us and give democracy a bad name. In three other states–Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran–democracy in the sense defined above has a chance, if we recognize past mistakes, and act to correct them.

Democracy as a Fool’s Dream: Egypt, Jordan & “Palestine”

The key fact about Egypt, Jordan, and “Palestine” is that all have more-or-less uniform populations. Except for the terrorized, dhimmified Copts of Egypt (less than ten percent of the population) there is only one race–Arab; one religion–Sunni Islam; and one popular ideology–Islamofascist imperialism of either the old, secular strongman type represented by Nasser, Mubarak, and Arafat, or the fast rising Islamist-religious type represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and al Qaeda. Every opinion poll in the last decade shows that overwhelming majorities of the people in all three places embrace this ideology, express great hatred for America, and have great sympathy for terrorism. The result, despite a handful of brave individual exceptions, is a homogeneous mass of haters–Sunni “Arab unity” at its most destructive. We like to think that Jordan is different, but it’s not. Its Hashemite kings may be our friends, but polls show its people are, if anything, more committed to Islamofascist imperialism and anti-Americanism than their Egyptian and Palestinian peers. It is no anomaly that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, our terrorist nemesis in Iraq, is from Jordan. His self-chosen war moniker proclaims it proudly–Abu Musab from Zarqa, in Jordan.

Democracy as a Possibility: Iraq, Lebanon & Iran

Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran are different because their populations are different. Iraq is divided between Arabs and Kurds–a native, non-Arab people who are 20 to 25 percent of the population–and between a roughly 60 percent Shiite Arab majority and a 20 percent Sunni Arab minority (who tyrannized the others until we overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003). Within each of these three main groups, key subgroups reject Islamofascist imperialism and embrace some form of democracy. These subgroups form a majority among the Kurds, a significant segment among the Shiites, and an admirable minority among Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, as witnesses the moving courage of endangered Sunni democrats like Mithal al-Alusi.

Lebanon is even more heterogeneous. In 1932 when the last census was taken, about 55 percent of the people were Christians; most were non-Arab. Many traced their ancestry to the Phoenicians who ruled these lands before the Arab conquest. Lebanon is also home to both Sunni and Shia Arabs, and to a Druse minority. Democracy of the kind defined above ruled here in earlier decades, when the Christians were dominant. In the last three decades, high Arab birth and immigration rates, plus a civil war–set off by an influx of armed Palestinians and followed by a Syrian occupation–sent more Christians than Muslims into exile. That reduced Christian numbers to an unknown extent, but they are still a substantial part of the population–variously estimated at 20 to 40 percent. Many are trying to work with fellow Lebanese from the Sunni Arab and Druse communities to recreate something like the democracy they once knew. Here, it is native Shia, not native Sunni, who are the main obstacle. Most Lebanese Shia are followers of Hezbollah, the terrorist arm of Iran and Syria. Hezbollah is the Shiite version of religious Islamofascism, and, despite religious differences, Hezbollah has long been closely allied with the Palestinian Sunnis–300-400 thousand of them still in armed camps within Lebanon, a few million more in Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Lately, al Qaeda operatives have begun filtering into all these Palestinian areas, and into Egypt too.

Iranians are another non-Arab people–Persians–and here, the great divide is generational. On one side, there are the reckless Iranian boomers who overthrew their rapidly modernizing, pro-American shah in 1979, and replaced him with the anti-Western, anti-modern reign of the mullahs. Ranged on the other side are what may be a majority of their offspring: a large cohort of young, mainly secular Iranians who learned through bitter experience to hate the mullahs, admire America, and yearn for freedom.

Supporting Democrats vs. Supporting Elections & Calling It Democracy

President Bush and Secretary Rice reject the obvious implications of all these real-world differences, clinging instead to a Panglossian, universalist theory that is as unrealistic as the blanket cynicism of the “realists.” The essence of their argument is that there are no bad people, only bad leaders, and that because freedom is the birthright of all God’s children, we all yearn for it, and will vote for it, given the chance. Some critics blame the president’s blindness here on his evangelical Christianity, but this isn’t Christianity, least of all evangelical Christianity; it’s Candide, but updated, incorporating Rousseau’s illusions about sin-free noble savages to reflect the boomer’s replacement of the Bible.

In the actual Bible, we learn of Jacob, who fought for his birthright, and of his brother Esau, who sold his for a mess of pottage. Now as then, the world has many brothers willing to sell the human birthright of freedom for an equally human dream of unlimited dominance over others, along with unlimited satisfaction. Now as then, the ratio of Jacobs to Esaus varies greatly from one place and time to another. It varied greatly in Europe in the bloody 20th century, and of course, it varies in America too. To pretend, as the president and his fellow neocons sometimes do, that it is “racist” to recognize and act on the reality of these differences, is to display the kind of unconscious racism we saw in late-to-the-party liberals of the 1970s, who claimed to love all Black people, but couldn’t see the difference between brave democrats like Martin Luther King Jr. and racist thugs like the the Black Panthers .

Bush and Rice are right to champion democracy; they are wrong to insist that support for democracy automatically translates into support for elections. In reality, supporting democracy in the Middle East means supporting democrats there, the way we supported democrats like Walesa, Havel, Sakharov, Bukovsky, and Sharansky during the Cold War. In countries where such men speak for substantial numbers of their fellows as Walesa and Havel did, it makes sense to press for elections. In countries where they are more akin to lone voices, crying in the wilderness, it does not.

Hitler, after all, was elected, and elections–especially free elections–in places like Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories are bound to produce similar monsters. Recent elections in Egypt and among the Palestinans only confirm what the polls predicted: huge gains for the Brotherhood and Hamas. But to decry Hamas victories over Fatah as losses for democracy is to miss the point. The Palestinian parliamentary election of January 25 was a contest between competing Islamofascist terrorist groups. I predicted a Hamas victory, but Hamas is just Fatah without the figleaf.

What, then, of that last-ditch neocon face-saver, the “pot-hole” theory of governance–the idea that the responsibilities of governing will moderate radical extremists and turn them into responsible leaders? The recent elevation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency of Iran provides a timely test of this theory, and here, too, the results are in. Ahmadinejad is not fixing potholes; he’s spewing Islamofascist imperialism, directing terrorist attacks in Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel, racing to build nuclear weapons, and threatening to make dhimmies of us all.

Barbara Lerner is a frequent NRO contributor.



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