From Democracy to Sharia
The ‘Arab Spring’ shows that democratic process is useless without democratic culture.


Andrew C. McCarthy

Salon quotes the superb Jamie Fly, director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, as explaining that the key to the course of the upheaval in Egypt is whether its eventual government “respects the democratic process and doesn’t try to subvert the system.” This does get to the nub of what divides conservatives. Much as I admire Mr. Fly, democracy is not a “process,” it is a culture. It cannot be installed by a “system.” Processes like popular elections and constitution-writing are democratic only when democracy’s principles have become ingrained in a society.

That is an evolution that can and should be promoted, but it cannot be rushed. And the less democratic tradition there is in a country — or, for that matter, a civilization — the longer the evolution will take. If you try to hasten it by having the processes and the system drag a resistant society along, you don’t get democracy. You get the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the Brotherhood’s way of thinking, as best articulated by Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “democracy is just the train we board to reach our destination.” It’s a process, a conveyance, not a culture. In the case of Turkey, it was popular elections that enabled Erdogan to seize power and gradually transition a society away from democracy. In the case of Egypt, it is popular elections that have installed the Brotherhood and other Sunni supremacists, enabling them to orchestrate the much less challenging transition from an Islamic culture to a sharia state.

To critics of Islam as we find it in the Middle East, democracy promotion is highly desirable, but it is best achieved by pressuring Islamic societies to adopt the culture of liberty. It involves large rations of humility about what it will be possible to achieve — and how quickly. It accepts that just as the Left is wrong to blame America for every problem, so are others wrong to expect from America the solution to every problem. It calls for the steeliness to tell Islamic societies, “Sure, we’d like to be friends, but we’re not desperate to be friends. We are more than willing to cut you off if you prefer not to civilize. We are more than able to punish you if you threaten us. And we are not of the mind that punishing you somehow obligates us to move in for a thankless decade or two, spending lives that are too precious and money we don’t have to fix your dysfunctional country.”

The alternative view says we have interests in this part of the world and it is far better to be on the ground trying to influence the outcome, however imperfectly. Maybe democratic processes cannot instantly democratize culture, but they can steer it in the right direction. This is an honorable position, and admirably American in its optimism.

Nevertheless, it ignores the significant downsides. When democracy promotion becomes more about processes than principles, it clothes anti-democrats like Erdogan in the raiment of democratic legitimacy. This is self-defeating. It empowers pretenders to obstruct or reverse the progress of liberty.

Moreover, the notion that democracy is procedural, not substantive, and therefore that sharia needn’t be repealed for liberty to flourish, is not changing Islamic society for the better; it is changing our society for the worse. Islam is not budging on sharia-based suppression of speech it deems offensive — particularly speech that examines or challenges Muslim strictures. But we are forfeiting free expression in craven appeasement of Islamic supremacism. When we send our troops overseas, for example, it is to defend our way of life. Consequently, when Senator Graham suggests that free speech — our way of life — should be curtailed so that dubious Islamic nation-building projects are not derailed by mercurial Muslim violence, it is not democracy promotion. It is democracy destruction.

It is the sort of thing that happens in the Arab Spring, when Egyptian Shiites buy the rhetoric but the Muslim Brotherhood wins the elections.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.