Politics & Policy

From Democracy to Sharia

The ‘Arab Spring’ shows that democratic process is useless without democratic culture.

A few weeks ago, amid the “Arab Spring” giddiness, a Shiite mosque opened in Cairo. This was big news. Among Egypt’s 80 million people, there are only a few thousand Shiites. It’s a 90 percent Sunni country, with even Christians vastly outnumbering the Shia. So, in their euphoria over the mosque’s inauguration, Shiite clerics heralded this Husseiniya (as Shiite mosques are known) as a symbol of rapprochement. The mosque would bridge the sectarian divide: a Shia center in this bustling Sunni city, yet a house of worship, thus emphasizing what unites rather than divides Muslims in one of Islam’s most important nations.

Such stories were once the hallmark of the Arab Spring narrative. “Democracy” was in the air. The corrupt, cancerous, pro-American dictator was gone. With their yearning hearts now sated by freedom, Egyptians would pull together, the light of liberty guiding them to prosperity.

The stories are different now. The Husseiniya was shut down last week. Yesterday’s euphoria is melting into today’s harsh reality. In Cairo, home to the Muslim Brotherhood and the sharia jurists of ancient Al-Azhar University, “democracy” has meant the rise of Sunni supremacists. Turns out they don’t do bridge-building. Their tightening grip has translated into brutalizing dhimmitude for Christians and increasing intolerance of Shiism — which the Sunni leaders perceive less as Islam than as apostasy, an offense that sharia counts as more grievous than treason.

#ad#News of the mosque’s demise arrived shortly after a report entitled “Neocons vs. Islamophobes” by the leftist e-magazine Salon. Foreign-policy correspondent Jordan Michael Smith was good enough to appoint me leader of “what might be called the ‘to-hell-with-democracy’ strain of thought” in “the American conservative movement.” And if anything needs an Arab Spring, it must be the American conservative movement. We Islamophobes haven’t even had an election yet, much less gotten one of those mellifluous sharia-constitutions the State Department likes to write for its emerging “democracies,” and yet here I am the leader! And a “relentless” leader, too — scalding the Muslim Brotherhood on behalf of a cadre that allegedly includes such luminaries as John Bolton, Michele Bachmann, and Frank Gaffney.

In our struggle “to define the Republican response to the increased power of political Islam,” we are said to be “vying” with “another faction among the right-wing that is equally powerful . . . the neoconservatives.” Counting among their number such heavyweights as GOP senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, they are portrayed as “rather admirably insisting that the Muslim Brotherhood be given a chance.” After the tumultuous Bush years, my friends Norman Podhoretz, Paul Wolfowitz, and Bill Kristol must be having a good laugh: It may have taken a motley crew of despicable Islamophobes, but the Left has suddenly decided that neocons may not be the root of all evil after all.

For all its pretensions to sober analysis, the Salon hit piece usefully demonstrates how nonsensical policy debates about the Arab Spring have become. There is no common understanding of basic terms. “Islamophobia” was coined by the Muslim Brotherhood and seamlessly adopted by its Western confederates. Taken literally, the word would mean “irrational fear of Islam” — and thus it would rarely need to be spoken, Islamic supremacists having given us much to fear quite rationally. But in common parlance, to sneer “Islamophobe” is like what sneering “neocon” has hitherto been: lefty demagoguery — in this case, the belittling of anyone who is critical of Islam and its sharia framework, regardless of how colorable the critique.

Most people know an insult when they hear one. When it is rank character assassination posing as argument, people of good will tune it out. More consequential, though, is the degrading of the term “democracy.”

As applied to the “Islamophobes,” Mr. Smith’s invocation of “democracy” — as in, to hell with it — is an outright perversion. Like the giants of neoconservatism, critics of Islamic supremacism (what Salon gently calls “political Islam”) are lovers of democracy. We believe the world would be a better place if every country adopted it. We agree the United States ought to be its promotional beacon. But that is mainly because when we speak of “democracy,” we mean American democracy. That is a culture of liberty so deeply rooted in the United States that it predated by a couple of centuries the American Revolution, the U.S. Constitution, and the first federal elections.

#page#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.

#ad#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.

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