The Corner

Re: A Liberal War No More

Jonah, you have me wrong, I think.

I am not against democracy promotion. I am against pretending that democracy is just about popular elections, and ignoring that there is a very good chance it will never take hold in a society that is committed to remaining predominantly Islamic. I am thus against using the military for it. There are other ways to promote democracy, and I think we should use them.

If we are going to use the military for it, I believe we have an obligation to be straight with people and say: Democracy is a cultural phenomenon—a way of life, not a trip to the ballot box. Its irreducible minimum includes what you rightly refer to as “a liberal order.” Anything we would recognize as democracy demands freedom of conscience, freedom of choice, and equality under the law for all persons regardless of sex or religion. To say the least, those bedrock principles are in tension with Islamic law and culture (I believe they are inimical, but reasonable minds can differ on that).

For a society to go from Islamic to democratic is a sea-change. If it can happen at all in an enduring way—short of the Ataturk model of suppressing Islam—it will require many years to accomplish. If aggressive (as in military) democracy-promotion is our goal, the military will have to be in a country for a very long time—and at the expense of other things that we should be doing for American national security. Of course we want to be seen as liberators, not occupiers. But if we insist on liberating along with dramatically altering the character of a place, occupation is going to be a necessary component. If we don’t want to be an occupier, then we shouldn’t insist on leaving behind a democracy in a place that either doesn’t want or isn’t ready for a real one.

I respectfully suggest that you, echoing President Bush, have set up a false dichotomy: democracy or tyranny. There are many systems of government between the two, and a country that is not ready or willing to be a democracy does not need to be under the thumb of tyrannical rule — or, at least, malevolent tyrannical rule. But more importantly, while I am loath to label Islam a form of tyranny, it is, by definition and design, a form of submission (which is what Islam means) to a creed (believed to be Allah’s verbatim command) that is not just a belief system but a full-blown social system—one that does not separate religion from politics, and one that denies free choice, free conscience and even free travel (if you’re a non-Muslim, try entering Mecca or Medina; if you’re a Muslim woman, try driving there).

If a people voluntarily opts for that, they will live under a form of domination but it still represents a free choice. That it is not a choice for democracy does not mean they have been denied freedom. But it does mean they will be denied a liberal order — what democracy sees as the rights, for example, to legislate against provisions of sharia law, to choose one’s own religion (or no religion), to equal protection under the law, etc. If they insist on living that way, I freely admit: I don’t much care what form of government they have, and I certainly don’t want American soldiers sacrificed to preserve it for them.

Democracy promotion, as it has been framed for the past six years, requires defining democracy down. A Muslim convert to Christianity was almost given a death sentence in Afghanistan, under a constitution we helped write, for the “crime” of apostasy. Our favorite ally in Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani, issued a fatwa calling for the murder of homosexuals—the constitution we helped write there, by the way, also enshrines sharia as a fundamental component of Iraqi law.

I understand why we shy from confronting the very uncomfortable subjects of Islam’s connection to terrorism and Islam’s incompatibility with western democracy. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. What I don’t understand is why so many people who rightly prize true democracy as a guiding light are willing to see it diluted and bastardized just so we can say we have promoted it. I agree Americans want to feel good about their wars, but we want to feel good for the right reasons.

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