28 March 2008

Democracy and the Middle East

Many Muslims and Arabs have suffered terribly from bad government, and we have suffered because of it. Many think that bad government results from Islam. Rather, bad government results from the lack of accountability to a nation’s citizenry—and if that citizenry has been deceived and misled by bad ideas parading as “modernization” or "tradition" or "anti-West" it will not demand its freedom. A passive populace endures bad government. And bad government invites outside intervention, either because it is threatening, or because it is weak.

Just as no man is an island, no land is an island, not in this age of global interconnectivity. Where Huntington saw a clash of civilizations, others have seen the difficult process of the integration of the Muslim world, painful at times, into the international system. The Muslim world has been caught in this process for the past century, and is as subject to historical contingencies and context just as any other people. Only now is Dar al-Islam, the Realm of Islam, assuming responsibility for its political mistakes by necessity, as its ruinous modern history has become increasingly clear to its more informed, and connected, populace.

We are all bound in a web of interconnections, ranging from economic relations, political interests, cultural sensibilities, religious, ethnic identities, historical patterns, philosophical inclinations, social tastes, architectural aesthetics, literary traditions: these webs are aspects of all civilizations. In the far distant past, when civilizations were fairly isolated from one another, they developed certain characteristics that allow historians to identify them on the basis of their religion, politics and socioeconomic structures, art and architecture, language and literature. However, since before the Age of Discovery, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution and the Modern Age , formerly singular civilizations have been drawn together by increasingly close ties. Change over time is slow. Glacial changes are incremental, but at times, we can look back and see radical discontinuity. Now is such a time.

In 1789, the French Revolution marked such a change. Secularization led to the intentional development of a political ideology designed to apply universally to all peoples. The deism of the French Enlightenment led to the instrumentalization of human beings for the service of the state. The revolutionary mantra spread across the world: liberty, brotherhood, equality! Nations were reawakened so that they could shake off the old and to struggle for freedom, but utopian ideas proved tragically deceptive.

Beyond Continental Europe, many, who identified themselves as liberals, were disturbed by the bloodlust of the revolution, and at the reactionary responses of the absolutist monarchies to the ideas of democracy. The Founders of the United States of America sought to address the threats they perceived to human freedom: tyranny, so they designed a system of checks and balances so that no individual could impose his will on the many; an established church, so that no authority could limit or control individual relationships with God; instability, so they established a system of laws which aimed at protecting the life and property of its citizens. The government of the United States of America was thus founded upon a healthy respect for man’s depraved nature as well as upon his dignity. They honored the importance of each person’s individual relationship to God by ensuring that that relationship had to be radically separate from the political sphere. The French had based their system on the idea of man’s goodness, while the Americans based their system on the idea of the freedom of the individual.
In Europe, the death of God led to the deification of the nation, and romantic nationalism led to the convergence blood and steel. Totalitarian governments emerged from the wreckage of the First World War in Europe as relentless homogenizers that swallowed up liberalism throughout Europe. The romantic ideal of national self-determination was buried along with Czechoslovakia when German panzers rolled into the Sudetenland.
Out of the ashes was reborn a worldwide struggle for human freedom, a struggle which had been cruelly aborted in the Arab world even as it was beginning its own rebirth.

People living in the Arab and Muslim world have never enjoyed political rights in the modern sense of the word, except as they have experienced as citizens of democracies outside of the Middle East and Central Asia. They remain subject to governments that claim authority based upon ideologies of one kind or another. Some Muslim states trace their lineage to European revolutionary and fascist ideologies, and some to Islamist ideology. Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt have embraced secular paths, but both have strong authoritarian tendencies in tension with the democratization of their societies. Jordan, some of the Gulf States, and Morocco have reforming monarchies that have embraced constitutionalism, but have not yet developed truly participatory civil society. The Palestinian stalemate between secularists and Islamists continues to trap them as pawns in the Arab struggle over integration into the international system. Security fears crush freedom throughout the region...and these fears are primarily not of external threats, but internal ones.

Dissenters of all kinds are endangered by lawless men: without the rule of law, there can be no freedom of expression. The subjects of dictatorships cannot be held responsible for the actions of their governments the way that citizens of democracies can. All this to say that until there are democratic governments in the Middle East whose citizens are free to hold their governments accountable for protecting their lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, there will be no political stability, economic prosperity, or happiness for the rest of us.

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