The Last Thing the Middle East Needs Is More Democracy
President Barack Obama gave a speech at the White House’s summit on countering violent extremism this week, which was crammed with predictable feel-good ideas for combating the imaginary root causes of Islamic extremism. And in the midst of arguing that radicalism is principally driven by anger over colonialism, illiteracy and unemployment, Obama proposed an idea that we should have abandoned trillions of dollars and many years ago: more democracy.
Here’s how the president laid it out in the Los Angeles Times:
“Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process and express themselves through strong civil societies.”
First of all, does Obama really believe that extremists have “legitimate grievances”? Are the disaffected youths recruited from the slums of Paris (but, curiously, not from the slums of Rio de Janeiro or Beijing) concerned that France doesn’t offer a strong enough civil society? Are the radicals beheading Christians in North Africa ticked off over a lack of women’s rights in Yemen? Are extremists who target Jews and free-speech enthusiasts in Copenhagen worried about the health of democratic institutions in Europe?
No, it’s the grievances themselves that are the root of the problem. In most Arab countries, the authoritarian leadership is in some ways more liberal than the majority of the citizenry. As bad as these regimes are – and we coddle and enable many of them – almost every time the democratic process has been tried in the Islamic world, it’s produced more extremism and factional violence. So which nation does the president propose would benefit most from more democracy? Pakistan? Iraq? Saudi Arabia? Jordan? How do you think Christians and Alawites would fare in a democratic Syria?
Perhaps as well as minorities do in a democratic Libya, a place where Obama argued Americans had to intervene militarily or the “democratic impulses that (were) dawning across the region would (have been) eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship.” Turns out that democratic impulses can also lead to darkness. There is no Gadhafi regime, but there is anarchy, a fertile recruiting ground for terrorists and a country where Coptic Christians can be executed without too many hassles and American consulates can be sacked without any repercussion – all of it enabled, in part, by the president’s unauthorized war (and Congress’ implicit approval of that war), which was meant to help facilitate democracy.
At the same time, the administration punishes the Egyptian government for putting an end to the extremism empowered by democratic impulses. It is Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi – no great friend of liberty, granted – who’s spoken out most forcefully about the future of Islam. Yet the Obama administration has withheld aid from that government until it can “certify that Egypt is taking steps toward democracy.” As if ensuring a larger role for the Muslim Brotherhood were in the U.S.‘ – or the world’s – best interests.
To put our confused priorities in perspective, the United States condemned the Egyptians for bombing Islamic State targets in Libya over the summer, complaining that “outside interference in Libya exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya’s democratic transition.”
Egypt is dealing with not only the Islamic State group in democratic Libya but also terrorism originating from democratic Gaza, where Palestinians were offered autonomy and a chance to build a strong civil society but put Hamas in charge instead. In the West Bank, where the moderates of the PLO run the show, Mahmoud Abbas can’t even hold elections because the will of the people is too extreme for Fatah. In Turkey and in Pakistan, the military is counterbalance to the democratic impulses that would allow theocrats to become members of NATO or nuclear powers.
Democracy can’t work now. Three reasons: 1) In an open political environment, extremists will always be willing to resort to violence to grab power. 2) Institutions tasked with protecting society from that extremism will no longer be “democratic” once they react. 3) The populace doesn’t have any real desire for a secular democracy anyway.
According to Pew Research Center polling, given a choice between a leader with a strong hand and a democratic system of government, most Muslims choose democracy. For us, democracy is shorthand for all the things we like about liberalism, but overwhelming percentages of Muslims believe that Islamic law should be the official law of their own nations, which, as we’ve seen, does not “coexist” with our notions of self-determination. With apologies to the president, this knotty situation does not exist because Americans aren’t sensitive enough.
The problem is that the president goes far beyond niceties. For starters, I’m not sure anyone has ever implored him to say Islam is inherently flawed or doomed. But shouldn’t we nonpoliticians be more sympathetic to M.G. Oprea’s argument that referring to Islamist terrorists merely as “violent extremists” constitutes a dangerous attempt to hide from reality? The administration claims that it calls the Islamic State – a group that Graeme Wood says derives its philosophy “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” – “ISIL” because it doesn’t want to confer the group the credibility of being called “Islamic.” This fantasy forces the administration to concoct offensive rationalizations and preposterous moral equivalencies that drive disjointed, ineffective policies – much like the way our Middle East “democracy” fantasy ends up bolstering the power and reach of the very same extremists we claim to want to stop.
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