Freedom marches undaunted

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One of my last images of 2001 is the photo, taken as Kabul was liberated from the Taliban's hold, of joyful Afghans running through the streets in smiling celebration. Other photos soon followed, of Afghan men in sidewalk barber shops getting their Taliban-mandated beards shorn, and of Afghan women shedding the stifling, all-encompassing Taliban-decreed burqas for more reasonable dress.

We do not know whether peace and stability will last in Afghanistan, but for now its populace is enjoying a kind of freedom that is a vast improvement over the fundamentalist theocracy recently in place.

So, as 2001 draws to a close, another country moves out of the "not free" category and at least into the "partly free" category and, with hope, toward the "free" country category charted annually by a thoughtful institution in New York called Freedom House, which keeps an eye on all this.

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This movement of nonfree people around the world into the ranks of the free is one of the most significant and heartening developments of our times. The flame of freedom is alight in the breasts of people who have never experienced it during their lifetimes, yet still understand its lure, are willing to fight for it, and in some cases give their lives for it.

It is a noble and powerful motivation.

I have seen it spark dramatic change in Indonesia, where a student generation that had never known democracy finally toppled Sukarno's reign. Sometimes it comes relatively quickly, as in the Philippines and South Korea. Sometimes it is long drawn out as in South Africa, where Gandhi pioneered passive resistance before employing it in India, and where Africans had to endure the evils of apartheid for decades before gaining their freedom. Almost always it is dramatic, as when the Berlin Wall came crashing down to herald the sound of falling dictatorial dominoes throughout eastern Europe.

But the movement and direction are inexorable, and Freedom House's current annual survey reports steady progress in the deepening of democratic practices and the economic progress that goes with them. Says Freedom House president Adrian Karatnycky: "Democracy and market systems appeared resilient in the face of terrorist and extremist challenges."

Actually, in 2001 the world "reached a new watermark" in number of democratically elected governments. Today we have 192 governments and 121 of them (63 percent) are electoral democracies. Almost 15 years ago there were only 66 (40 percent) in a then total of 164. Between now and then we have added another 55 democratically elected governments.

The free nations are mostly in western and east-central Europe, in the Americas, and the Asia-Pacific region. Africa doesn't have a very good record, and the Islamic world's is deplorable. Says Mr. Karatnycky: "Since the early 1970s, when the third major historical wave of democratization began, the Islamic world, and in particular its Arabic core, have seen little significant evidence of improvements in political openness, respect for human rights, and transparency. Indeed, the democracy gap between the Islamic world and the rest of the world is dramatic."

Of the 14 Middle Eastern countries, only Israel and Turkey are electoral democracies.

Does this mean that Islam is inherently incompatible with democracy? Not so, says Karatnycky, as he points to democratic ferment in such countries across the Islamic world as Albania, Bangladesh, Djibouti, the Gambia, Indonesia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Turkey.

And in India, which has the second-largest Muslim community in the world, 150 million Muslims live under a democratically elected government. Karatnycky continues, "Important, though halting and inconsistent, inroads toward democratic reform have been made in several Arabic countries."

As novelist Salman Rushdie suggested recently in The New York Times, the questioning by moderate Muslims of extremist "Islamism" is on the rise. "If Islam is to be reconciled with modernity, these voices must be encouraged until they swell into a roar."

As for terrorism's challenge, the analysts at Freedom House are confident that the democratic nations will weather it and prevail. One reason? Their economic strength. Free countries today account for $27.1 trillion of the world's annual gross domestic product. That's 87 percent of global economic activity. The rest of the nonfree world accounts for only 13 percent. These vast material and financial resources underline the "crucial role played by political freedom and rule of law in spurring economic progress."

Interestingly, in light of this link between democracy and prosperity, the 10 states listed "worst of the worst" in the survey are: Cuba, North Korea, Afghanistan (until recently), Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Turkmenistan.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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