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US should support all democracy, no matter whom it brings to power

By Helena Cobban / June 9, 2005



CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.

Should Americans and their leaders be pushing for greater democratization in the Middle East even if this process risks bringing to power parties - including avowedly Islamist parties - that seem strongly opposed to US policies?

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Yes. All people who claim they're committed to democracy have to be for the process even if - at home or abroad - it brings to power parties with which we disagree. That is the whole point of democratic practice, after all: to allow people with widely differing ideas to work together to resolve those differences through discussion and the ballot box, rather than through violence.

But what if some countries elect committed Islamists as leaders? Should we fear "one person, one vote, one time"in these cases any more than any others? In the Middle East, as elsewhere, there have been plenty of "elected" leaders who have hung onto power through brutal oppression - in the name of avowedly "secular" values. (Saddam Hussein comes to mind.)

Conversely, there have been openly Islamist parties that have governed fairly well and retained a commitment to democratic principles. One is Turkey's Justice and DevelopmentParty - known as AK. Since winning the 2002 elections the AK has retained voter support while strengthening the rights of ethnic minorities and being much more flexible than all its secular predecessors in diplomacy over the 30-year dispute with Greece over Cyprus.

True, in 2003 the AK government refused to allow US forces headingfor Iraq to pass through Turkey. But the AK didn't do that out of outright hostility toward the US. Like many other nations it opposed the war, preferring to giveUN inspectors more time to work on finding the weapons of mass destruction that the Bush administration claimed that Hussein possessed. (This week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been meeting President Bush in a fence-mending visit to Washington.)

The AK operates like the Muslim equivalent of the Christian religious parties found in some European countries, or Jewish religious parties in Israel, like the National Religious Party. All these parties seek to build a national society that is guided by the tenets of their religion. But all have shown themselves capable of acting according to the rules of democracy, and of working closely with nonreligious parties.

And what about the threat of terrorism? This is certainly a concern many Americans have regarding groups like Palestine's Hamas and Lebanon's Hizbullah. Both these parties are on the State Department's "terrorist" list and have armed wings that operate mainly against Israel. But Hamas and Hizbullaheach also represent a significant section of opinion within its society. And over the years these two, like many other Islamist parties, have built solid reputations for effective, noncorrupt management of social welfare projects - reputations that contrast strongly with those of many secular groupings.

Americans and others need to understand there is a big difference between Al Qaeda and groups such as these that conduct much of their work quite openly, that provide real services to needy populations, and that commit to entering the political system on equitable democratic terms.

Certainly, these parties' military wings need to be curtailed or shut down; reaching comprehensive peace agreements between Israel and all of its neighbors is surely the best way to achieve this.

In the meantime, should the US take - or encourage others to take - steps to exclude these groups from their countries' political systems? Absolutely not. First, to do so in the context of Mr. Bush's strong rhetoric about supporting Middle Eastern democracies would be seen - rightly - as the height of hypocrisy. Second, including such parties within accountable governance systems is generally the very best way to improve the political health and overall well-being of these societies.

Overblown rhetoric about "not talking with terrorists" can stand in the way of this. Remember that in South Africa the apartheid regime refused for decades to talk with Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), arguing vociferously that the ANC's people were all "terrorists." But in 1990, the white government started official talks with Mandela - and thank God they did. They found the ANC ready to commit to entering the political system on an equitable, one-person-one-vote basis. And under the guidance of the ANC's disciplined, mass party organization, South Africa's transition to democracy took place miraculously smoothly.

The fears that many white South Africans had voiced about any talks leading to a ballooning of ANC "terrorism" proved quite unfounded.

Today, as the US and many governments allied with it consider the challenges poised by Islamist parties, they should similarly not let the rhetoric of counterterrorism get in the way of encouraging the entry into the democratic process of politically effective, mass parties with whose policies they happen to disagree. A commitment to resolving internal differences through deliberation and the ballot box is, after all, the fundamental bedrock of democracy. Any party prepared to make that commitment should be encouraged to take part.

Helena Cobban is s working on a book about violence and its legacies.

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