The struggle to advance democracy in the Arab world

Democratic progress is slow. Promoting liberty and freedom may be more fruitful.

When the Bush administration took the United States to war in Iraq, a primary motivation was to neutralize Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. They turned out not to exist.

But another ambition of the president was to spread democracy in the Middle East, which somehow seemed to have been bypassed in the global march to liberty during the past four decades. Iraq after Mr. Hussein was supposed to become a democratic touchstone for other Arab lands.

In a speech on the occasion of his second inauguration, President Bush declared, "There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment … and that is the force of human freedom." He pledged that the US would "seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

Mr. Bush was joined in this campaign by Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, who told his skeptical countrymen: "We are fighting for the inalienable right of humankind ... to be free.… It's a battle worth fighting." Politically they made an odd couple, the swashbuckling, conservative American president, and the low-keyed British Labourite premier. But they had a common belief that tyranny must be challenged and that liberty is the birthright of all men and women.

Now Mr. Blair has announced his departure from office June 27, and Bush is on the downward glide path that besets second-term presidents.

Where stands the drive for democracy in the Middle East at this moment in history?

Critics of Bush say Iraq is a sinkhole of despair and the campaign for democracy in the Arab world is a hopeless quest. There is something in the Arab psyche, they suggest, that renders democracy unattainable.

Supporters of the president argue that while Iraq is not moving politically with the dispatch that impatient Americans expect, it has held elections in which millions of Iraqis voted despite threats of reprisal by terrorists, it has developed a constitution, and it has formed a government.

The truth probably lies somewhere between these two extremes.

Installation of democracy of the Jeffersonian character is unlikely. Where reform is budding, the outcome may be freer structures of representational government, but not necessarily patterned upon those of the United States or the West. They are more likely to incorporate local customs and traditions. Islamic countries would probably develop governmental systems that pay heed to religious beliefs. Afghanistan and Iraq are examples.

While outsiders can encourage and support, indigenous peoples must take the initiative in the movement toward freedom. In his second inaugural address, Bush recognized this when he said, "America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way."

Outsiders need patience as courageous Muslim reformers sometimes encounter setbacks. Democracy requires not only elections but the structures that support and strengthen it. Along with elections – perhaps even prior to them – must come freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, and protection for minorities and women.

While the Arab nations of Islam make limited progress, three large non-Arab Islamic countries – Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan – are wrestling in different ways with the coexistence of freedom and religion in Islamic communities.

Turkey is a largely Muslim country that has enjoyed democratic secular government, strongly supported by the military. But a current tussle over the presidency is raising fears of creeping Islamic influence in government, and the outcome is not yet clear.

Indonesia is a largely Muslim country that has long practiced a benign and moderate form of Islam. Al Qaeda-supporting cells have launched limited terrorist attacks but so far represent no serious threat to a democratically-elected government strongly influenced by the military, many of whose generals have had cordial relations with their military counterparts in the United States.

Pakistan is a largely Muslim country that has had a shaky flirtation with democracy versus military rule. It has been a breeding ground and haven for Islamist extremist groups, even as its present president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has allied his country with the United States in the campaign against terrorism. Few can predict Pakistan's future course with certainty.

So can Islam and democracy co-exist? The answer seems to be yes, but with various modifications. Perhaps those of us who hope for change should talk less about "democracy" and more about "freedom" and "liberty," which have universal resonance.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is a professor of communications at Brigham Young University.

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