Come On, Fareed

The “Ramadhan Discussion” last night was similar to almost every conference that I’ve attended. It involves a lot of bluster, talking, blah blah blah, not a lot of substance. Let me break it down.

Fareed Zakaria (the guy who wrote the article) introduces the problem of Islam and democracy by arguing that there is no part of Islam that is any more contradictory to democracy than some parts of Christianity, Judaism, Confucianism, Hinduism, etc. I agree. Come on, Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh, all democracies. He also claims that culture is an insufficient explanation, because Egypt pre-Nasser and Iraq pre-Saddam were wellsprings of modern intellectualism, liberalism, and social tolerance. I agree to this as well.

The essential problem is this. The Middle East is a region full of autocrats who have a powerful trump card. They can say–correctly–that if there were an election right now in their country, radical Islamists would probably win. Not because Muslims are inherently anti-democratic, not because they are poor, not because they are evil, but because Islam is the only institution that the state cannot outlaw in these societies, and it has become the rallying point for the nascent opposition, and moderate Islam has been drowned out after 50 years of ineffectiveness against autocracy. Autocrats like Mubarak and King Hussein are better than fundamentalists, so goes the argument. Forcing democracy on the Middle East will lead to the good old “one man, one vote, one time” syndrome of just electing a new dictator, but this time one that hates everything the West stands for.

What Zakaria suggests is that Western governments, instead of focusing on elections and formal democratic institutions, should focus on pressing for “constitutional liberalism” in the Middle East. Whatever that means. I think it means developing a society where minority rights are respected, democratic discourse is the norm, political parties flourish, women get education, all those good things. In essence, Zakaria is explicitly repeating the argument about timing in democratization: you need to have a democratically-minded society before you have democratic elections. So, let’s work on making a democratically-minded society, which is easier for Middle Eastern autocrats anyway because they don’t have to put themselves up for election.

Here’s the problem. The whole problem of authoritarianism is that the people cannot punish the government for not following through on its promises. There’s no accountability. It is unreasonable to suggest that these regimes would fully implement such policies because they know that they would threaten the regime in the long run. How is the society supposed to punish the government if its members can’t unelect it?

(Tom just went outside to check on the kitty that likes to hang around the Institute-this is the noisiest cat we have ever heard. It seems that going halfway around the world did not get us away from noisy cats! jm)

People tend to forget that democracy is not the end. It’s the means. The end is a just and fair society. Now, I believe that democracy is, in the long run, the only way to get this. Democracy has to be part of the solution. But democracy is a means of aggregating preferences within society in order to determine who gets the job of leading it. Democracy is not liberty; we just think that democracy is the best way to get liberty.

The point is that Zakaria sums up nicely all the frustrating parts of imposing democracy on people, and then comes up with a policy that just redefines the problem. The point is, I don’t know how to fix it. And neither does Fareed.

(Speaking of women and education, I found it interesting that there were only four women besides me there last night. There were maybe 50-60 people total, and most were young men who had the air of students about them. I wonder where all the girls were…)

Comments 2

  1. James October 24, 2004

    There is the miracle solution: Hope for an enlightened monarch who sees the value of liberalizing his society, allowing women the franchise, giving elected representatives real power, establishing a secular school system that can service the nation’s youth, opening the economy to the world and preparing the nation’s people to be effective not just as oil well mechanics, but as engineers, writers, doctors, school teachers et al. Basically, you can pray for a Bahrain (or a Qatar, it’s one of those gulf mini-states). But democracy is hard. That’s why it’s so rare. Not that people are culturally unprepared, but that people with power have the tendency to do anything to keep it. Even in a democracy we have this problem: Tom DeLay is, frankly, a danger to democracy in just that way. Short of a miracle, there’s always the invade-a-state-and-botch-the-nation-building-solution. But if that’s a revolution in military affairs, I’ll take Tailhook.

  2. Tom October 25, 2004

    Yes! All the fuss about legitimacy and symbols and culture and rhetoric is nice to think about, but it’s not what people really fight about. They fight about power.
    Revolutions in military affairs do not involve the president gainsaying the recommendations of his generals about troop strength and the difficulty of nation-building.
    Finally, Tom DeLay is no different than a Democrat in his position. People who have the power to increase their tenure will use it, no matter how gross and despicable it is.

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