Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Is Democracy Possible Among Muslims?

In this time of anxiety with regard to the upcoming elections in Iraq, Natan Sharansky provides a much-needed optimism with regard to that country's long-term prospects. In his new book The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, he argues that all peoples yearn for freedom. Sharansky was once a political prisoner in the Soviet Union, so he is uniquely qualified to comment on the matter.

Jamie blogged on this book in a December post, and Mark wrote about the book also in a November post. The posts and ensuing discussion convinced me to purchase the book.

I've read about half of the book so far. I'll do another post or two as I read more, but here are some observations on what I've read so far.

The Nagging Question

The fact is that no matter how much I believe that what we are doing in Iraq is the right thing, there is that nagging little voice that says "democracy won't work with them. They can't handle it." and even "It won't work with ... Muslims."

Turkey, unfortunately, provides no answers. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's revolution forceably secularized the country, but it is a model that is unsatisfactory to Arab Muslims. Further, there is noone alive today with the stature and authority of Ataturk. Nasser had his chance forty years ago in Egypt, but was not able (or willing) to extend his pan-Arab nationalism to such lofty goals.

The Central Question

The central question that Sharansky tries to answer in his book goes to the heart of this problem: "Do you believe in the power of freedom to change the world?" The world, he says, is divided between "those who are willing to confront evil and those who are willing to appease it." While I am certainly among the former, it is one thing to confront evil dictators and terrorist groups, another to say that democracy is possible everywhere with all people.

Sharansky reminds us that it wasn't that long ago that many in the West thought that Eastern Europeans, and certainly Soviets, were incapable of democracy. Those who advocated this view did so for varying reasons: Henry Kissinger advocated detente, or a lessening of tensions, as a means of achieving "stability". Brent Scowcroft is another widely-interviewed proponent of stability uber alles. Others believe that we simply have no other choice than to deal with dictators such as Yasser Arafat. Still others say that while the spread of democracy may be a good thing, there is little that we can do to advance it, and that it is up to the affected people to take matters into their own hands. Whatever their reasons, Sharansky says that they were and are wrong; dictators everywhere must be confronted.

I recall reading Jeane Kirkpatrick's 1983 book Dictatorships and Double Standards, in which she says that the Soviet government was simply not going to fall from internal pressures. That someone so intelligent could make such a mistake is understandable, for many others in the West were saying the same thing. Her case seemed persuasive to me at the time.

No Appeasement

But Sharansky says that we must avoid these traps now as we should have then. Dictators, he says, can never be successfully appeased. Nondemocracies, he says, are "inherently belligerent" because "in order to avoid collapsing from within, fear societies must maintain a perpetual state of conflict."

The Jackson-Vanik Amendment and Helsinki Accords are cited as being instrumental in encouraging internal dissent in the Soviet Union. Sharansky says that both of these had a huge impact. They gave legitimacy to human rights within the Soviet Empire, and thus helped lead to it's demise. The dissidents were convinced that detente, on the other hand, "had given the Soviets the chance to have it both ways, gaining benefits from the West and also controlling their own people."

Instant Results

We tend to expect instant results from our efforts. "What? Iraqis have not all become Jeffersonian democrats? The project is a failure!"

Sharansky throws cold water on this commonly held view by simply pointing out that in few cases did democracy spring up. He reminds us that most democracies take time to mature, and points to our own as an example. The French are on their fifth republic, having gone through Napoleon's dictatorship, the trials of the early 19th century, and the crisis of 1958 before they got the hang of it.

Appearances vs Internal Reality

One of Sharansky's themes is that the external appearance of societies under the heal of dictatorship is deceiving. These dictatorships, or "fear societies", as he calls them, give the appearance of internal harmony. Because there is so little visible dissent in, say, Saudi Arabia, it is assumed that most of the people agree at least passively with the regime. Quite the contrary, he says; the number of people who disagree with the regime is far smaller than Westerners think.

That these regimes may not exibit obvious signs of decay in no way proves that they are stable, he says. An abundance of natural resources may allow it to "prosper even when the process of internal dissolution is well under way." This was the case with the Soviet Union, and he says it is also the case with countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia.

This, in turn, leads to the conclusion that freedom is possible in areas where we think it is not; namely, the Middle East. The key was linkage; tying the regime's treatment of it's own people to benefits it received from the west in the way of economic and other agreements.

But What about the Muslims?

At this point the reader says "Ok, fine. Most of us misjudged the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. But it's different with the Arabs. They're, you know, Muslims."

Sharansky confronts this directly. In Saudi Arabia, for example, it appears that most people agree with the regime. Sharansky is convinced that this is an illusion.

He also reminds us that the skeptics were wrong about Japan, Germany, Spain (after Franco) and many other places as well. Each of those countries had little or no experience with liberty or democracy at all, and little literary or philosophical tradition of it either. Yet each today is a stable democracy.

In the end, though, Sharansky says that
The source of my confidence is that freedom truly is for everyone is not only that democracy has spread around the world, allowing so many different cultures and peoples to enjoy its bounty, my confidence also comes frojm living in a world of fear, stydying it, and fighting it. By dissecting this world, exploring the mechanics of tyranny that operate within it and analyzing how individuals there cope with it, one can undeerstand why modern histolry has witnessed a remarkable expansion of freedom. There is a universal desire among all peoples not to live in fear. Indeed, given a choice, the vast majority of people will always prefer a free society to a fear society.
The test for our generation is Iraq. We should not be too disillusioned if the elections do not go smoothly in all parts of the country, or even if the situation is volatile for years to come. After all, many news articles throughout 1945 and 1946 were pessimistic about how well the occupation of Germany was proceeding. That this is largely forgotten is typical of how we view history. When looking back we tend to forget the failures and only see the successes. We forget that during our own Revolution a full one-third of all Americans remained loyal to the crown, or that Lincoln faced serious opposition to the war that carried well into 1844. Success will not come easily, but if Sharansky is right, it will come.