Pursue a New Freedom Agenda
The fundamental challenge that will confront the United States after a troop drawdown in Iraq will be the same one that prompted many to clamor for the invasion in the first place: defusing the threat of radical Islamist terrorism and the unjust, undemocratic governance in the region that feeds it. The Arab and Islamic worlds–with their great heritage of civilizations–are falling further behind the rest of the world, a fact increasingly apparent in an era of globalization. Genuine development that lifts these countries fully into prosperity, dignity, and the modern world will require far-reaching reform of governance, restraint of power, rule of law, and inclusive political participation. If the result will not always be democracy as we know it in the West, it will need to approach it and amount to something more than the cynical, tactical game of liberalization that Arab states like Egypt and Jordan have been cycling through for two generations.
Promoting serious governance reform, and ultimately democracy, after the debacle in Iraq will be exceedingly difficult. A tragic irony of the Bush democratization doctrine is that the climate for Arab civil society groups campaigning for democratic reforms, and for international efforts assisting them, is now even more unfavorable after the American intervention in Iraq. Long-serving autocrats like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen have been able to say to their societies: “You want democracy? Look at Iraq. You want that chaos?” Wedged precariously between deepening chaos in the Palestinian territories and civil war in Iraq, Jordan has clamped a firm lid on political liberalization. Moreover, as some regimes in the region did open up and elections got fairer, Islamists made deep electoral gains, winning control of government in the Palestinian territories, a majority of parliamentary seats in Iraq in 2005 and in Bahrain in 2006, and winning an unprecedented number of seats in the first round of Egypt’s late 2005 parliamentary elections, before Mubarak cracked down. In the short run, Islamists will make stunning electoral gains throughout the Arab world if there are meaningful, free, and fair elections, though some of these winning candidates will be more moderate–and more logical interlocutors for the United States–than others.
This is as painful a dilemma internationally as any the United States faces in the coming decade. If we press real democratization, we face the prospect of Islamist victories. If we retreat from our commitment to freedom and embrace Arab dictators in the “Global War on Terrorism,” we will be bitterly condemned for hypocrisy and betrayal and feed the terrorism that we are fighting. America after Iraq must figure out how to regenerate the quest for more democratic governance in the Arab world without creating new debacles. We need, in short, a new freedom agenda.
Of course, it’s simplistic to say that all Islamist parties and movements are the same and that they inevitably threaten the United States (and our ally, Israel). A number of Islamist political parties, movements, and leaders in the Arab world have been evolving toward greater pragmatism and acceptance of nonviolence, pluralism, and constitutionalism. For the first time, it is possible to envision Arab Muslim democratic parties, built on something like the model of the Christian Democratic parties of Europe, inspired by religious faith and values but not seeking to impose religious law or doctrine on their society. In the Middle East, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey has been the harbinger of this transformation.
The challenge now, politically and intellectually, is to test the more moderate Islamist political formations and to press them–as Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholars Amr Hamzawy, Marina Ottaway, and Nathan Brown have urged–to clarify where they stand on ambiguous issues like the weight and imperative of sharia (Islamic law), peace with Israel, tolerance for non-Islamist policies and parties, and the rights of women and religious minorities. This can only be done through serious and sustained dialogue: between Islamists and the state, Islamists and other nonstate political groups, and–yes–Islamists and the United States. In that dialogue, Islamists must, in the words of Hamzawy, Ottaway, and Brown, accept “the civil nature of the political system,” that it “will work through rather than around constitutional and democratic procedures.” Islamists must separate their political parties from religious authorities and more fully commit to pluralistic principles of tolerance for dissent (including within their own parties) and equal rights for women and Christians. In return, the West must make clear that it will acknowledge the legitimacy of governments led by Islamist parties if those parties respect democratic procedures, social and political pluralism, regional peace, and the rule of law. If they do not commit to democratic rules, then they should not expect Western support for their inclusion or a benign Western attitude toward their rule.
We also must rethink the possible parameters of political transition. Opening up power does not necessarily require giving up all power. Creative strategies of transition are needed. In Turkey, the military and the constitutional court have retained power to restrain what the Islamists can do to reverse the country’s historic secularism. In Thailand, the monarchy has had significant informal power as a check on elected governments. Both of these checks diminish democracy–and at times have been utilized to topple democracy–but this type of constraint can be a useful crutch, enabling politically crippled Arab establishments to hobble out of the current stalemate. Initially, this would be less than full democracy, but it could build up the mutual trust and restraint that would enable democracy eventually to take hold in the Arab world.
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