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Arab democracy — not an oxymoron

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In Chapter 4 of The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria, draws out some interesting facts about Islam:

  • In a 2002 survey, Freedom House find that 75 percent of the world’s countries are free or partly free; Only 28 percent of the Middle Eastern countries fall into that category.
  • Of the 22 members of the Arab League, not one is a democracy.
  • Until the 1940s, minorities, particularly Jews, were persecuted less in Arab lands than anywhere else in the world.
  • Of the 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, only 260 million live in Arabia.
  • Islamic fundamentalism is entirely a product of Arabs.
  • Most of the Muslims in the world live in democracies or semi-democracies.

In other words, the radicals only make up a minority of Islam worldwide and there is little reason believe that Islam is not compatible with liberal democracy (Zakaria draws a distinction between liberal democracy, which is governed by the rule of law and guarantees basic freedoms, and illiberal democracies, which are more like thugocracies — Russia being Exhibit A.

Zakaria makes a strong case that Arab countries can be liberalized, but it will take some effort by the United States. It will take diplomatic pressure on Saudia Arabia and Egypt to modernize their economies and expand secular freedoms; also, the Palestinian issue must be solved; and a successful Iraq will help show the way for other countries in the region.

Key quote:

The consummate politician, former Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, once said that all politics is local. So is the politics of rage. The frustrations of ordinary Arabs are not about the clash of civilizations or the rise of McDonald’s or the imperial foreign policy of the United States. They are responses to repressive political regimes with no political voice. And they blame America for supporting these regimes.

Iraq is a real test for us. If we can show that we’re serious about freedom, and if we apply serious diplomatic pressure to Saudi Arabia and Egypt to reform from within, we will go a long way toward ending the seemingly endless terrorist threat from extremist Muslims. This is a good thing, I think.

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About Howard Owens

  • “The misunderestimated me.”
    ~Gov. George W. Bush~

  • “There are two ways to slide through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking.”
    ~Theodore Isaac Rubin~

  • As Zakaria points out elsewhere, it will take a lot more than wishful thinking and unilateral arrogance to pull off this plan.

    If Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz continue to dominate Bush’s thinking, I doubt that this experiment will result in much success. I think people around the world, including those in occupied Iraq and surrounding countries, will WANT to believe Bush is sincere when he says he is simply trying to bring freedom to the region. But if he continues to send out contrary signals, and remains utterly tone-deaf about and contemptuous of diplomacy, I don’t see how that perception could possibly take hold.

    It’s time to encourage hope instead of fear. And I don’t see a shred of evidence that this Administration is capable of that, even if they were inclined to go that route.

  • Nobody, and certainly not Zakaria, is saying democracy is the answer. It’s merely the logical outcome of an entire liberalizing process.

  • So the general idea is that since more than three quarters of Moslems don’t live in “Arab countries,” and those Arab countries are the source and engine for Islamic extremism, this is evidence that Islam can in fact be rescued from the grip of the few and returned to the hands of the many – more peaceful – Moslems. Do I have that right?

    I hope the theory is correct. However, I worry a bit about the the suggested cure. Democracy alone won’t solve anybody’s problems. Democracy not not equal freedom. Only freedom equals freedom. Granted, usually democracy and freedom go reasonably well together, but I hope nobody is counting on that trend to survive an impact with a culture that has spent the last 60 years reinforcing the idea that freedom is a bad thing.

    Europe was rebuilt after WW2 because of relaxed economic restrictions that resulted in vibrant free markets as much as by the measly capital infusion from the Marshall Plan. Giving men the vote in limited elections in Saudi Arabia (as has been recently suggested) is not likely to do much to counter an oppresive religious regime which would rather see young women die in a burning building than set one foot onto the street without a head covering.

    Arab countries need economic freedom and religious freedom as much as (if not more than) democracy. I suspect democracy will be useful to achieve the first two, but the first two should be the final goal.

    That’s just my opinion, of course, and I could be wrong. 8^)