Liberty for Muslims?
Saad Eddin Ibrahim is an unlikely optimist about the future of democracy in the Islamic world. The sociologist spent nearly three years in the courts and prisons of his native Egypt, arrested at gunpoint in June 2000 and kept for a time in solitary confinement for his defiance of the authoritarian rule of President Hosni Mubarak. The offices of his Cairo-based think tank were trashed, his staff terrorized, virtually all his files and computers confiscated.
But an international pressure campaign, including the suspension of new aid programs by the Bush administration and a ruling by Egypt”s high court in March throwing out the government”s case, helped make the balding scholar with a graying goatee a free man and today”s most prominent democratic activist in the Arab world.
“It was not me but my agenda that was on trial,” Mr. Ibrahim said on a recent visit to Washington to address a packed audience at the National Endowment for Democracy.
“The fact that I was acquitted shows there is a new margin of freedom to operate that we never had before,” he said.
The 227th anniversary of America”s Declaration of Independence finds many both within and outside Islam seeking the Muslim world”s own democratic founding fathers, its Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington.
With the U.S.-led coalition”s efforts to establish a functioning democracy in Iraq placing the issue squarely in the spotlight, the search for political leaders has folded into a larger debate over whether Islam and democracy are compatible and whether the emergence of truly representative regimes in the Arab and larger Muslim worlds would even be in America”s national interest.
Figures such as Mr. Ibrahim, Tunisian political activist Rachid Ghannouchi and Iranian political theorist Abdolkarim Soroush are not household names in the West, but they may hold the key to success or failure of long-term U.S. policy in the region, officials and private analysts say.
The stakes in the search are enormous, according to Noah Feldman, the young New York University law professor recently hired by the U.S.-led coalition administration in Baghdad to help draft a new Iraqi constitution.
In a new book on the prospects for democracy in the Islamic world, Mr. Feldman pronounced himself “cautiously optimistic,” but said the situation remains highly uncertain.
“If Islamic democracy is a contradiction in terms, we are in for some very rough times ahead,” he concluded.
The Bush administration, which has led military campaigns against two Islamic states since the September 11 attacks, insists not only that Islam and democracy are compatible, but that nurturing democratic states across the Muslim world is vital to U.S. security interests.
At a recent Washington conference on democratic change in the Middle East, William J. Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said it was a “fair criticism” that the U.S. governments in the past had “never paid adequate attention to the long-term importance of opening up some very stagnant political systems, especially in the Arab world.”
But now, he said, “I believe — and much more importantly President Bush and Secretary [of State Colin L.] Powell believe — that it is profoundly in our long-term interest to support democratic change.”
A crusade — to aid
In his widely noted Feb. 26 speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Mr. Bush explicitly linked the campaign against Saddam Hussein to the larger vision of promoting democracy in the Islamic world.
“It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world — or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim — is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life,” Mr. Bush declared, less than a month before the war in Iraq began.
“Human cultures can be vastly different. Yet the human heart desires the same good things, everywhere on Earth.”
But optimists such as Mr. Bush and Mr. Ibrahim face some pretty disheartening numbers, particularly in relation to democratic gains in other parts of the globe.
Freedom House, the Washington-based group that tracks the global state of civil liberties, found in its 2003 survey that Muslim-majority countries have largely missed out on the democratic revolution of the post-Cold War world. While many countries in Latin America and the former Soviet empire now rate as electoral democracies, the same progress has not occurred in the Islamic world.
According to Freedom House analysts, just nine of the globe”s 47 Muslim-majority countries — 19 percent — are genuine electoral democracies. Among the 145 non-Muslim states in the survey, 112, or 77 percent, met that definition.
And there has been little measurable progress over the past three decades in the survey”s broader measure of political and civil liberties. In 1973, the survey counted 23 “not free” Muslim-majority countries (63 percent) and 11 “partly free” Muslim states (31 percent) among 36 nations surveyed.
In the 2003 survey, there were 27 “not free” countries (58 percent) and 18 “partly free” countries (38 percent) among 47 Muslim-majority countries surveyed.
Lights amid clouds
Not all the news was bad, however.
Muslim-majority Senegal graduated to the ranks of “free” nations in the latest Freedom House survey, and progress was also seen in Bahrain, Afghanistan, Albania, Comoros and Turkey.
For all the political problems facing the Islamic world, a majority of the 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide live under functioning if imperfect democratic governments, in countries such as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Turkey.
The Bush administration has found itself in the same position as its predecessors in having to work with less-than-perfect regimes in the Islamic world in the pursuit of larger strategic goals.
Democratic activists from Pakistan demonstrated here last week to protest the warm welcome for visiting President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was given a rare invitation to visit Mr. Bush at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland and left town with a $3 billion aid package in his pocket.
Gen. Musharraf ousted a democratically elected government in 1999 and pushed through a series of constitutional changes that opponents say centralizes ultimate power in the president”s hands.
The political landscape across the Muslim world — a vast crescent of territory ranging from Indonesia to Nigeria — offers plenty of ammunition for both optimists and pessimists in the Islam-vs.-democracy debate.
Radwan A. Masmoudi, an MIT-trained engineer who founded the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, said in an interview that the sheer variety of political systems within the Islamic world makes it difficult to generalize, or to conclude that faith and freedom are in inevitable conflict in the Muslim world.
“Turkey is a rigorously secular democracy that is becoming more Islamic,” he said. “Next door in Iran, you have a rigorously Islamic state that is quickly becoming more democratic. And you have every other kind of government in between.”
Saudi Arabia and Qatar share the particularly severe form of Islam known as Wahhabism, but the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has instituted constitutional and civil reforms far beyond what would be tolerated by the ruling Saud family across the border. Qatar also bankrolled the Al Jazeera television network, which has pioneered an unfettered news-reporting style unprecedented in the Arab world.
“I always say to Americans: If you want to see a Wahhabi society that is open and democratic, come to Qatar,” the emir told reporters and editors at The Washington Times during a visit in May.
The optimists say the popular stereotype of authoritarian, one-party regimes in the Middle East overlooks real political stirrings, even if liberal democracy, a free press and a thriving civil society by Western standards remain far off.
Turkey”s democratic system did not buckle with the overwhelming electoral success of an avowedly Islamic party late last year. In Bahrain, women were allowed to vote and run for office for the first time last year.
Indonesia and Bangladesh, the world”s two most-populous Muslim-majority states, boast established if imperfect democracies, with free press, regular voting and competitive elections. The huge Muslim population in India has regularly participated in that country”s democratic processes.
Following parliamentary elections in Jordan on June 17, King Abdullah II said he planned to press ahead with economic and social reforms after pro-reform deputies easily outpolled Islamic fundamentalist parties.
And the Algerian government this week released two senior leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front, the fundamentalist movement whose political success in the 1992 parliamentary elections resulted in a government crackdown and a decade of violence and civil strife that resulted in more than 100,000 deaths.
The Algerian experience has been the prime cautionary tale for those who worry that democracy in the Islamic world will result in fundamentalist Islamic parties taking control — and canceling further elections. Algerian officials vow to quash renewed fundamentalist violence, but say the Islamic extremists have lost popularity over the past 11 years.
Pressure for reform has even emerged in Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran, which may boast the most politically aware population in the Middle East outside of Israel, has seen consistent voter support for greater freedoms. Recent antiregime demonstrations in Tehran and other major cities have expressed frustration with the slow pace of progress by “reformers” under President Mohammed Khatami, whose authority has been undercut by Islamic hard-liners.
A group of some 250 intellectuals and writers in Saudi Arabia recently released a letter demanding greater freedoms from the royal family, and Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom”s de facto ruler, has proposed his own “Arab Charter” for democratic changes across the Arab world.
But the early difficulties encountered by U.S. authorities in Iraq have raised fresh doubts about prospects for democracy in the region. Chief civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer has angered Iraqi factions by delaying promised local elections and declaring that an American-appointed body will draft a new postwar constitution.
Kings with real powers and no ultimate accountability continue to rule in many Arab states, at a time when monarchies and political dynasties are dying out around the globe. Syrian President Bashar Assad succeeded his father, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is reportedly grooming his son for the top job as well.
Lebanon, the region”s most vibrant democracy with a political system of delicate checks and balances between rival ethnic groups, has been a perpetual worry spot in the region, with a weak central government struggling to maintain control of its own borders.
Arab democracy has many theorists, but few practical strategists, a wealth of Thomas Paines but a dearth of George Washingtons.
Mr. Ibrahim refuses to be discouraged, however.
He said his contacts with fellow prisoners belonging to Egypt”s fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood have convinced him that his country”s Islamists are not the threat to democracy that the Mubarak government claims.
Long hauls, past and future
Middle Eastern Arab states, Mr. Ibrahim said, actually knew civil liberties and the rule of law dating in the early decades of the 20th century, embodied in institutions created by the European colonial powers. He dates the Arab world”s decline to the rise of one-party populist states after World War II, a political wrong turn from which the region has yet to recover.
“We are not starting from scratch,” he said. “What we are trying to do is revive a liberal tradition that was once there, in Egypt, in Syria, in Iraq, in Morocco. It”s a tradition that many people simply forgot about, but it”s there.”
On Tuesday Mr. Ibrahim celebrated the reopening of his Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo. In an interview with Agence France-Presse news service, he cited a number of promising events since his release from prison, including creation of a new national council to improve human rights, appointment of a woman to the country”s highest court, and the decision to make Christmas Day, celebrated by Egypt”s Coptic Christians, a national holiday.
But in his Washington visit this spring, Mr. Ibrahim warned that continued U.S. support is critical if democracy is to grow in the Islamic world.
“What we need is a coalition of the willing for democracy, and it must be sustained,” he said. “We can”t have the short attention span on this that is so typical of many American policies in the past in our region.“