The Islamic world: Freedom, up to a point

The Islamic world: Freedom, up to a point

In 2003, President George W. Bush proclaimed a “forward strategy for freedom in the Middle East”, arguing that experience had taught the US “stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty”.

Two years later, Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, said in Cairo that for 60 years the US had pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East and had ended up with neither. America, she averred, had learnt its lesson. But two more years on, the freedom agenda that was to transform the Middle East and the Muslim world lies in tatters.

The insight acquired from the al-Qaeda assault on America on 9/11 – that western support for Sunni Arab strongmen had become as great an affront to Arab and Muslim sensibilities as western bias towards Israel in the endless battle over how to share Palestine – is being eclipsed by a shallow new “realism”.

Frightened by the forces it has unleashed, Washington is falling back on the ossified regional political order that spawned Islamist hyper-terrorism inspired by Osama bin Laden.

Resentful of tyranny and humiliated by backwardness and stagnation, the young population of the Arab world watches as the democratic change that successively embraced Latin America, eastern Europe, and swathes of Asia and Africa is passing them by again, creating an “Arab exception” connived in by the west.

The effort to redeem the Middle East and the Muslim world was rendered suspect from the outset by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Supporters of the war saw it as a catalyst for change across the region. Initially, they were able to claim autocrats had begun to tread with circumspection.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak allowed others to stand against him for the fifth presidential term he secured in September 2005 with a mere 88 per cent majority. In Saudi Arabia that year, the absolutist monarchy held the first (men-only) partial, municipal elections. The Bush administration banked these modest developments as successes (ignoring the steady stream of jihadi volunteers entering Iraq from these two US-allied countries).

More plausibly, even as the Iraq war served to proliferate jihadism across the region, Washington was able to hail the year-long cycle of voting in Iraq and spring 2005’s civil uprising against Syrian rule in Lebanon as evidence of “freedom on the march”.

Certainly, the heroism of ordinary Iraqis, who defied savagery and intimidation to vote in a government and parliament, struck a deep chord among Arabs. So, to an extent, did the Lebanese intifada. But the Iraqi elections took place at the insistence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the foremost Shia spiritual leader, who had vetoed three successive schemes by the US-led occupation authorities to postpone or dilute them. And the frustration that poured on to the streets of Beirut was a response to Syrian, not US, policy.

Very soon, moreover, the US and its allies began to show clear limits to their enthusiasm for democracy in Muslim and Arab countries. In Iraq, the December 2005 elections disgorged a Shia-led coalition built around the Da’wa (or Islamic Call) party of Nouri al-Maliki, and the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq led by Abdelaziz al-Hakim. Yet the single biggest winner, in a parliament where two-thirds of MPs are Islamists of some stripe, was Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi army had launched two insurrections in 2004 against coalition forces.

Indeed, for a while it looked as though the democracy the US was trying to encourage was mainly of benefit to its Islamist enemies and their Iranian patrons. In Lebanon, Hizbollah, the radical Shia movement, did well in elections, while in the Palestinian territories, the Islamists of Hamas thrashed Fatah nationalists. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, though illegal, made an electoral breakthrough in the face of government intimidation.

In strategically vital countries such as Egypt, the west has not really pressed the democracy argument. Mr Mubarak ignored US pleas to release one of his opponents, for example, but still receives the $1.3bn Washington annually gives the Egyptian military.

When the Turkish parliament, with a majority of the neo-Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP) that opened a new horizon for the coexistence of Islam and democracy after 2002, voted against allowing US forces to open a northern front against Iraq, Washington upbraided Turkey’s generals for letting its politicians off the leash.

Or take Pakistan. The US and its allies have supported and financed General Pervez Musharraf’s thinly disguised dictatorship in the belief that only he (and the army, as Pakistan’s last working institution) can prevent his nuclear-armed country falling to the jihadis.

In practice, Gen Musharraf’s marginalisation of the mainstream parties has given an enormous boost to radical Islamists, while Pakistan’s federation is being pulled to bits by jihadism, insurgency and revived ethnosectarian conflict.

Electoral evidence suggests Islamists struggle to get beyond 15 to 25 per cent of the popular vote (in Indonesia or Malaysia, Algeria and Morocco, Jordan and Egypt) unless they retain the aura of resistance groups (Hamas and Hizbollah). Their fortunes rise when the west is seen to collude with despotic regimes, especially when this appears aimed at Islam as well as freedom.

Turkey under a re-elected AKP, however, shows that Islamists make real and enduring breakthroughs once they jettison their radicalism, appeal to the modern mainstream and, in short, become the Islamic equivalent of Christian Democrats.

Freedom, in the Muslim world as elsewhere, is the indispensable platform for prosperity, stability and security. It is tyranny that breeds despair, rage and terror.

David Gardner is the FT’s Chief Leader Writer