Thursday, September 19, 2002

# Posted 6:37 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

READING BETWEEN THE LINES? The debate on democracy and Islam continues, with Michiel Visser defending his assertion that the Middle East lacks the cultural foundations to support democratic governments.

In my last post on democracy and Islam, I accuse Mike of "reject(ing) the possibility of democratization in the Middle East." Mike responds that I mischaracterized his argument since he in fact wrote that "to bring about liberal democracy in the Middle East is both necessary and incredibly difficult" -- but not impossible. Mike is right that he never said it was impossible. Point...Visser.

But I was reading between the lines. If one adopts the position, as Mike does, that the cultures of the Middle East cannot serve as the foundations of democratic governments, then it follows that democratization is not possible. To confirm this inference, I quote Mr. Visser himself:

"In order for the political system of democracy to work properly over the longer run, you need certain things --civil society, rule of law, constitutional and limited government, secure property rights, freedom of the press, etc. Without these props, the democratic form of government will collapse into anarchy or tyranny (as Plato pointed out). These props, however, don't come falling from the sky. They're the byproducts of an advanced culture -- the Middle East isn't advanced enough, it's that simple."

Strangely enough, this quote comes from the same post -- today's post -- in which Mike says that he believes that democratization in the Middle East is, in fact, possible. Sorry my Dutch friend, you can't have it both ways. Point...Adesnik.

Now that this point has been clarified, we can return to the question at the heart of the debate about Islam and democracy: Does the absence of a democratic culture in the Middle East rule out the possibility of (successful) democratization? The argument for this position is rather self-evident: The same cultures that produced the Taliban, the ayatollahs, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are not likely to produce a George Washington anytime soon.

I counter such assertion by arguing that cultures are much more malleable than we often recognize. Twenty five years ago, numerous experts on Latin American politics came to the sobering conclusion that Latin America's imperial, Catholic, Hispanic heritage would prevent it from ever producing stable democratic governments. Yet in the 1980s and 1990s, a democratic revolution swept Latin America, leaving not a single military government behind. Of those new democracies none has yet fallen (though one wonders about Venezuela). Unsurprisingly, "culturalist" approaches to Latin American politics are now discredited.

Is there any reason to believe that such a pattern will repeat itself in the Middle East? First of all, patterns do not repeat themselves. Individual men and women have to make patterns repeat themselves. As in the case of Latin America, the most important individuals will be not just local reformers, but the President of the United States and his advisers. The fate of democracy in the Middle East depends on the firmness of the United States' commitment to it.

What I believe is that there is a willingness to embrace democracy among the peoples of the Middle East should the United States make an unequivocal commitment to it. In Latin America, one of the fundamental prequisites of establishing lasting democratic forms of government was widespread and profound resentment of the brutality which military governments had inflicted on their own citizens. This brutality is similar to that of the Taliban and the ayatollahs, a fact which explains pro-democratic sentiment in Afghanistan and Iran. Liberated Iraqis will not doubt show similar preferences. The real question is whether states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt can move straight toward democracy without first experiencing a fundamentalist interlude which discredits the brutality of radical Islam.

This question has no predetermined answer. If the Bush administration and its successors back up their pro-democratic rhetoric with pro-democratic substance, then the answer may be one we want to hear.
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