Sometimes the Quote of the Week just gets me started, but on other occasions it’s so good that I find it hard to add anything. This week’s is like that:
No serious person I know is saying Muslims aren’t up to democracy (and what we’re talking about here is a Muslim issue more than an Arab issue). This is not a question of ignorance or incompetence. They understand the principles of our democracy. They just don’t want them. Any democracy worth promoting is a democracy that runs afoul of key sharia-law principles. Muslims don’t want our democracy because they believe their civilization — including its law and desired political structure — is superior. I think they are terribly wrong about that, but it’s a considered choice and one that is theirs to make.
McCarthy gives good reasons for not intervening, particularly that although we don’t know who the rebels are and what kind of regime they would like to install — probably there’s more than one — it’s a pretty universal theme in the Middle East that they don’t want us telling them what to do.
But I think we need to think about a broader question. What people seem to mean when they talk about ‘democracy in the Middle East’ is actually a lot more than democracy, more than a government chosen by the people in some way. What we mean is liberal society, like we have in the US, Europe and Israel, where the following things exist, or at least are generally aspired to:
- Freedom of information and expression: a free press
- Reasonable literacy
- An economy that provides for more than subsistence for most people
- A commitment to development and peace rather than aggression
- Equal treatment for ethnic, religious and gender groups under the law
- A reasonable degree of tolerance for various groups in society
- A police and court system that’s relatively free from politics and corruption
- A minimal amount of corruption in government functions
- Democratic elections
I’m sure you can think of more. Simply dumping a Mubarak or even a Qaddafi may be a start — or it may not. Even democratic elections don’t mean much. In a country where all politics is ethnic, like Iraq for example, elections just allow the majority ethnic group to institutionalize its dominance. Egypt today seems to have none of the above characteristics, and recent events show that attitudes toward Christians and women are less than liberal, to say the least.
Note that proficiency with Facebook is not on the above list. Social media are a tool for communication which can be used to communicate liberal or profoundly illiberal messages, just like the TV or telephone.
McCarthy says “Muslims don’t want our democracy.” I think it might be more correct to say ‘Islamists’ than ‘Muslims’, because it’s possible to be a Muslim without calling for the state to be governed according to sharia (Turkey, at least until recently, has been a secular state of Muslims). But he is quite right that sharia — which calls for clerical rule and a hierarchy in which Muslims have more rights than non-Muslims and men more than women — is incompatible with a liberal society.
After 9/11 there was a lot of discussion about whether there was a “clash of cultures” between the Muslim world and the West. Clearly there is a clash between Islamism, which calls for societies to be governed according to sharia, and the liberal and democratic culture of the West.
Right now the House Homeland Security Committee is holding highly controversial hearings about the radicalization of some American Muslims and the possible connection of radicals to terrorism. Of course it’s important to find potential terrorists and prevent them from acting.
But the more fundamental issue that needs to be brought out into the open between Muslims and others in America is the question of how Muslims relate to our Constitution, and what they think the role of sharia should be in this society.
Just as it is wrong to accuse Muslims in general of being soft on terrorism, it is wrong to say that the main difference between Islam and other religious communities is that they have services on Friday, while Jews and Christians prefer Saturday or Sunday. We need to talk about the elephant in the room, sharia.