Islam's consistency with democracy

Posted: Nov 24, 2003 12:00 AM

No doubt President Bush's Whitehall speech will be remembered for its "three pillars" -- Bush's metaphorical framework for the peace and security of free nations. Maybe more significant, however, are the two "Ifs."

If No. 1: "If the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation and anger and violence for export," Bush said. "As we saw in the ruins of two towers, no distance on the map will protect our lives and way of life."

If No. 2: "If the greater Middle East joins the democratic revolution that has reached much of the world, the lives of millions in that region will be bettered, and a trend of conflict and fear will be ended at its source."

The two "Ifs" take us to a crossroads, staring down uncharted paths through what I take to be our relationship with the Islamic world. After all, the only non-Islamic country in the Middle East, Israel, long ago joined the "democratic revolution" Bush invoked. (The president himself indicated the Islamic-ness of his two conditions when, soon after stating them, he noted, critically, "We're told that Islam is somehow inconsistent with a democratic culture.")

If No. 2, obviously, is the preferred destination for all nations resting on Bush's three pillars. But how to get there from here, and how to avoid the blind alleys along the way?

According to Bush, "the most helpful" action "is to change our own thinking" -- namely, to change what he called "a certain skepticism about the capacity or even the desire of Middle Eastern peoples for self-government." As he put it, "It is not realism to suppose that one-fifth of humanity is unsuited to liberty. It is pessimism and condescension, and we should have none of it."

This rather muscular line drew applause, bulging as it does with an infectious vigor. Still, as someone unconvinced that Islam is consistent with "democratic culture" -- if democratic culture includes freedom of worship, freedom of speech, and equality of men and women before the law -- I would say the concern is not so much that "Middle Eastern peoples" are incapable of self-government, but rather that the governments they would likely form would little resemble the kinds of democracies that now coexist, finally, in peace and relative harmony.

Why? The president talked about a "freedom deficit" in the Middle East that has denied nations "the progress of our time." Such a "deficit" refers to a range of freedoms -- democratic culture -- that is conspicuously lacking in Muslim lands. But more than a freedom deficit divides Islam from the West. In the absence of freedom, a noxious culture of anti-Jewish and anti-American hatred and delusion has become deeply entrenched, encouraged, nurtured and fueled by governments, mosques, state-run media, and school systems.

The ministry of education in the Palestinian Authority encourages this culture of hatred and delusion when it produces, for example, a new textbook urging jihad and martyrdom onto 11th-graders. Hezbollah satellite television (available worldwide) nurtures it when, as during this Ramadan season, it broadcasts a 30-part, Syrian-produced exercise in anti-Semitism called "Diaspora" for the holidays. One episode, partly translated (along with a video clip) at, depicts a group of rabbis and other Jews engaged in the act of ritual murder.

(Head rabbi to accomplices: "You, pour lead in his mouth. You, stab his body with a knife before the lead kills him ... ."). Al Riyadh newspaper -- also according to -- fuels it by fantastically attributing Islamic terrorism to Israel, declaring that "Mossad agents recruit young Arabs to act as Islamists in order to shake the faith and social foundation of the Middle East." This sanity-challenged theme has endless variations, dating back to reports across the Muslim world of joint Mossad-CIA complicity in the attacks of 9/11.

A secret ballot can do a lot for the freedom deficit, but something more drastic is needed to plug the reality gap.

Something more drastic, of course, has taken place in Iraq, where as the president also noted, 150 free newspapers now circulate, textbooks are propaganda-free, and incitement-as-government-policy has ended. But laying this groundwork for democracy has cost us greatly, requiring far more than merely "changing our own thinking." Even so, now that Saddam Hussein is gone, everyone's thinking about what's possible in the Middle East has changed. Will it evolve from a place where freedom doesn't flourish to a place where democratic culture takes root? The answer is unclear. What is clear is that any change for the better requires the end of state-sponsored incitement in the Muslim kingdoms and dictatorships of the Middle East -- in the media, in the textbooks and in the mosques.