The Earthling

How Islamic Democracy Helps Us

This is the fourth in a nine-part series on how America should fight its war on terrorism.

Since Sept. 11, Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis has become, for American conservatives, the official interpreter of Islamic discontent. In a way this is ironic. As suggested by the title of his famously prescient 1990 Atlantic Monthly essay, ” The Roots of Muslim Rage,” Lewis is interested in root causes, a subject conservatives tend to dislike.

They make an exception in Lewis’ case because of the roots he emphasizes: really old ones. By his lights, the basic problem is that a) Islamic civilization, which only a millennium ago was at the front of the pack, has been soundly beaten by western capitalism, whose modern values it finds alien; b) Islam, dating back to its founding, has been a particularly severe religion—so don’t expect Muslims to be gracious losers. From their point of view, writes Lewis, “what is truly evil and unacceptable is the domination of infidels over true believers.” We are seeing “the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.”

Thus the roots of Muslim rage run so deep—lying in scripture and historical memory—that real-time policy is nearly powerless to affect them. Lewis hopes that moderate Muslims will win the struggle for Islam’s soul, but “we of the West can do little or nothing” to influence the outcome. So much for the insistence of lefties on addressing the various social and political irritants that top their list of root causes.

Yet, in a series of to-be-sure paragraphs preceding his rhetorical climax, Lewis actually grants credence to some items on the lefty list. In fact, parts of his analysis are arguably at odds with his prescription of benign neglect. In the next several installments of this series, I’ll draw on parts of Lewis’ analysis in building a plan of action. At the same time, I’ll take issue with one of his central themes: the enduring, nearly autonomous power of religious doctrine. I don’t think you can trace the origins of 9/11 back to Mohammed, and I don’t think we have to now wait patiently, hoping that the harshness of radical Islam will slowly mellow as the seasons pass. Which is fortunate, because we can’t afford to wait.

One prominent item on the lefty root-causes list is decades of American support for authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world. These regimes are “seen as reactionary by radicals, as impious by conservatives, as corrupt and tyrannical by both,” writes Lewis, and he acknowledges that their ties to America may indeed fuel Islamic anti-Americanism. (If he were writing the Atlantic piece today, he might add that American support of these regimes contrasts awkwardly with President Bush’s justifiable advocacy of democracy in Palestinian territories.)

The career of al-Qaida mastermind Ayman al-Zawahri—sometimes called “Osama Bin Laden’s brain”—illustrates how obliquely authoritarianism’s toxin can spill over onto America. As a teenager in Cairo, Zawahri joined the Muslim Brotherhood, which at the time was, according to the Wall Street Journal, “a relatively moderate but banned organization.” Thrown in jail, he mingled with more radical prisoners and converted to the more violent Egyptian Jihad, later becoming its leader. While floating from country to country after being driven out of Egypt, he linked up with fellow radical exile Bin Laden. In light of American support for Zawahri’s enemy, the Egyptian government, Bin Laden’s anti-American agenda had a natural appeal.

So, why doesn’t America push for freedom and democracy in the Muslim world? Why continue to stand by brutal authoritarians who dishonor our most cherished values and rev up our most hateful enemies?

The standard answer is a watered-down version of Franklin Roosevelt’s famous remark that, though Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo was an SOB, he was at least our SOB. The Saudi and Egyptian governments aren’t exactly our authoritarians, but they’re at least authoritarians we can do business with; they respond to time-honored incentives like money and power. Who knows how zealously unreasonable, even hostile, their democratically elected successors could be?

It’s true that democratic elections have the unsettling property of unpredictability—and that it’s especially unsettling, post-9/11, in Muslim nations. Nonetheless, I recommend PolicyPrescription No. 5: Support free expression and, ultimately, democratization in authoritarian Arab and other Muslim states.

One reason is Proposition No. 5: The current phase in the evolution of information technology is anti-repression. This is just an extension of the previously noted tendency of plummeting information costs to ease the mobilization of interest groups, including dissidents. Authoritarian governments everywhere are going to find it harder and harder to hold down restless masses. Sooner or later, the Egyptian and Saudi regimes will either graciously usher in democracy or bitterly bite the dust. Why incur the enduring enmity of much of the Islamic world by defending them until their dying day? Besides, we’d be doing them a favor by steering them toward the “graciously usher in democracy” option since it’s less likely to lead to their deaths. (Though Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the standard focal points for such questions, the questions of course apply in other parts of the Islamic world, notably in such authoritarian Central Asian nations as Uzbekistan, which suddenly developed strong military ties to the United States as a result of its proximity to Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan, whose oil reserves are attracting American interest that is eerily reminiscent of the logic behind America’s unholy alliance with the Saudi regime.)

The Bush administration, which has generally resisted Prescription 5, may be in the midst of a turnaround. This summer an Egyptian court imprisoned the democracy advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim, apparently on trumped-up charges. The administration at first responded meekly—and caught flak from both lefties and neoconservatives—but in August it raised its voice. In a high-profile move, it said the Ibrahim conviction ruled out any new aid for Egypt (beyond the annual aid resulting from the 1978 Camp David agreement with Israel).

That’s a start. We don’t have to demand elections tomorrow. For one thing, we wouldn’t get them; for another, a transition to full-fledged democracy may be easier if there’s time for institutions of civil society to start taking shape first. But so long as we can keep pushing states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia toward free expression and democracy, then a) intense young men will more and more have a non-terrorist outlet for their political energies; and b) to the extent that they do still feel frustrated, America will be less culpable for the frustration.

The great fear, of course, is that when democracy does arrive, it won’t be the final destination: Radical Muslims, once elected, will promptly restore autocracy. Or maybe, before reform even gets to the point of democracy, the radicals will have enough power to stage a revolution. Either way, we’d then be dealing with a zealous theocracy, like the one that took over Iran in 1979.

That’s certainly possible (though as Fareed Zakaria has noted, the most extreme Islamists have actually been losing support in many Muslim nations lately). But is this worst-case scenario—the Iran scenario—really much worse than what we’ve got now in a place like Saudi Arabia?

You can say this much for present-day Iran: It didn’t contribute any hijackers on Sept.11. That’s ironic, given that the Iranians have a legitimate gripe with us: In 1953 we sponsored a coup that empowered a repressive monster (the Shah) who had numerous well-meaning Iranians tortured or killed.

So, why haven’t any big anti-American terrorist plots been hatched by Iranians? For one thing, thanks to the 1979 revolution, America is no longer backing their repressive monster. Iran, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, has lots of angry people, but the ones who are angry at their government don’t have the United States to blame for it. In fact, since they want more moderate, perhaps even secular rule, the American way is as close to being the solution as the problem. Iran also has its share of fundamentalists, but since they feel politically empowered, they aren’t consumed by resentment, and what antipathy they have they focus on their angry moderate fellow Iranians, not Americans.

Of course, the Iranian government has supported terrorists—Hezbollah and Hamas, for starters. Al-Qaida. Then again, Saudi Arabia has fomented its share of terrorism, if more circuitously, by massively funding Islamic extremists. True, the Saudis may be starting to clean up their act, post-9/11. But it’s far from clear that Iran couldn’t be coaxed into doing the same if President Bush moved it from the “evil” category into the “people you might be able to deal with” category.

Besides, however frustrating the longevity of Iran’s fanatical government, it a) grants more liberty than it did when founded and b) seems to be on its death bed, with more modern, moderate government in the offing. As former CIA Director James Woolsey wrote in June in the Wall Street Journal, Iran’s theocracy is today where Soviet communism was in the 1980s: “still in power, but widely recognized as being rigid and unworkable.”

This is almost surely the fate of any hypothetical theocracies that could emerge in Egypt or Saudi Arabia. This is because in both cases the authoritarians will run into the same principle that worked on their behalf during their ascendancy—our old friend Proposition 5: The current phase in the evolution of information technology is anti-repression.

In Iran, this proposition is already showing that it’s a two-edged sword. In the 1970s, it helped Iranian revolutionaries as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s subversive sermons were passed around on audio cassette. This may seem like an archaic information technology now, but it was a revolution at the time, and in historical perspective it was just another step in the ever-cheaper, ever-richer transmission of information, a trend whose current incarnation is the Internet. And that incarnation is now turning on Khomeini’s heirs in Tehran. The number of Iranians online—put at 400,000 only last year—is now approaching 2 million, and many of these users are young, disdainful of government strictures, and inclined to communicate with others of their kind.

That information technology dooms authoritarians is a claim often made—by the “pro-engagement” faction in the China debate, for example—but often misunderstood. The point isn’t that a government can’t do anything to keep infotech from empowering its masses. Witness North Korea: no infotech, no empowerment. Rather, it’s that if a government wants to keep infotech from empowering its masses, it condemns its nation to poverty. Witness North Korea again.

And in the longest run, this is not a tenable policy. Witness the Communists throwing in the towel in China and Russia. Or witness North Korea’s own attempts at engagement with the West—ambivalent and spasmodic, yes, but real. Or witness Iran, where, as Nazila Fathi wrote in the New York Times recently, the government accepts the pluralizing peril of the Internet because it recognizes that “the Internet holds a wealth of scientific and technological information, and therefore promises progress.”

Once a regime concedes that modern information technology is a prerequisite for economic health, the genie is out of the bottle. In both Russia and China, authoritarian impulses endure, and freedom periodically suffers setbacks, but freedom has plainly grown over the past two decades. 

In short: In the modern technological environment, the Ayatollah Khomeini—or the Osama Bin Laden—model of governance is hideously unworkable. And if such a model is put on display in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere that fact will become clear.

This is a proven means of learning. Communism isn’t dead because grievances against capitalism disappeared; communism is dead because it was tried and it failed. True, it took communism a disconcertingly long time to fail—more than half a century. But in the information age, the feedback comes faster.

Could the feedback phase still be long and pernicious, featuring theocratic regimes that funnel cash and weapons to terrorists? Yes. As Thomas Friedman has noted, this is especially true in oil-rich nations, which can fend off acute poverty without fully embracing high-tech capitalism in all its subversiveness. That’s why the transition has taken awhile in Iran and could take awhile in Saudi Arabia (as opposed to, say, oil-poor Egypt).

Should we have to endure such a transition, there are some rules we would have to make explicit—e.g., if you attack Israel, we attack you. But transgressions that extreme would be unlikely anyway. Attaining actual power has a way of sobering radicals up; upon inheriting an economy that depends partly on staying in the good graces of other nations, and realizing that their own grip on power depends on delivering some prosperity to their people, they often become reluctant to glaringly defy international norms.

In any event, notwithstanding the possibility of a messy and in some cases long transition toward modern, moderate government, this is a bullet we should bite. Remember Prescription No. 1: Take your bitter medicine early. If the Islamic world must go through a period of upheaval, if theocratic authoritarianism must temporarily flourish, and even aid and abet terrorism, let’s get it over with. However scary the thought of a Bin Laden protégé running a government, it will be a much scarier thought two or three decades from now, when bioweapons technology, in particular, has reached whole new levels.

By then any nations that aren’t responsible members of the global community will pose a much bigger threat to the globe than they do now. In the next installment, we’ll look at, among other things, another lever that can be used to move nations toward membership.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.