Fareed Zakaria reflects on the factors present in the Middle East that have provided for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and a complete absence of democracy. He prescribes policy measures for the United States and the leaders of the Middle Eastern regimes in order to best transition the region to one where at least constitutional liberalism may flourish.
The Arab world today is trapped between autocratic states and illiberal societies, neither of them fertile ground for liberal democracy. It’s produced a political climate filled with religious extremism and violence. As the state becomes more repressive, opposition within society grows more pernicious, goading the state into further repression. It is the reverse of the historical process in the Western world, where liberalism produced democracy and democracy fueled liberalism. The Arab path has instead produced dictatorship, which has bred terrorism. Terrorism results from dysfunction, social stagnation, and intellectual bankruptcy.
Questions since September 11th: Why is this region the political basket case of the world? Why is it the great holdout, the straggler in the march of modern societies?
ISLAM'S WIDE WORLD
Bin Laden: believes the problem with Arab regimes is that they are insufficiently Islamic. Only by returning to Islam will Muslims achieve justice. Democracy, for bin Laden, is a Western invention. Its emphasis on freedom and tolerance produces social decay. Bin Laden advocates the overthrow of the regimes of the Arab world--perhaps of the whole Muslim world--and their replacement by polities founded on strict Islamic principles, ruled by Islamic law (sharia).
The real problem lies not in the Muslim world but in the Middle East. When you get to this region, you see in lurid color all the dysfunctions that people conjure up when they think of Islam today. This is the land of flag burners, fiery mullahs, and suicide bombers. America went to war in Afghanistan, but not a single Afghan was linked to any terrorist attack against Americans. Afghanistan was the campground from which an Arab army was battling America.
THE ARAB MIND
Arab social structure is deeply authoritarian. A father figure rules over others, monopolizing authority, expecting strict obedience, and showing little tolerance of dissent. Projecting a paternal image, those in positions of responsibility (as rulers, leaders, teachers, employers, or supervisors) securely occupy the top of the pyramid of authority. Once in this position, the patriarch cannot be dethroned except by someone who is equally patriarchal.
THE FAILURE OF POLITICS
By the late 1980s, while the test of the world was watching old regimes from Moscow to Prague to Seoul to Johannesburg crack, the Arabs were stuck with their corrupt dictators and aging kings. Regimes that might have seemed promising in the 1960s were now exposed as tired kleptocracies, deeply unpopular and thoroughly illegitimate. In an almost unthinkable reversal of a global pattern, almost every Arab country today is less free than it was forty years ago.
THE FAILURE OF ECONOMICS
There have been suggestions for a new Marshall Plan to eradicate poverty in the Muslim world. But this overlooks the fact that the al-Qaeda terrorist network is not made up of the poor and dispossessed.
FEAR OF WESTERNIZATION
There is a sense of pride and fear at the heart of the Arab problem. It makes economic advance impossible and political progress fraught with difficulty. America thinks of modernity as all good--and it has been almost all good for America. But for the Arab world, modernity has been one failure after another. Each path followed--socialism, secularism, nationalism--has turned into a dead end. People often wonder why the Arab countries will not try secularism. In fact, for most of the last century, most of them did. Now Arabs associate the failure of their governments with the failure of secularism and of the Western path. The Arab world is disillusioned with the West when it should be disillusioned with its own leaders.
THE RISE OF RELIGION
Nasser was a reasonably devout Muslim, but he had no interest in mixing religion with politics, which struck him as moving backward. This became painfully apparent to the small Islamic parties that supported Nasser's rise to power. The most important one, the Muslim Brotherhood, began opposing him vigorously, often violently, by the early 1950s. Nasser cracked down on it ferociously, imprisoning more than a thousand of its leaders and executing six of them in 1954. One of those jailed was Sayyid Qutb, a frail man with a fiery pen, who wrote a book in prison called Signposts on the Road, which in some ways marked the beginning of modern political Islam or what is often called Islamic fundamentalism. Fundamentalism gave Arabs who were dissatisfied with their lot a powerful language of opposition.
Islamic fundamentalism got a tremendous boost in 1979 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini toppled the staunchly pro-American shah of Iran. In the Sunni world, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism was shaped and quickened by the fact that Islam is a highly egalitarian religion. This for most of its history has proved an empowering call for people who felt powerless. In the moderate monarchies of the Persian Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime has played a dangerous game: it has tried to deflect attention away from its spotty economic and political record by allowing free reign to its most extreme clerics, hoping to gain legitimacy by association. Saudi Arabia's educational system is run by medieval-minded religious bureaucrats. Over the past three decades, the Saudis--mostly through private trusts--have funded religious schools (madrasas) and centers that spread Wahhabism (a rigid, desert variant of Islam that is the template for most Islamic fundamentalists) around the world. In the past thirty years, Saudi-funded madrasas have churned out tens of thousands of half-educated, fanatical Muslims who view the modern world and non-Muslims with great suspicion. America in this world-view is almost always uniquely evil. What were once small, extreme strains of Islam, limited to parts of the Middle East, have taken root around the world--in the globalization of radical Islam.
THE ROAD TO DEMOCRACY
For the most part, the task of reform in the Middle East must fall to the peoples of the region. No one can make democracy, liberalism, or secularism take root in these societies without their own search, efforts, and achievements. But the Western world in general, and the United States in particular, can help enormously.
As a start, the West must recognize that it does not seek democracy in the Middle East--at least not yet. We seek first constitutional liberalism, which is very different. Clarifying our immediate goals will actually make them more easily attainable.
Israel has become the great excuse for much of the Arab world, the way for regimes to deflect attention from their own failures.
The more lasting solution is economic and political reform. Economic reforms must come first, for they are fundamental. Even though the problems facing the Middle East are not purely economic, their solution may lie in economics. Moving toward capitalism, as we have seen, is the surest path to creating a limited, accountable state and a genuine middle class.
A genuinely entrepreneurial business class would be the single most important force for change in the Middle East, pulling along all others in its wake. If culture matters, this is one place it would help.
If we could choose one place to press hardest to reform, it should be Egypt. Egypt is the intellectual soul of the Arab world.
There is another possible candidate for the role: Iraq. The United States must engage in a serious long-term project of nation building, because Iraq could well become the first major Arab country to combine Arab culture with economic dynamism, religious tolerance, liberal politics, and a modern outlook on the world. And success is infectious.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONSTITUTIONALISM
Spreading democracy is tough. But that does not mean that the West--in particular the United States--should stop trying to assist the forces of liberal democracy. Nor does it imply accepting blindly authoritarian regimes as the least bad alternative.
The most difficult task economically is reforming the trust-fund states. It has proved nearly impossible to wean them of their easy money. Finally, we need to revive constitutionalism. One effect of the overemphasis of pure democracy is that little effort is given to creating imaginative constitutions for transitional countries.
Democracy is a work in progress, abroad as well as at home. A more variegated conception of liberal democracy requires the intellectual task of recovering the constitutional liberal tradition.