Two arguments are regularly raised against the promotion of democracy in the Arab world: first, that Arabs are culturally or constitutionally incapable of, or uninterested in, self-rule; second, that democracy will briskly devolve into Islamist tyranny. Elliott Abrams contends that the naysayers are wrong on both counts:
[I]t is very hard to argue that Arabs . . . would prefer living in states where the police are free to grab you from your home, beat you, and jail you—or would prefer living in states where a dictator steals a vast fortune, makes his son his successor, and silences anyone who complains about it. And indeed, repeated and respectable surveys do show that Arabs want democracy. . . . But will Arab democracies be “illiberal democracies,” where majority rule will be the means of imposing constraints on freedom? They will, in two areas: religion and sexual matters, to a degree. . . . Beyond these areas, [however], it is reasonable to expect Arab democracies to meet the standard Western definitions of what democracy means. . . .
The [successful transition to democracy in] Tunisia does suggest that democracy is possible, and it has been achieved in other Muslim states around the world, from Senegal to Indonesia. The very great obstacles to achieving democracy tell us that the struggle will be long and arduous. . . .
[Furthermore], the argument that dictators are the best bulwark against Islamist victories is also wrong. This is because Islamism, whether armed or unarmed, is a set of ideas about how the state should be governed, how God wants society to be ordered, and how people should conduct themselves in public life. Every Muslim country will have to debate whether those ideas are in fact sensible and true to the Quran, or are heretical, inhuman, and unworkable. [But] policemen and soldiers can never win that debate. They can jail or shoot Islamists, but they can never defeat them and win the debate because they themselves have no ideas. What ideas, after all, did [the ousted Tunisian dictator] Ben Ali or [Egypt’s Hosni] Mubarak have to offer young citizens? They stood for family rule in fake republics, for immense theft of public funds, and for repression of freedom. It is no wonder that they could not defeat Islamism.
For that to be achieved, better and more persuasive ideas must be proffered—and that requires politics, and debate, and freedom of thought and speech. The last two decades in Turkey provide an object lesson. [There military] coups and the banning of Islamist parties did nothing to undermine support for the Islamist cause. Indeed, one can argue that the coups undermined support for [secular] parties; they certainly provided no intellectual or spiritual arguments against the Islamists.
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