Monday, October 16, 2006

Islam and Democracy

I received an interesting e-mail update from Regime Change Iran, entitled “Iranian Clerics' Angling Stirs Worry on Absolute Rule” on September 25. According to the New York Times, Muhammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, a senior fundamentalist cleric and mentor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says that democracy is incompatible with Islam. This is a challenge to American foreign policy. His theory on Islamic politics is mentioned below.

“Democracy means if the people want something that is against God’s will, then they should forget about God and religion,” he said in July 1998. “Be careful not to be deceived. Accepting Islam is not compatible with democracy.”

And in November 2002, the daily Aftab-e-Yazd quoted him as saying: “Who are the majority of people who vote: a bunch of hooligans who drink vodka and are paid to vote. Whatever they say cannot become the law of the country and Islam.”

He has criticized democracy more cautiously since the election of Mr. Ahmadinejad, but his disdain for the election process to fill the Assembly of Experts was evident in a speech in Mashhad this month, in which the news agency ISNA quoted him as saying it was like the vote of the “ignorant for the learned.”

Currently, Ayatollah Khamenei and Mesbah Yazdi try to expand the authority of the supreme leader, and they are at odds with moderates like former President Mohammad Khatami and Ali Rafsanjani.

Historically, Iran had been under dual politics between the shah and the imam from the Safavi (1501 ~ 1722) to Qajar (1795 ~ 1925) dynasty. The relationship between the shah and the imam is something like that between the emperor and the pope. Shahs needed recognition by imams to assume political legitimacy. In the Sunni Arab world, Wahhabism has been deterring modernization in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf area. In both cases, religious authorities had restrained political leadership. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has been receding into the Middle Age. Fundamentalists push this trend furthermore.

In fact, majority of Islamic countries are undemocratic. An Israeli advocacy group, called Middle East Info says Israel is surrounded by 23 Arab and Iranian police regimes, theocracies, and tyrannies. As they insist, none of the states in the Arab world and Iran are democratic. For further understanding, let’s see the Freedom House Index. As readers know, Freedom House is a bipartisan NGO, founded by Eleanor Roosevelt. Its mission is to prevail freedom under American leadership. It is too well known that Freedom House played a key role to mobilize student movements for democracy in Ukraine.

Is Islam really incompatible with democracy? A careful observation does not substantiate such a viewpoint. According to Freedom House Index for 2006, Mali scores 2,0, which is better than India’s 2.5. I have talked about the scoring methods of this index in a previous post “Grading Freedom: Review of Freedom House Index.” Please see this page for detail. The Bush administration recognizes India a strategic partner to the United States, because they regard India free and democratic enough. This fact is a vital proof that Islamic nations can pursue freedom and democracy without destroying their cultural traditions. From this perspective, Middle East democratization, which is a key agenda in American foreign policy, is right. There is no wonder the project for Iraqi freedom is bipartisan. It was initiated by the Clinton administration, and succeeded by the Bush administration.

In order to bring democracy and modernization, let me review an interesting article by Ruel Marc Gerecht, Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. In the essay, entitled “Selling Out Moderate Islam” in Weekly Standard on February 20, he insists on cultural reforms in the Islamic world. Gerecht expects moderate Muslims with Western educational backgrounds will play a substantial role in revivifying Islamic civilization. On the other hand, he says “If Westerners appease Muslims who countenance violent intimidation, we are doing a terrible injustice to the liberal and progressive Muslims among us, who really would like to live in lands where people can say about the Prophet Muhammad what they have said about Jesus, Mary, and Moses.” Furthermore, he comments “Islamic civilization may yet produce its Edward Gibbon, a sincere religious voyager who ends up scrutinizing the foundations of his civilization with a skeptical, cynical, and, at times, profoundly unfair irreligious eye.”

Gerecht maintains precisely “If our standards collapse and give way to fear, theirs in the long-term have no chance whatsoever. The psychology of victimization--surely one of the worst gifts the Western anti-imperialist left has given the Muslim world--can only be made worse by Westerners who treat Muslims like children unable to compete and to defend their religion.”

Mentioning medieval Christian world, Ruel Marc Gerecht concludes as follows.

Like Christendom before it, the Muslim Middle East will have to work out its relation to modernity. The faster democracy arrives, the sooner the debates about God and man can begin in earnest. It will probably be for both Muslims and Westerners a nerve-racking experience. But we have no choice, since continuing autocracy will only make the militants' message stronger and judgment day, as in Iran, a possibly bloody revolutionary event. The electoral victory of Hamas should not give us pause. It should give us hope and encourage us to push for real elections where our national interest stands to gain the most--in Egypt and Iran. We should also not neglect to defend vigorously Christian, Muslim, or Jewish satirists, be they clever, banal, or ugly, wherever they may be found. Both elections and satire are basic to the evolution of the Muslim world.

Successful modernization and democracy in the Middle East will lead to real victory of American, or more broadly, Western foreign policy. A Chamberlainian attitude against radicals will never resolve the problem. Of course, soft policies to stimulate an Islamic enlightenment must be combined with Churchillian policies.