Witnessing a Democratic Decline

For many events in the Middle East in recent months have vindicated President Bush’s bold and courageous decision to invade Iraq in the spring of 2003. Bush and his neo-conservative supporters have claimed that freedom is breaking out everywhere across the Middle East and Islamic world, just as they said it would. However the author argues that since 9-11, far from democracy being on the march it has actually been sounding the retreat. Even events in the Middle East , which have been cited as evidence of the spread of democracy, are on closer inspection actually a sign of a trend away from western political ideals.

Events at home and in the Middle East over the past few months seem to conform to an aphorism of John Adams, the second President of the United States. "Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." Adams ‘ remarks were true then and are fast becoming true now, especially in the western world, democracy’s home turf. Since 9-11, far from democracy being on the march it has actually been sounding the retreat. Even events in the Middle East , which have been cited as evidence of the spread of democracy, are on closer inspection actually a sign of a trend away from western political ideals.

However George Bush, Tony Blair and their supporters do not accept this premise. In their world every apparent success is being lauded as a great sign of the new dawn and every setback dismissed as a mere distraction or irrelevance. For them events in the Middle East in recent months have vindicated President Bush’s bold and courageous decision to invade Iraq in the spring of 2003. Bush and his neo-conservative supporters have claimed that freedom is breaking out everywhere across the Middle East and Islamic world, just as they said it would. Removing Saddam they argue transformed the whole regional paradigm and as predicted, the domino effect is now kicking in.

Afghanistan, liberated from a ‘backward’ Taliban regime, has had its first real presidential elections in decades. In overwhelming numbers the Palestinians chose a moderate to lead them rather than someone who would throw Israel into the sea. Brave Iraqis voted in millions at the end of January to elect a new national assembly, despite huge security threats and intimidation. The sight of millions voting in Kirkuk, Mosul and Basra on Al Jazeera galvanized the Arab street, leading to unprecedented street demonstrations in Lebanon calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and the dismissal of a pro-Syrian government. Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze, directly attributed the demonstrations to the effect of the Iraqi invasion saying, "It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq ." Last but not least the seed of democracy is even spreading to those stalwarts of dictatorship in Riyadh and Cairo , where democratic reforms are now being enacted. If you add to this the velvet revolution in Georgia , the orange revolution in Ukraine , the yet to be named revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the pressure on Damascus and Tehran , it is not surprising that the supporters of the Bush agenda are feeling so pleased with themselves. As President Bush said in a recent speech to the National Defense University, "Millions have gained their liberty; and millions more have gained the hope of liberty that will not be denied. The trumpet of freedom has been sounded, and the trumpet never calls retreat."

However the only problem with the above picture is that it gives too rosy a picture of a democratic utopia. There are a number of distinct issues in this debate that need highlighting to bring balance:

Issue 1:

It is stated that democracy is on the march, yet many would argue that what we are actually seeing is a roll back of democratic values since September 11, 2001. A set of values that cannot even be fully adopted in the heartland of enlightenment is more an indication of decline and retreat.

It is an irony of post 9-11 political discourse that the ‘war on terror’ is billed as a battle to defend liberty. September 11, 2001 did not just result in the slaying of 3,000 people but was also responsible for the unraveling of a western value system which has found it difficult to deal or adapt to the new challenges of the international environment. A value system born out of a centuries-long struggle against an oppressive clergy – which was able to defeat absolute monarchies as well as fascism and communism – has now sounded a retreat from its own cherished principles at the altar of its new foe. This is not a retreat in a military sense, but it is a retreat in a political and ideological sense. Many however argue that the changes since 9-11 though altering the balance of security vs. liberty have not materially altered the ideological fabric of a liberal society. However the suspension of the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial, the separation of powers and the right to be aware of the evidence that is being used to imprison you are not mere footnotes of political life to be altered at will; they are supposed to be the bedrock of western political tradition. How else can one come to any other conclusion when fundamental values, principles and traditions – the political soul itself – are sold for the equivalent of 30 pieces of silver?

When Tony Blair or Charles Clarke claim that the greatest civil liberties are the right to live and for the nation to be secure, this in effect relegates other much fought over key values to the political dustbin. If the right to life was really the most important right, nations would never have gone to war to defend fundamental values, risking their sons and daughters in brutal conflicts. If the Second World War was about merely protecting life, then Churchill should have accepted Hitler’s offer to surrender, thus sparing thousands of soldiers the horrors of battle and Britain ‘s cities from brutal bombing. The rationale of protecting the nation’s security is the perennial argument used by dictators and tyrants through the ages and is used constantly by regimes from Pyongyang to Harare to defend their draconian policies. However these regimes don’t pretend to be something that they are not and nor do they seek to promote their values abroad. It is the active promotion of democracy abroad while simultaneously abandoning it at home that is the brazen hypocrisy. In rolling back democracy at home, the west has lost its moral leadership to preach to countries abroad, seriously undermining the pro democracy activists abroad it claims to support.

Events since 9-11 are not the first time that western values have failed the credibility test when faced with stringent pressure. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln, considered by many as the greatest President of the United States, suspended civil law in certain territories and arrogated to the presidency all powers not delegated to him in the constitution. In 1862 he suspended habeas corpus and under military law imprisoned 13,000 members of the ‘Copperhead Democrats’, a group that opposed the war and who sought a new constitutional convention to frame an amendment to protect states’ rights. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court declared Lincoln ‘s actions unconstitutional. Instead of observing the rule of law, the cornerstone of western tradition, Lincoln issued an arrest warrant for the 84-year-old Chief Justice. Similarly during the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt interned 120,000 Americans of Japanese origin in inland concentration camps through the signing of Executive Order 9066; their only crime was their racial origin. Guantanamo Bay, Belmarsh, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, the Patriot Act, anti-terrorism legislation of all guises, stop and search, internment, torture, sexual humiliation, executive ordered arrests, detention without trial, rendition of suspects to despotic regimes, brutal interrogations and illegal and imperialistic wars are not the only evidence of a civilization that is in retreat, though these are indeed powerful signs. The more illuminating evidence is the mass indifference (and even complicit support) of the western public and their representatives while these things happen. Thus far there have been no mass street demonstrations over the roll-back of legal rights and values since 9-11. In fact, opinion polls indicate strong support for the tough anti-terror legislation and interrogation techniques in both the US and the UK . Nor have the public’s elected representatives proved any wiser; in the UK MP’s have turned Britain ‘s House of Parliament which used to be known as the Mother of all Parliaments into a supine rubber stamp railroading into the law one anti-terror legislation after another at the behest of a shameless executive. In the US the Patriot Act was also passed in record time after 9-11; the fact that hardly any legislator had read it was beside the point. Thus on both sides of the Atlantic, legislation which has effectively suspended habeas corpus and eight hundred years of political tradition has been passed in record time, yet laws relating to the prohibition of hunting a fox took years to come to the statute book. Max Hastings castigates the recent signing into law of the 2005 Anti-terrorism legislation:

"If Tony Blair was capable of such self-analysis, he might blush in shame and humiliation, that to many of us it would have been preferable to risk the malevolence of al-Qaida than to entrust his ministers with further latitude for abuse of our liberties. The royal assent to this shoddy measure is not a victory for Blair, but a defeat for all the rest of us."

Some may argue on the basis of this that democracy is certainly on the march – but it is marching into political decline.

Issue 2:

Elections in the Muslim world have neither been free nor fair – how can they be under occupation with interim secular constitutions imposed on them.

Elections have indeed been held recently in Afghanistan , Iraq and Palestine and millions of people have come out to vote after decades of being denied the opportunity. However it is not just elections that bind these three nations together; another common factor is that all these countries were under foreign occupation at the time of their elections. This in itself invalidates any concept of these elections being an exercise in measuring whether a government or a leader has legitimacy separate from that which is conferred by the occupying authority. To use an analogy that most students of American history may appreciate, it would have been like the founding fathers organizing an election while British forces still occupied Philadelphia in 1776 under a constitution previously agreed in Westminster . In imposing interim constitutional arrangements, such as the Transitional Administrative Law in Iraq , provisions were made to exclude non-secular parties from the outset, i.e. the rules of the game were preset to ensure a favorable outcome. In so doing it is not surprising that pro-western secular leaders have been elected in Kabul , Gaza and Baghdad .

The last point in this regard is that recent political changes in the region are not simply the product of the invasion of Iraq . The events in Palestine were driven by the death of Arafat, not the capture of Saddam. The demonstrations by a minority in Beirut were more a reflection of their anger after the death of a former Prime Minister than a response to seeing people on their satellite televisions queuing to vote in Basra . The election of a President in Afghanistan was the product of an external military invasion, not a domestic uprising seeking political change. As Samuel Huntington recently said "The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do." When you are the dominant military power in a country as the Americans are in Afghanistan and Iraq , it is not that difficult to get your man into power or your favored constitution to be passed; just remember Vidkun Quisling. Indeed President Bush who presumably failed to see the irony in his comments also concurs that free and fair elections cannot happen under occupation. Bush has repeatedly called for the immediate withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon prior to parliamentary elections in May 2005. If the presence of 14,000 Syrian troops nullifies an election in Lebanon, presumably ten times that number of US troops in Iraq renders the election there void as well.

Issue 3:

Elections are not specific to an adoption of the western political model. There is evidence that people want elections but not necessarily liberal secular values.

It is another article of faith for most commentators that because people reject dictatorships and oppression, this means they inevitably support western political ideas. Elections are not unique to western politics and are found in different ideologies and political constructs. The fact that millions of people have voted in recent elections in the Middle East should not be viewed as an indication of support for secular democracy. Indeed, as many commentators have argued, democracy doesn’t exist just because elections took place. Numerous elections have been held on and off in Africa in the last fifteen years, yet many of these countries remain dictatorial and corrupt. Haiti and Venezuela , alongside many other countries in Central and Southern America, have also had elections, yet the US has intervened there covertly and overtly on more than one occasion to restore the rule of law.

In addition to elections, western democracies also champion a separation of state and religion, liberal values towards personal conduct as well as economic capitalism with its policy of unbridled free markets. Western societies also promote individualism, hedonism and utilitarianism, with faith and morality kept strictly to the private arena. There is very little evidence that the people of Kabul (never mind Kandahar), Baghdad or Cairo support or accept that Islam should be marginalized in society and kept solely to the confines of the mosque, nor would most accept that a person has freedom and a right to commit adultery, view pornography or consume heavy amounts of alcohol. Nor would most agree with laws permitting same-sex partnerships and relationships, gambling establishments or free market capitalism with all its adverse impacts; yet these are all norms in western democracies. It is precisely because of these major differences in values and their foundations that the vast majority of European citizens and many EU leaders are nervous about Turkey ‘s application to the EU. If Turkey, after eight decades of rabid secularization by the military, has been unable to fundamentally restructure the values of millions of Turks, it is incredibly unlikely that the Middle East will be buying into Martin Luther and Thomas Jefferson any time soon especially as they witness the day to day impact of the ‘war on terror’. If people are still in doubt, how do you think most Muslims would respond if they were asked for their views on the following questions?

[1]. Should the US get out of Iraq and remove all her bases from Saudi Arabia , Bahrain , Qatar , UAE, Uzbekistan and Pakistan ?

[2]. Do Muslim countries have the same right to nuclear weapons as Britain , America and Israel ?

[3]. Should Islam be separated from life’s affairs and restricted to private space as the West demands? Would you support the establishment of an Islamic state based on the ‘Shariah’?

[4]. Do you agree with western values which allow people to commit adultery and engage in same sex relationships? Would you support the legalization of alcohol, pornography and gambling?

[5]. What is more important to you: your religious identity or your nationality?

[6]. Do you believe in force to repel Israeli, American and British occupations in the Muslim world? Do you view organizations that engage in violence in the context of these occupations as legitimate resistance groups or terrorist organizations?

[7]. Do you believe the Roadmap, which is the preferred solution of the international community, is a just solution to the Palestinian problem?

[8]. Do you believe the United Nations engages in double standards and lacks legitimacy?

The Centre for Strategic Studies (CSS) at the University of Jordan recently published a survey (February 2005) entitled ‘Revisiting the Arab Street’ in which they interviewed numerous population samples (national representative sample, university students, media elites and business elites) in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon. The report was based on interviews conducted between March and June of 2004. Some of their conclusions were:

[1]. Arabs are largely disenchanted with the West though percentages differ with respect to individual countries e.g. the US vs. France.

[2]. The US and Britain have reason to acknowledge and be concerned about the ever growing negativity felt towards them in the Middle East. Younger generations and those outside of elite business and media circles demonstrate greater and growing disgruntlement with these western powers.

[3]. Arabs believe that their societal values stand in sharp contrast to those in the West. They generally associate Western societies with liberalism, individual liberty, democracy and technological progress, but also with a higher proportion of social problems. In contrast they see their societies as maintaining stronger values of tradition, religion and family and as being less fraught with social problems.

[4]. There was a huge perception that Muslims living in the West were not treated on an equal par with other citizens. Less than 18 percent believed France treated Muslims equally, while for the UK and the US the figures were even worse at 13 percent and 12 percent respectively.

[5]. Two thirds of respondents in Jordan, Egypt and Palestine stated that the Shariah should be the only source of legislation while one third believed it should be a source, while in Lebanon and Syria these figures were reversed. Very few people carried the view that the Shariah should have no role in governance.

[6]. Most believe that America and Britain are selfish and insincere in their foreign policy while holding France in a better light. They believe that America attempts to dominate countries, violates human rights and rather than approach countries with dignity and respect tries to impose its policies on other countries. As the survey cites, this is not specific to the Arab world but is a similarly held view in South Korea, Russia and Brazil.

[7]. Only 8 percent of Jordanians, 2 percent of Syrians, 12 percent of Lebanese, 6 percent of Palestinians and 36 percent of Egyptians believe the road map espoused by the international community is a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

[8]. Overwhelmingly all respondents believed the US led invasion of Iraq was not justified at all with business and media elites even more doubtful. Only 1 percent of business communities in Jordan, Syria and Palestine believed the invasion was justified. Most believe that the US and her allies will loot the resources of Iraq and that the invasion of Iraq has enhanced the security of Israel.

[9]. Most disagree with the US definition of terrorism seeing violence and the groups that engage in it as legitimate if they are part of a strategy to counter the policies of what they see as threatening powers – the US and Israel. Actions against these nations are largely seen as legitimate resistance and acts committed by Israel and America are viewed as true acts of terrorism. Most consider attacks against US troops in Iraq or Israeli settlements, military or civilians, as not being terrorist acts. Most viewed organizations like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah as legitimate resistance organizations. Even 74 percent of Lebanese Christians viewed Hezbollah as a resistance organization. There were also significantly more people in Egypt, Jordan and Palestine who believed Al Qaeda was more a resistance group than a terrorist one with two thirds of the 16-34 age group believing this.

Though it is difficult to generalize based on these conclusions, I believe that the conclusions of the CSS survey clearly highlight the huge gap in positions between the western political establishment and the Muslim masses. This does not necessarily imply conflict or a dislike of western citizens per se, or even a rejection of the principles of justice, accountability, minority rights and good governance. However what it clearly illustrates within the Muslim world is a growing emergence of a new political outlook, vision and value construct aligned to an Islamic belief system. This outlook therefore amounts to a rejection of a secular liberal democratic framework, which remains the ultimate goal of western policymakers.

Issue 4:

The US agenda in the Islamic world is not to ultimately spread liberty but to protect US vital interests and prevent radicals from coming into power.

The neo-conservatives have constantly dismissed opponents of their position as supporters of the status quo and apologists for tyrants and dictators. The latter camp known as the ‘realists’ respond that the West cannot preach and impose its values on every country and that stability through support of dictators is necessary to prevent even worse elements from coming into power. However, though George Bush and the neo-conservatives fundamentally disagree with the decades-old policy of stability over liberty, in another sense they are actually much closer to the ‘realists’ than they think. This is because both groups believe in the supremacy of achieving the vital interests of the United States. Now this may seem like motherhood and apple pie but there is an important point to be made here. In pursuing an agenda for liberty, the neo-conservatives do not pursue the spread of liberty in the Middle East as an end in itself. For them the end objective is not ultimately a better life for the Iraqis or the Afghans; these are merely tactical successes on a road to the bigger strategic gain of achieving stability, security and prosperity for the United States. This distinction matters for two main reasons.

Firstly, the value of foreign life is lessened in the eyes of the US administration as better governance and quality of life for non-Americans is not the end goal. US politicians, including the President, have constantly justified the war to the American public on the basis that it is better to fight terrorists in Baghdad than in New York or Washington. But the question is better for whom; certainly not for the people of Iraq who have seen their country become a ravaged battlefield (and where the numbers of civilians being killed is not even worthy of being recorded by the occupying power). This may be a ruse to shift the frontline in the ‘war on terror’ from the US mainland to the Middle East, but it certainly is dishonest to do this under the guise of spreading liberty.

Secondly, in evoking perpetual war all across the world in the name of liberty and international humanitarian concern, the US government effectively hides its real agenda of naked imperialism. The idea that the US would invest $300 billion in Iraq, risk military overstretch or be willing to incur 12,000 dead and wounded merely to give foreigners a better life strains credulity. Most empires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries justified their occupation on the basis that they were ‘a civilizing influence’, improving the lot of the natives they were invading. The British Empire claimed that they were bringing a higher and more modern civilization to the backward natives of Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Cheap labor, low cost commodities and access to markets were the real business of empire and economic interests remains the real agenda for the United States.

The threat to the achievement of the US vision is that alternative forces will bring down the current status quo; a status quo of US supported dictators and monarchs. To prevent the radicals from inheriting the thrones (something which is more likely under authoritarian regimes), a new paradigm is needed in the Middle East to ensure that the radicals do not threaten America ‘s vital interests. Pseudo elections under carefully managed political processes are to be the new approach, promoting an illusion of opening up societies while keeping a tight grip on who can actually come to power. The models are already there with Musharraf in Pakistan and Karzai in Afghanistan; Iraq and Egypt will inevitably follow the same route. As Seamus Milne said recently in an article "The dictators remain in place by US license, which can be revoked at any time – and managed elections are being used as another mechanism for maintaining pro-western regimes rather than spreading democracy.’

Issue 5:

The real struggle is not a battle between tyranny and liberty but between Islam and secular democracy.

It was John Adams who stated, "When people talk of the freedom of writing, speaking or thinking, I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed. No such thing now exists; but I hope it will exist. But it must be hundreds of years after you and I shall write and speak no more." The pervasive use of liberty as an instrument to impose political control therefore needs to be understood in the context of a false battle. To hear President Bush you would think that the battle in the Middle East was simply about those who support tyranny and those who seek democracy. He is wrong – there are very few beyond the corrupt elites who want to maintain the despotic status quo in the Middle East. As Richard Clarke, the ex Anti-Terrorism chief stated, "Beyond Iraq, in the greater Muslim world, opposing democracy is not uppermost in the minds of Al Qaeda or the larger jihadist network. (In Saudi Arabia, for example Al Qaeda wants the monarchy replaced by a more democratic government.) Radical Islamists are ultimately seeking to create something orthogonal to our model of democracy. They are fighting to create a theocracy or, in their vernacular, a Caliphate." Thus the battle is not between brutal dictatorship and liberty but between secular democracy and the Islamic Caliphate (though I disagree with Clarke that the Caliphate is theocratic). When viewed through this prism of the Islamic way of life and its western counterpart, the issues then become more transparent as both political outlooks claim to believe in representative government, the rule of law, protection for minorities and good governance.

Secular democracy with its basis of popular sovereignty has yet to be challenged effectively, as until now both left and right have not engaged in any debate about the suitability of democracy. Most western leaders believe that secular democracy is the nirvana of modern political systems; Tony Blair even claims that secular democratic values are universal. However, as Pat Buchanan correctly observes: "Democracy-worship suggests a childlike belief in the wisdom and goodness of the people." A majority of people today would bring back the death penalty (some even for the punishment of pedophilia and rape), most people believe that the influx of asylum seekers increases crime, a majority of Americans in the south in the nineteenth century supported slavery and a majority of the German people elected Hitler and supported the Nuremburg laws in the 1930s. America ‘s founding fathers and Bush’s predecessors no more trusted the people than they did absolute monarchs. Hence the need for multiple checks and balances, an electoral college, a Supreme Court, an elected Senate to watch over the House of Representatives and the veto power of a President. Democracy contrary to what most people think is not even mentioned in the US constitution and that was no oversight. Thomas Jefferson made it very clear what he thought about leaving it to the people when he said, "Hear no more of trust in men, but rather bind them down from mischief with the chains of the constitution." How can democracy with its central tenet of popular sovereignty be seriously considered by the Muslim world when the very founding fathers of the US constitution were so dismissive of it? It would be analogous to the Prophet Muhammad arguing against the applicability of the Qur’an to societal life.

The failure to acknowledge the Caliphate as an alternative despite its resonance with tens of millions of Muslims is not surprising. Western political leaders are more at ease comparing their way of life with the low benchmark of brutal dictators of the Middle East (despite propping up these same leaders for years) than in actually arguing the substantive issues of which political system would be better for the Middle East. Even if the neo-conservatives are correct in their assertions that recent developments in the Middle East are equivalent to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, most commentators believe that the risks surrounding these changes will inevitably lead to the empowerment of those seeking an Islamic political change in the region. As Flynt Leverett, who headed up Middle Eastern affairs in Bush’s National Security Council until 2003, commented regarding the possible ousting of President Assad in Syria, "the most likely near-term consequence of (his) departure would be chaos; the most likely political order to emerge from that chaos would be heavily Islamist." Pat Buchanan echoes this when he says, "Fundamentalism is on the rise, even in Iraq. There is a deep sense that only by a return to the Islamic roots that once made their civilization the greatest on earth can the greatness of Arab peoples can be restored. And there is revulsion in this region against what is perceived as a decadent and toxic American culture and a will to be rid of US political and military domination."

In that sense both President Bush and those who call for the Caliphate are in unison in seeking to change the despotic status quo. However as can be deduced from the CSS report, the turn of events since 9/11 has tilted the strategic balance towards a future Caliphate, a political system more in tune with the beliefs of tens of millions of Muslims. The Caliphate by the nature of its human implementation will not be perfect in any way, but Muslims believe that the sources for its legislation emanate from a divine entity (whose existence Muslims should rationally prove as a precursor) that fully understands the huge complexity of life and the nature of human beings; something man on his own could never comprehend. Islamic principles are by their nature less subject to personal whim, constant change, political expediency or public fickleness while at the same time remaining flexible enough through the process of Ijtihad to deal with new realities. A statesman captured this differentiation perfectly when he wrote about the limitations of human beings in law making, the essence of democracy, when he said

You have rights antecedent to all early governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.

Democracy on the march – I don’t think so – John Adams was right then and he is right now.