Arab peoples' right to choose

Hamas's PA victory will result in moderation and a more pragmatic approach.

arab voter 88 (photo credit: )
arab voter 88
(photo credit: )
I have been and continue to be an enthusiastic supporter of President Bush's (and anybody else's) mission to spread democracy. I would argue, as President Bush has done, that this is the most natural yearning of all peoples. My problem is that the US and its lead regional ally seem to stop short of their zeal for democracy once the result doesn't please them. The anti-corruption and anti-dictatorship results of the recent elections in Palestine should encourage rather than discourage every true believer in democracy. In so many ways this is an opportunity to test and perfect how local communities will customize democracy to reflect the will of their peoples. At the same time the openness and diversity of the Palestinian people will ensure that any party that wins will not prevent the rotation of power after an agreed-upon time. This will provide many radical and opposition groups with the opportunity to apply their theories, and will most certainly result in moderation and a much more pragmatic approach than that of opposition groups who never dream of attaining power. On the other hand, the US and its allies must approach Hamas's victory with an open mind and without looking at this Islamic group strictly from the point of view of right-wing Israelis. To begin with, as a Palestinian Christian I must confess that I am not excited about the success of Hamas on the social as well as the national level. But I would not for a moment agree to deny it the opportunity to govern our people. During the month since its election, the general mood among almost all my friends who would never dream of voting for Hamas has been total support for it to govern. In fact, since its election many have been discovering the depth of the problems and corruption that have dogged Palestinian society for some time. For this reason, attempts to punish our people through denying us the taxes Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority, or the small grants from USAID earmarked for the Palestinian people, are completely unfair and unacceptable. Compared to the billions of dollars American taxpayers transfer to Israel (in military and civilian aid), allowing it to perpetuate the conflict, the small grants to Palestinians are nothing more than small change. International humanitarian law lays down that the Israeli occupiers should ensure all the public needs of the people under occupation. By denying Palestinians the freedom to move people and goods, by blocking financial support, the Israeli action can be described as a declaration of war against the Palestinian people. POLITICALLY the US needs to look at the situation in a completely different and fresh way. For some time, political thinking about the shape of democracy in what President Bush likes to call the greater Middle East has largely focused on two political forces: moderate secular nationalists versus radical Islamists. Western countries have placed all their eggs in the basket of moderate secular elites who are, mostly, strongly connected to ruling powers. This Western support for secular forces has largely required the recipients to keep cheap oil flowing, anti-Israeli actions limited to lip service, and pan-Arabism held in check. When these three conditions were violated by Saddam Hussein he became enemy No. 1 to the US and its allies. The Bush administration's failure to convince the world that weapons of mass destruction justified its invasion of Iraq forced it to change and, instead, adopt the argument that the war on Iraq was a war against dictatorships, and for democracy. Now that Palestinians have overthrown a moderate secular nationalist power, the democracy justification has quickly been placed in doubt. By America's and Israel's anti-Palestinian actions following the Hamas victory the US has shown that it is unable to deal with the democratic game. Attempts to blackmail Palestinians economically into refraining from electing Hamas backfired badly, leaving the Bush administration and its theme of democracy in major trouble. To move ahead, America and the West must stop panicking over any political party that has the word Islam within it. Instead of having to choose between corrupt nationalist despots and radical Islamic groups the US should support Arab peoples' right to choose, whether between clean secular nationalists and Islamists or between various colors within Islamists. Just as Europe has Christian Democratic parties and other parties using the word "Christian," why can't we have choices between Islamic parties? A recent article written in Lebanon spoke about a leftist Islamist version of South American liberation theology. President Bush and Secretary of State Rice have a once-in-a-life time opportunity to give democratic forces in our part of the world (whether secular or Islamists) a huge shot in the arm by staying the democracy course and engaging the winners of a truly free election. Such political engagement will, in the final analysis, provide what people in our region badly need: a truly representative government attuned to their needs and engaged with the world around it. The writer is the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah.