Eye of the Storm: A yardstick for democracy

Why do we undermine democrats and flirt with terrorists?

Until not so long ago much of the foreign policy establishment in the United States was either dubious or dismissive when it came to President George W. Bush's strategy for democratization in the Middle East. The argument was twofold. First, Bush was insincere in asserting that American national security depended on the spread of democracy to Muslim nations. Secondly, Muslims would reject democracy as a Western product. Over the past two years, however, a number of events have helped weaken the anti-Bush argument. Iraq and Afghanistan have held their first free and pluralist elections. The Lebanese "Cedar Revolution" was followed with that country's first free election in 30 years. Kuwait has granted its women the right to vote and stand for election. In Iran students and workers have demonstrated with shouts of "Democracy, Now!" Even traditionalist Saudi Arabia has held its first, albeit limited, elections. And last week it was the turn of Egypt to get a taste of pluralism in its first multi-candidate presidential elections. The Egyptian exercise could not be described as an election by the standards of established democracies. Nevertheless, this was the first time that a "Pharaoh" submitted to the "ignominy" of begging for votes. The brief election campaign, just three weeks, revealed the existence of a broader base for democratization than imagined. The naysayers in the American establishment, however, have dismissed the Egyptian exercise as "fraudulent" because the Muslim Brotherhood, a militant Islamist outfit with a decades-long history of terrorism, was not allowed to field a candidate. In excluding the Brotherhood, President Hosni Mubarak was following a growing trend in the Muslim world toward preventing political movements from trademarking Islam as their exclusive right. This started in Turkey in the 1920s and has since been adopted by several Muslim countries, notably Indonesia, Tunisia and Algeria, albeit in different forms. The anti-Bush chorus, however, insists that no elections in the Middle East could be regarded as democratic unless not only contested but won by Islamists. Some have gone further, suggesting that the US ally itself with Islamist groups and help them achieve power. The latest such recommendation comes in the form of a special report from a commission headed by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright (a Democrat) and former Congressman Vin Weber (a Republican) for the Council on Foreign Relations. THE IDEA of an alliance between the US and Islamist groups is not new. It was first launched in 1977 by president Jimmy Carter's national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who dreamed of a "green Islamic cordon sanitaire" around the Soviet Union. Based on the Machiavellian dictum of "my enemy's enemy is my friend," the strategy may have made some sense in the context of the Cold War. But the Cold War ended 15 years ago and there is no reason why the United States, or any other democracy, should ally itself with the enemies of democracy anywhere in the world. The Albright-Weber analysis is based on two assumptions. The first is that the Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hizbullah, are comparable to Christian Democrat parties in Western Europe. But things are not that simple. In Christianity matters pertaining to religion are handled by the church. Thus a political party that uses the term "Christian" as part of its identity is not pretending to represent the Christian faith. All it does is to claim a certain Christian attitude to political issues. Such a demarcation, however, is impossible in Islam if only because it has no church-like structures. Hizbullah, as its name implies, claims to be the Party of God Himself, thus anathemizing those who do not march under its flag. The Muslim Brotherhood claims the Koran as its constitution, thus branding all other political organizations as "impious." It is important that no political group be allowed to claim a monopoly on Islam. If the Muslim Brotherhood wants to field candidates all it has to do is register as a political party under a non-religious name, just as its Turkish and Algerian counterparts have done, winning a share of power through elections. Albright and Weber are right that both Hamas and Hizbullah "are already participants in the democratic activities of their society." But these cannot be recognized as democratic parties unless and until they dissolve their private armies. This is what the British government is demanding from the Sinn Fein-IRA in Northern Ireland. There is no reason why the same should not apply in the Middle East. The fact of winning some seats in an election, even lots of seats, is not sufficient ground for the US, or other democracies, to ally themselves with non-democratic parties. After all, the Nazi Party won the 1933 elections in Germany but gained no legitimacy as a democratic outfit. More recently the European Union and the US boycotted Austria after a neo-Nazi party won a place in its coalition government. The wisest course for the Americans is to back only those whom they can invite to dinner without feeling embarrassed. A terrorist party remains a terrorist party even if it wins seats in an election. THE SECOND assumption by the Albright-Weber duo, that there are no Muslim democrats and reformers for the US to bank on, is equally wrong. There are increasingly strong democratic currents in all Middle Eastern nations. Many democrats in the region may not be pro-American because they disagree with this or that aspect of US policy. But many more regard the United States as an unreliable ally if only because they cannot understand people like Albright and Weber. They see how a good part of the American establishment goes out of its way to roll out the red carpet for Islamists in the name of multiculturalism while those Muslims who cherish the democratic ideal are ignored or vilified. They wonder why it is that the elected Afghan and Iraqi governments are subjected to more virulent attacks in a good part of the American media than are the Islamofascists in Iran or the Ba'athists in Syria. The writer, an Iranian-born author and journalist, is editor of the Paris-based Politique Internationale.