- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 30, 2006

When Americans recently learned that 41-year-old Afghan citizen Abdul Rahman could be put to death for converting from Islam to Christianity, they were outraged. Chuck Colson articulated the sentiments of many when he wrote, “Is this the fruit of democracy? Is this why we have shed American blood and invested American treasure to set a people free?” When the Abdul Rahman case is added to Hamas’s electoral victory in the Palestinian Authority and the Muslim Brotherhood’s gains in Egypt’s recent parliamentary elections, a disturbing trend emerges: the rise of illiberal democracies in the Middle East.

Elections, as shown by Fareed Zakaria, Larry Diamond and others, are indeed an integral part of a democracy — but they are not a substitute for a liberal democratic culture. Almost half of today’s “democratizing” countries can be classified as “illiberal democracies”: Although they hold regular elections, they also violate their citizens’ human rights, political liberties and religious freedom. This is of particular concern for U.S. and European attempts to democratize the Middle East.

The theory behind pushing democracy in the Middle East is that of the safety valve: If Middle Easterners have a say in their governance, the theory goes, they will be less likely to turn to violence. But recent events have called this theory into question. Does democratization end up unwittingly empowering the West’s enemies? If the United States continues down its current path, it may well end up doing just that. Right now there is only one institution in the Middle East where citizens can safely gather and criticize the government: the mosque. Fundamentalist parties have been the strongest critics of the corrupt governments that fill the region, and voters often find that if they want to protest the ruling regimes, they are forced to vote for the Islamist opposition.

Clearly, this path will not bring the United States greater security. It is only through liberal institutions such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion that Middle Eastern elections can provide the vibrant alternatives that we expect from truly democratic systems. But how can we effectively promote liberal institutions? Two important realizations are needed: The first is that democratic culture cannot be built overnight — especially not in a region that is known for the exact opposite. The second is that democracy must be measured by its level of liberalism rather than the number of ballots. Otherwise, as recent history shows, elections can be the continuation of autocracy by other means.

True, elections are easy to measure and can be quite dramatic: See the wave of purple-fingered citizens that marked Iraq’s first democratic vote. But elections are far from the most important indicator — and we may want to temper our enthusiasm for pushing them until the Middle East has more of a liberal culture.

To build that liberal culture, our policymakers need to improve their cultural literacy so they can more effectively work with regional and local players who are devoted to promoting the values of tolerance and political freedom. It took a revolution to create democracies in Europe and America — and it may take another revolution in the Middle East. But that revolution can only come from within, spearheaded by existing forces that already work toward democratization. The United States needs to be careful in choosing which of these groups to support, as not all of them have the constituencies that they would like us to believe, and not all of them will be conducive to U.S. interests — or the interests of the citizens of their respective countries. By now, these groups have track records that can be examined on the merits, and policymakers should support those groups that seek genuine democratic change.

The United States should also support expatriate movements. The democratization process seeks to bring about a new discourse that has been suppressed, both by the ruling elites and also by the Islamist opposition. Expatriate movements can help this new discourse take shape. The work of the Lebanese and Syrian expatriate communities, for example, has already proved effective in the context of the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.

Finally, official U.S. rhetoric should be adjusted to take account of the broader goal of promoting a liberal democratic culture. Official pronouncements shouldn’t focus on elections to the exclusion of liberal institutions. Rather, liberal institutions should be at the forefront of what representatives of the United States say on the world stage.

Ultimately, there is no magic bullet that can transform Middle Eastern political culture with a single shot. But by taking concrete steps toward a viable long-term goal, we can give ourselves — and the citizens of the Middle East — the greatest chance of success.

Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a counterterrorism consultant and attorney.

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