- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001

While the rest of the world is becoming more democratic and free, Islamic countries particularly in the Arab Middle East are regressing and becoming more oppressive.
That's the depressing conclusion of a new study by Freedom House, the New York-based think tank that monitors political and civil liberties, which expanded this year's annual report to compare freedom in the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds.
"Freedom in the World 2001-2002" rates 192 countries 145 dubbed non- Islamic, though some may have a Muslim minority, and 47 with a Muslim majority.
Among the non-Islamic nations, 110 or more than 76 percent are electoral democracies, but only 11 of the Islamic nations, 23 percent, fit that category.
There are no electoral democracies among the 16 Arab states of the Middle East and North Africa.
"Since the early 1970s, when the third major historical wave of democratization began," says the report, "the Islamic world and in particular its Arabic core have seen little significant evidence of improvement in political openness, respect for human rights and transparency. Indeed, the democracy gap between the Islamic world and the rest of the world is dramatic."
The freedom gap is even worse.
Of the Islamic nations, only one, Mali, is rated free, the same one as 20 years ago. Since 1981, the number of partly free Islamic nations dropped from 20 to 18 while the number of unfree Islamic nations rose from 18 to 28. By contrast, in the non-Islamic world during that same time period, the number of free countries increased from 50 to 85, the number of partly free countries rose from 31 to 40 and those not free dropped from 42 to 20.
"This freedom and democracy divide exists not only between Islamic countries and the prosperous West but between the Islamic world and the rest of humanity," said Freedom House President Adrian Karatnycky.
"Indeed, while some posit a clash of civilizations, such a clash is not between Islam and the Judeo-Christian civilization. Rather it is on the one hand between the Islamic world and its Middle Eastern core and on the other hand between the non-democratic Islamic world, in particular its repressive Arab core, and the rest of the world."
Freedom House lists five factors that contribute to the lack of freedom and democracy in Muslim states:
Most of them are in less developed parts of the world where education and prosperity have lagged. They are saddled with corruption, cronyism and statist economies unimproved by the market reforms that have swept the rest of the world.
The "cultural burden imposed by an interpretation of Islamic faith and tradition that relegates women to a second class status as worshippers and members of society." Severe limitations placed on women in such countries as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, says the report, are "grave impediments to their participation in civic life."
The Islamic tradition that merges religion and state. In Muslim theory, church and state are inseparable. Although only two Islamic states, Iran and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, actually united their clerical and political leaderships, many other Islamic governments cater to their imams, and some, like the Saudi monarchy, derive political legitimacy from such partnerships.
The "corrosive power of oil and natural gas." The income derived from these resources conferred vast riches on a narrow ruling elite who either kept the money for themselves or doled it out to their citizens as a unique form of public welfare that reinforced idleness and suppressed initiative. Now that their oil revenues are declining, many Islamic societies do not have viable entrepreneurial and wealth-creating economic systems needed to generate prosperity and create a moderate middle class.
There is the historical legacy. While much of the world has democratized, the Arab world has not. It still consists of monarchies, sheikdoms, emirates or oligarchies built on the totalitarian visions of Arab socialists or secular Ba'athists. These regimes have driven many of their opponents into the arms of militant Islam.
They have also exposed us to terrorism, in effect blaming the infidel for their own shortcomings. In the interests of fighting terrorism or buying cheap oil, the infidel now has to keep propping up these unpopular dictators.
But they won't last forever and nor will a buck a gallon.

Holger Jensen is international editor of the Rocky Mountain News.

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