- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 (UPI) — "Let there be democracy among the Muslims," said President Bush. Then he rested and said again: "Let there be peace in the Middle East." Now the Muslims wait for democracy and the Middle East waits for peace.

But the process may take much longer than it took God to create the world.

In his much-awaited policy speech to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, President George W. Bush predicted Wednesday that removing the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would help achieve both objectives, representative rule for citizens in Muslim countries and peace for the Palestinians and Israelis.

"It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life," said the president. "Human cultures can be vastly different, yet the human heart desires the same good things everywhere on Earth."

Human hearts may have the same desires, but human minds do not always think alike.

For instance, how many in the Arab camp that President Bush is leading against the Iraqi dictator want democracy? America's main Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, is a kingdom. The oil-rich but tiny Gulf states also are ruled by hereditary amirs and sheikhs who may not be very receptive to Bush's democratic ideals.

In another major U.S. ally, Egypt, elections always lead to the re-election of the same ruler again and again. And every time he gets 90 percent or more votes while the majority of Egyptians wonder who these voters were.

Non-Arab Muslim countries are not much better either. Pakistan has been ruled by the military for more than half of its 56 years of existence. Suharto ran Indonesia for more than 30 years. The North African Arabs have leaders like Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi who can only be replaced when they die.

The president is right when he says that like everybody else Muslims also desire democracy; at least the Muslim masses do. But there are several factors that have historically blocked them from achieving this goal.

Most Muslim countries have a feudal structure that encourages hereditary transfer of power. There are tribes and clans headed by local chieftains, and by their sons when they die.

This trend extends to social attitudes as well. Fathers are encouraged to leave behind property and sons are encouraged to carry on in their father's name and add to his glory. And within the family structure, there's little room for disagreement with the patriarch.

That model of absolute rule carries over in work places, social organizations and even political parties. Most parties revolve around individuals. Party elections are seldom held and leaders rarely relinquish the reins. If they do leave, they form a different faction and continue to lead it.

When elected to the government, they maintain the same attitude. The first thing a politician is expected to do is ensure his stay in power for the rest of his life. The cabinet, the parliament and the inner political circles of a party or group in power have only one purpose: to endorse the decisions the leader has already made. Those who disagree are sacked and sometimes removed in bloodier ways.

Parties, whether in power or in the opposition, are organized on tribal, ethnic and territorial loyalties. This is even more blatant in the kingdoms. All institutions — from the military to the press — are controlled by the royal clans and tribes or those associated with them.

Governments do not tolerate criticism. That's why most Muslim countries do not have a free press. Journalists who dare to defy are sacked or put in jail. More stubborn ones may even be assassinated.

In a similar vein, the middle class is small and ineffective, and the working classes are poor, uneducated and disenfranchised. In such an atmosphere most societies suffer from a sort of reversed messiah complex: Instead of building institutions and working to improve their social conditions, they wait for a messiah, a leader who will come and put everything right.

Such passivity encourages totalitarianism and dictatorships and allows people like Saddam Hussein to impose themselves as "the promised messiahs." Some of them exploit religion, others nationalism, as Saddam did.

The colonial experience does not help either. India was a fertile ground for European thinking because the colonial British rulers also helped end a minority rule, that of the Muslims. For Muslim nations from Morocco to Indonesia, however, the beginning of colonial rule was also the end of their own freedom. That's why it led to a deep hostility towards the West and Western ideologies. This mistrust has continued even after the end of direct colonial rule.

Many Muslim intellectuals saw democracy as a strange Western concept and urged their peoples to stay away from it. Instead the Islamic concept of caliphate was promoted as a democratic institution suitable for the Muslim masses. And since ancient caliphs were elected for life, Muslim leaders often exploited this concept to declare themselves presidents or prime ministers for life.

Islamist movements also espoused the same concepts. That's why there was no democracy in the Taliban or al Qaida movements. The Taliban ruler Mullah Mohammed Omar or Osama bin Laden were as despotic as those they opposed, if not more.

Since it is always an individual leader, a messiah, who is expected to deliver, there has been no serious effort to build social or political institutions. Muslim history is full of heroes who expanded the Muslim empire. It is also full of martyrs who gave up their lives fighting for the religion and for the Muslim people.

But there are few examples of Muslim heroes establishing institutions, religious or secular.

The West did not help either. In the colonial era, it enslaved Muslim peoples and seized their lands and industries. In the immediate past, American allies of Muslim governments had a one-point agenda: to fight the evil Soviet empire. And to do so, they found it easier to deal with dictators and kings, like the shah of Iran, than with political parties and elected governments.

The Americans resisted whenever the people made an effort to bring a popular change, as in Iran or Algeria. In the past, popular movements were crushed in the name of communism. Washington suspected that communists and their sympathizers had infiltrated political organizations across the Islamic world. It feared that allowing these people to come into power could lead to a communist takeover, so Washington preferred to stay with its shahs of Iran.

Other Western powers were no different. The French made a mockery of the popular Arab revolution in Algeria, turning it into yet another Arab country run by demigods and sycophants. Paris encouraged dictators in other North African countries as well, the countries they had once colonized.

In the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet empire ended the fears of a communist takeover, America did become more receptive to democratic and human rights organizations and actively campaigned for political and religious tolerance.

But the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, abruptly ended America's support to popular causes in the Islamic world. Now Washington sees an Islamist behind every rock.

Unfortunately, the problem remains where it was in the 1960s, 70s and the 80s when the United States was busy fighting the communists. The change has to come from within the society. It cannot be imposed from outside.

The Islamists will have to be given a chance to compete with other forces in an open playing field. They will have to be allowed to run for elections, win or lose.

If they win, they should be given the chance to form a government. It is as important to expose the myth of the Islamists as it is to bring democracy to Muslim societies.

The problems of the Islamic world are too numerous and too complicated to be solved by any one political group or movement. Muslim countries need sustained periods of political and economic stability, during which each political force should be allowed to make its contributions.

The Islamists alone have no answer to the problems of the Muslim world. As experienced in Iran, a religious revolution can bring down a king but it cannot rebuild a nation. Today even the Islamists admit that the Islamic government of Iran is one of the most unpopular in the region.

Iran is ready for a change, for a new political force to take over and make its contribution to the rebuilding of Iran. And this force will not come from the Islamist camp.

In countries like Algeria and Turkey, where Islamists are not as strong as they were in pre-revolutionary Iran, the Islamist rule could be much shorter.

If allowed to play their role, the Islamists will soon expose themselves. If they are suppressed, they will continue to be a threat, lurking in the back alleys of major Muslim cities like Cairo and Karachi.


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