March 03, 2005

Panaceas?

Parapundit has a rather sobering post, quoting from this essay by Robert Conquest -- one of the sharper thinkers about and intellectual opponents of totalitarian government -- on the limits of democracy, which requires civic institutions, a culture of tolerance, etc. etc. to succeed -- that merely holding elections does not a democracy make (and indeed, no one in his right mind would think so). Parapundit doesn't quote it, but I wonder if this paragraph is the one that most resonated with him:

What we can hope for and work for is the emergence, in former rogue or ideomaniac states, of a beginning, a minimum. The new orders must be non-militant, non-expansionist, non-fanatical. And that goes with, or tends to go with, some level of internal tolerance, of plural order, with some real prospect of settling into habit or tradition.

The second half of that sounds, actually, rather like what is going on in Afghanistan -- although the thing Conquest seems to miss is that the "some level of internal tolerance, of plural order, with some real prospect of settling into habit or tradition" is not incompatible with nascent representative structures. And some of those, of course, can rely on the best aspects of both traditional culture even religion.

I don't know how often I have written it -- probably not often enough -- but I generally am of the opinion that Islam offers a good basis upon which to build a new, democratic Middle East. (Incidentally, this book, The Islamic Paradox, by Reuel Marc Gerecht, advances the rather odd thesis that it's not moderate Muslims but the more militant believers who are most likely to play the key role in this. I haven't read his book, and I'm not sure I'm going to get around to it anytime soon, but I came across it the other day and wanted to point it out.)

Now, to reiterate, there are democratic forms short of a fully functioning republic that can act as a bridge to representative government. Obviously a lot can go wrong, but I'm always willing to gamble on the people. That also means trusting the people, and assuming that, incredible as it may seem, not everyone everywhere will see things exactly as I do.

As I think I've also noted in the comments here on several occasions, I wouldn't expect a democratic government that's representative of a predominantly Muslim society to look precisely like ours -- that it would put, for example, legalizing gay marriage or railing against exposed breasts at sporting events at the top of its agenda. My hunch is that the first order of business would be dealing with the endemic corruption of the old regimes -- corruption that is, I would guess, among the main reasons for the economic stagnation in the region. It's worth noting that Islam is particularly tough on this sort of thing -- the ideals of the faith (which of course can be very different from practice, but let's leave that aside for the moment) preclude rulers from, say, enriching themselves while their people starve. Economic revitalization of the countries of the Middle East (which I believe ranks behind even Africa in terms of GDP growth). Forgive me for being so materialist here (although I don't think there's any reason to apologize) but if Egyptians, Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, Arabians who for the next few years at most live under the Saudi boot, Iraqis et al begin to believe that their children will have a better life than they, that their labors are rewarded, that their voices are heard, then the institutions that preserve that sort of prosperity will supported and defended. The question is, do we really believe that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (however an individual defines it) are best achieved in democratic systems, and if so, will people risk their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to defend it? My hunch, as always, regardless of culture, is yes.

Posted by Ideofact at March 3, 2005 11:59 PM
Comments

"advances the rather odd thesis that it's not moderate Muslims but the more militant believers who are most likely to play the key role in this."

Careful. He doesn't say "militant."

Posted by: praktike at March 4, 2005 10:31 AM

You sure? How do you read this paragraph?

Most hope gradual political reform will abate the anti-Americanism that is commonplace throughout the region. Moderate Muslims need to be nourished so they may triumph over the militants and holy warriors. But moderate Muslims are not likely the solution to bin Ladenism. Just the opposite: Those who have hated the United States most—Shiite clerics and Sunni fundamentalists—hold the keys to spreading democracy among the faithful.
Posted by: Bill at March 4, 2005 10:47 AM

"Those who have hated the United States most—Shiite clerics and Sunni fundamentalists—hold the keys to spreading democracy among the faithful."

agree with prak, "hating the United States" doesnt translate into militant. Thouhg of course theres some overlap...I am intrigued by the premise. If you come acrss a review, do let me know..

Posted by: Aziz at March 4, 2005 02:41 PM

Well, I weighed the word choice pretty carefully. I think the key is the second sentence, where moderates are contrasted with militants, then in the following sentence, it's argued that it's not the moderates, but their opposite (those who have hated the United States most) who hold the key -- I assumed the reference is back to militants, but I may be wrong...

Posted by: Bill at March 4, 2005 11:47 PM