The Magazine

Freedom and the Arab World

Terrorism thrives where people aren't free.

Dec 31, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 16 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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IN THE AFTERMATH of September 11, the rulers or cabinet ministers of Iran, Malaysia, Jordan, Syria, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia urged America to focus on the "root causes of terrorism." A good case can be made, however, that they themselves are the "root cause." The fact that the September 11 killers almost all came from one of the richest countries on earth, Saudi Arabia, and were mostly middle class themselves, makes nonsense of the conventional wisdom that poverty is the underlying source of terrorism. Rather, what is most distinctive about the Islamic world, where most modern terrorism germinates, is the prevalence of autocratic and tyrannical government.

This reality is brought into dramatic relief by data released this week by Freedom House in its authoritative annual survey, "Freedom in the World." The spread of democracy spurred by the end of the Cold War has made elected government the norm around the globe--except in Islamic countries. The new study shows that of the 47 countries with mostly Muslim populations, fewer than one quarter are "electoral democracies," while more than three quarters of the world's other 145 governments are.

This is only the beginning of the disparity. Freedom House assesses whether a country is an electoral democracy and whether it is "free." The latter is a much tougher standard. Not that Freedom House uses the term "democracy" loosely as some people did in the old days of "people's democracies." To be counted democratic a country must have fair and competitive elections. Still, many democracies, especially the new ones, have not yet firmly established the rule of law, due process, independence of the press, and the like, so they are counted by Freedom House as only "partly free." To qualify as "free," a country must have democratic elections as well as a gamut of civil liberties and citizens' rights.

Lots of countries do meet this standard. Of the non-Muslim countries, 58 percent are "free" and only 14 percent are "not free," i.e., strict dictatorships. The remaining 28 percent fall in that middling category of "partly free." But among the Muslim countries the proportions are reversed. Only one country--Mali--out of 47 ranks as free, 2 percent of the group. Thirty-eight percent are partly free, and a whopping 60 percent are "not free." The 47 Muslim-majority states, in other words, account for a majority of the world's "not free" states. Moreover, Freedom House also provides a list of the least free nations, based on its meticulous scoring of various kinds of liberty. The "worst of the worst," it calls them. No fewer than 7 out of this rogues' gallery of 10 are predominantly Islamic states--Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan (before the B-52s got there). Only Burma, Cuba, and North Korea rival them in repression.

These striking political discrepancies cannot be attributed to the overall underdevelopment of the Islamic group in comparison with the West, for the contrast shows up within regions. For example, of the 15 states that once made up the Soviet Union, 6 have Muslim majorities and 9 do not. Of the former, 5 are not free, and the best one (Azerbaijan) is only partly free. Among the 9 non-Muslim post-Soviet states the picture is brighter: Three are free, 5 partly free, and only one (Belarus) rates a "not free." In Asia there are 7 mostly Muslim countries, none of which is free: Three are partly free, while 4 are not free. In comparison, freedom is flourishing among Asia's 32 other countries: Eighteen, a solid majority, are free, while 7 each are partly free and not free. A similar pattern is evident in Africa, where 20 states have Muslim majorities, and only one of these, Mali, is free, with 9 partly free and 10 not free. The 33 African states that do not have Muslim majorities present a different picture: Eight are free, 15 partly free, and 10 not free.

The ratings in Africa also dispel the notion that lack of freedom is itself merely a reflection of economic backwardness. True, social scientists find a significant correlation between democracy and the wealth of countries. But the 53 African states as a group have an average income (equivalent to about $2,300 per person) that is less than half of the average among the 47 Muslim-majority states, and yet there is appreciably more freedom and democracy in Africa than among the Muslim states. Indeed, since the two groups overlap, the Muslim members pull the ratings of the African group down; while the Africans elevate the overall ratings of the Muslim states. Indeed, they account for 7 of the paltry 11 electoral democracies. Mali, that sole exemplar of freedom in a majority-Muslim country, underscores the weakness of economic explanations. It is one of the world's poorest countries, with an average income around $700 per person.

None of these damning numbers proves that Islam is inherently incompatible with freedom and democracy. A generation ago, before the spread of democracy in Asia, it was often said that Confucian values were inimical to democracy. And a generation before that, when democracy had withered in Latin America, Italy, Spain, and Poland, much the same was said about Catholicism. Now such generalizations sound like bigoted ignorance.

Weighing further against the assumption of a fixed Islamic affinity for repressive governance is Freedom House's striking observation that the state of freedom has deteriorated among the Muslim countries in the last 20 years while freedom has been growing faster than ever all around them. If the problem were inherent, then why would it be worsening? More likely it stems from some dynamic causes, especially the rise of radical Islam, which has encouraged repression on the part of those regimes that are influenced by it as well as those that are trying to stamp it out. Probably, too, the obsessive hatred of Israel that has been the centerpiece of Arab political culture in the current era has had a self-poisoning effect. It is the Arab world, in particular, that makes the status of freedom among Muslims as bleak as it is; in comparison, shoots of freedom are visible in Islamic countries in sub-Saharan Africa (Mali, Nigeria), Europe (Turkey, Albania), and South Asia (Bangladesh, Indonesia).

This climate of unfreedom is the swamp where terrorism breeds. The repression, humiliation, and violence that are the daily portion of people living under autocratic regimes nurture rage and fanaticism. And the absence of a free press seems to cause a kind of epistemological retardation conducive to paranoia and lunatic conspiracy theories (e.g., "the Mossad did it"). Moreover, the lack of democracy means not only that grievances go unaddressed but also that people fail to learn the virtues of moderation and compromise.

The implications of all this are quite different from what those who raise the issue of "root causes" intend. Far from pointing toward a relaxation of military efforts, it suggests that the more terror-loving tyrannies the United States can topple the better. Not only will their demise clear the ground where seeds of freedom may then take root, but the example will embolden and inspire those who dream of freedom in the region.

This is not to say that military methods are sufficient in themselves. They should be complemented by a sustained effort to foment political change in the Islamic world. Conventional wisdom doubts our ability to export democracy, even while many voices are raised in favor of new "Marshall Plans" to stimulate economic development in the Middle East and elsewhere. Experience shows, however, that we have had more success in spreading democracy than in inducing economic development. If we put that experience to work in the Middle East, buttressed by battlefield campaigns against the tyrants who sponsor terror, we can go far in stamping out terrorism and its root causes.

Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His new book "Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism" will be published by Encounter in March.