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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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.