The Blog

A Faltering Freedom Agenda

The disillusion of Muslim reformers.

12:00 AM, Apr 9, 2008 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE and RADWAN MASMOUDI
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The threat of religious extremism is real enough in the Middle East. Yet Arab governments use the specter of Islamic fundamentalism as a proxy to justify thuggish and autocratic policies. It is a self-defeating strategy. The cocktail of repression, economic stagnation, and social unrest--over half of the 320 million Arabs in the region are under 20 years of age--invites political radicalism.

As various human-rights organizations report, Egypt's political regression is being duplicated in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Jordan, and beyond. What especially galls Muslim reformers is that all this is happening with hardly a whisper of protest from the Bush administration. (Yesterday the State Department declined to condemn Egypt's rigged elections.) Under different circumstances, America's sacrifices in Afghanistan and Iraq might have persuaded many of its commitment to political reform--but not today. Numerous conversations with Muslim democrats make one thing clear: They are increasingly scornful of a democracy agenda that seems selectively applied to suite narrow U.S. interests.

During his Middle East trip earlier this year, President Bush gently referred to "some setbacks" to democratic reform. But he avoided any direct criticism of the brutality and corruption that passes for political leadership in the Arab world. Meanwhile, U.S. aid continues to flow unhindered to the region, supporting unprincipled and undemocratic rulers. The administration's Middle East Partnership Initiative, aimed at strengthening grass-roots reformers, remains woefully underfunded and saw its budget cut from $150 million last year to less than $50 million for fiscal 2008.

What can be done diplomatically to challenge the illiberal regimes of the Middle East and embolden democratic reformers?

First, the Bush administration should loudly insist that the Mubarak government release Ayman Nour and those political prisoners--academics, journalists, human rights activists, and others--arrested in the latest crackdown. If public pressure fails, the administration should threaten to withhold a portion of its economic support to Egypt until it complies with international human-rights guarantees.

Second, U.S. diplomats must seriously engage with leaders of moderate Islamic parties, those who reject violence and endorse democracy, about how best to promote democratic governance and human rights in their countries. This will require the State Department to abandon its almost exclusively secular approach to political reform in the region--a tone-deafness to matters of faith that has frustrated would-be reformers.

Third, the United States should establish an annual fund of at least $500 million to support Arab and Muslim non-governmental organizations of all kinds that are genuinely committed to representative government and political and religious freedom. As Tocqueville once observed of America, it is the religious organizations of civil society that "direct the customs of the community" and are "indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions." The same will be true of any long-term democratic reform in the Middle East.

Finally, the administration should support, much more robustly than it has to date, American Muslims and American Muslim organizations to promote democratic freedoms from within an Islamic perspective--to develop a modern interpretation of Islam that puts the principles of self-government and human dignity at the core of its moral theology. These groups can become a vital resource for Muslim democrats in the Arab world and beyond.

In a speech at Abu Dhabi in January, President Bush again raised expectations of U.S. support for democratic change. "You cannot build trust when you hold an election where opposition candidates find themselves harassed or in prison," he said. "You cannot expect people to believe in the promise of a better future when they are jailed for peacefully petitioning their government."

We agree with the president's words, and we're grateful for them. But the qualities of trust and hope have taken a severe beating in recent years, and will require much more than words to be revived.

Radwan Masmoudi is the president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, which conducts democracy workshops throughout the Muslim world. Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.