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Self-Inflicted Wounds

12:00 AM, Aug 5, 2009 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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Their treatment of the Bush administration's democracy agenda, particularly in Iraq, highlights the deficiencies. The Economist claims that Iraqis participated in the 2005 national elections "at America's behest"--as if U.S. Marines mobilized at gunpoint the 11 million Iraqis with ink-stained fingers who turned out to vote. We hear, approvingly, from an Egyptian academic who calls American forces in Iraq "the Mongols of the 21st century." There is virtually nothing in The Economist's report about the attraction of democratic ideals. No mention of the importance of government by consent or a vibrant civil society, the guarantees of any social contract worth signing. Instead, The Economist treats contemptuously the suggestion that the "lack of democracy and pluralism" in the Arab world has anything to do with the rise of religious radicalism. The Arab Human Development Report takes much the same line. Every unhappy indicator of violence and social unrest in Iraq is blamed on the U.S. invasion--while three decades of authoritarian rule and state-sponsored genocide under Saddam Hussein are ignored. There's talk about the need for an independent judiciary, but not much about what actually makes for a just society.

Arab and European intellectuals seem to suffer from the same intellectual vertigo: They don't grasp the central religious rationale that has guided and legitimized successful democracies, namely, the idea of a loving God who has endowed every individual with natural rights and binding obligations.

Chief among these rights is the freedom to seek spiritual truth without fear of penalty or coercion. This is what we mean in the West by religious liberty--including the liberty to change one's religion. It is a central duty of the state to protect this right, without discrimination, for all its citizens. This is what we mean by equal justice under the law. "Neither pagan, nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth, because of his religion," wrote John Locke in A Letter Concerning Toleration. "The Gospel commands no such thing . . . And the commonwealth, which embraces indifferently all men that are honest, peaceable, and industrious, requires it not."

The genius of the American Founders--who drew heavily on Locke--was their ability to find within the prevailing religious tradition, Protestant Christianity, the moral and spiritual resources to anchor democratic government. Their argument about "inalienable rights" drew its strength from a belief in the transcendent source of human rights. Neither Madison nor Jefferson could conceive of a just society without protections for the rights of conscience, the crown jewel of democratic freedoms.

Yet the leading "enlightened" thinkers in the Arab world--and more than a few in European capitals--can easily imagine it. They are untroubled by the appalling lack of religious freedom in Arab countries. They don't dare to defend the rights of religious minorities. They fail to understand why religious pluralism, under a political system of equal justice, is the best hope for more stable, humane, and prosperous societies in the Middle East.

Such a benighted view of religion and democracy cannot bode well for the future of the Arab world or, for that matter, the democratic West.

Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at The King's College in New York City and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.