The Next Founders
Voices of Democracy in the Middle East
by Joshua Muravchik
Encounter, 350 pp., $25.95
The debate over democratization in the Middle East took on a new sense of urgency following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and it has mostly revolved around questions of what the United States should or should not do.
After centuries of American involvement in the region, it took a massive terrorist attack on our soil to persuade most citizens and policymakers that propping up dictatorial regimes might be contributing to national security threats rather than keeping them at bay. How to change the contours of the policy status quo is a question that has dominated the halls of official Washington over the past eight years. But missing from this sweeping discussion of grand strategy, thus far, has been a serious consideration of the figures who will be essential to remaking the Middle East: Muslim liberals.
In this important new book, Joshua Muravchik challenges this myopia by profiling seven heroic individuals-campaigning for democracy in places ranging from Iran to the Palestinian Territories to Syria-who have devoted their lives to democratizing some of the most repressive and backward societies on earth. Their struggles are not only inspiring, but offer important lessons to those here in America who want their visions to take root.
Muravchik compares his subjects to the Founders-and with good reason. A common trait among them is a familiarity with and enthusiasm for classical liberal values such as freedom of speech and association, free elections, and the rule of law. All have lived in either the United States or another Western country, experiencing the freedoms that their own nations denied them. Muravchik argues that we should increase opportunities for students in the Muslim world who seek education here: the most effective way, in his view, to combat the virulent anti-American sentiment that has taken hold in the region.
Along with their positive encounters with America and the West, the Next Founders have all been personally affected by the brutality of the authoritarian regimes under whose thumb they endure. Take Mohsen Sazegara, a onetime Iranian revolutionary and cofounder of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, one of the most reactionary and brutal forces in contemporary Iran. Sazegara played a key role in the Islamic Revolution, accompanying the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini on his plane from Paris to Tehran in 1979.
Yet it was not long before Sazegara was falsely accused of cooperating with counterrevolutionaries and thrown into the notorious Evin prison, where he came face-to-face with the brutality of the Iranian regime's penal system, its arbitrary abuses and petty cruelties. Having endured such a soul-shattering experience, it is understandable how someone-no matter how committed they might have once been to radical ideals such as Islamic revolution or Arab nationalism-would turn against their erstwhile cause.
The most inspiring individual profiled here is Mithal al-Alusi, an Iraqi politician who gained notoriety in his own country not only for visiting Israel (illegal under Iraqi law), but for publicly encouraging an alliance between the two nations. For this brave act he paid with the lives of his two sons, killed in an assassination attempt he barely escaped. Yet the murder of his own children did not dissuade al-Alusi from politics, or from seeking a rapprochement with Israel: He has only become more outspoken in his calls for a normalized relationship between the Arab world and the Jewish state.
One of the more obnoxious mantras of the past decade has been the claim that the United States and its Western allies cannot "impose democracy from the barrel of a gun" on authoritarian societies in the Muslim world. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, this argument has broadened to characterize any sort of democracy promotion as an expression of American arrogance and "hubris."
Such sentiment ignores the desires of countless people throughout the Middle East who wish to live in free societies but lack the power to bring about such monumental changes on their own. One of the most illuminating observations here comes from the Egyptian newspaper publisher Hisham Kassem, who maintains that the liberation of Iraq remains justified. "By military intervention," he told Time, "the [United States] is able to pressure the region into adopting the reforms we are beginning to see across the region that might avert many countries from becoming failed states."
With these seven profiles of Muslim reformers, Sunni and Shia alike, Muravchik shows that the longing to be free is something fundamental to the human condition, and a sentiment that extends across the Middle East. It is also a real cause to which brave souls are willing to risk their lives. Given this fact, the question for Americans-whose sympathies naturally lie with unarmed Iranians shot dead in the streets by a fascist clerical regime, imprisoned Egyptian democracy activists, and Kuwaiti and Saudi women campaigning for equality-is what are we willing to do to help them succeed?
James Kirchick, assistant editor at the New Republic, is a Phillips Foundation journalism fellow.