A few years ago at a meeting in Amman, Jordan, a Bush administration official suggested the time might be ripe for an Arab "democratic spring"--a flowering of democratic institutions in the Middle East. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, delivered the predictably gloomy forecast: "There will be no spring or autumn or winter or summer without solving the Palestinian problem. We want our friends in the United States to know that this is the consensus in the region."
The consensus is holding. The result is that the 22 member states that make up the Arab League retain their status as some of the most economically backward, politically corrupt, and socially repressive countries on the planet. That's the implicit message of the most recent Arab Human Development Report, "Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries," released last week by a group of leading Arab intellectuals. It is more or less the same conclusion reached by the editors at The Economist, who devoted a special edition of the London-based magazine to examine what ails the Arab world.
There's a good deal of candor to these reports, including a willingness to admit that authoritarian rulers--aided by "flawed constitutions" and "unjust laws"--are a major reason for social instability and economic decline. Yet both reports suggest a baffling ignorance of the political principles essential to healthy, democratic societies. To wit: Neither the seven-part critique by The Economist nor the 200-page study by Arab intellectuals breathes a word about democratic ideals such as freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.
The latest Arab Human Development Report (AHDR)--the fifth in a series sponsored by the United Nations--identifies numerous threats to "human security" in Arab states. They include everything from climate change to poverty to "outside intervention" from hostile forces (read Israel and the United States). One is left with a sense of skewed priorities and confusion about the deepest obstacles to human flourishing.
To be fair, there's a measure of self-criticism, including the fact that flawed economic policies have saddled Arab countries with the world's highest unemployment rate, about 14.4 percent, or more than twice that for the world at large. The report does not blink in describing the plight of "abused and subordinated" Arab women. It cites the problem of legalized discrimination, "honor crimes," and state-sanctioned sexual violence, including rape. "One of the most violent, intrusive and traumatic threats to women's personal safety continues while society averts its eyes," the report says. And there's at least a confession that many Arab states ignore the human rights provisions of international charters to which they are signatories. The AHDR also delivers probably the toughest criticism of the Sudanese government uttered by Arab leaders, agreeing with U.N. reports that the regime is guilty of summary executions, torture, and other crimes against humanity. Better late than never.
Missing from the analysis, though, is any exploration of how Islamic religious values might be causing, or exacerbating, the problems. Nowhere in its treatment of Darfur, for example, does the AHDR mention the principal culprit in the humanitarian catastrophe: the radical Islamist ideology of the Sudanese government. Nowhere do we learn that the violent repression of Arab women is upheld by Muslim clerics making appeals to the Koran. Similar omissions by The Economist taint its overall critique. One might read both reports and not realize that political Islam represents the greatest threat to freedom and security in the Arab world.
This sanitizing approach to intensely religious societies is not only bizarre, but misleading: By failing to see the fundamental political and theological defects in Arab culture, it cannot chart a convincing way forward.
Consider the AHDR's view of the source of stability in the multi-cultural West. "In western political history," the authors say, "the normative concept that has contributed most to the management of ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity is that of citizenship." There is even mention of the need for a renewed "social contract" in Arab societies. These might be useful concepts if the authors understood them in their fullest historical contexts--but they don't. Neither, sadly to say, do the reporters at The Economist.
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.