The Magazine

Faith in Democracy

How the debate over religion in the West distorts our understanding of freedom in the Middle East.

Nov 7, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 08 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Adding to these sweeping theoretical concerns is the more recent and palpable fact that the forces that have targeted Western liberal democracy have built their ideology on a version of Islam. Ever since the Iranian revolution of 1979, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and later the establishment of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the founding of al Qaeda, the image of large numbers of believers inveighing against the "Great Satan"--America--has been etched into the minds of the Western world. In looking for a name to identify this enemy that is more precise than "terrorism," a tactic used by myriad movements, many in the West have settled--fatefully, as it turns out--on the label "Islamic fundamentalism."

The threats posed by these religious-inspired movements have complicated the conduct of Western foreign policy. If the greatest danger is populist religious fundamentalism, and if opening the door to democracy means inviting fundamentalist forces to participate in politics, then many ask, why should anyone urge democracy? The result might well be "one man, one vote, one time," as looked to be the case in Algeria in 1991, after the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round of a national election and all but promised to introduce a theocratic regime. The second round was cancelled, without objection from most Western governments.

This dilemma has led to the West's ambivalence about democratic reform in the region, expressed in policies that range from backing "moderate" autocracies to turning a blind eye to outright tyrannies. The Middle East, many say, lives between the extremes of populist fundamentalism leading to theocracies and antifundamentalist autocracies. The option of a genuine liberal democracy--a popularly elected government that also assures a modicum of political and civil liberty--is unavailable. According to foreign affairs analyst Fareed Zakaria, there is an "Islamic exception" to the development of liberal democracy that finds an "Arab world today trapped between autocratic states and illiberal societies, neither of them fertile ground for liberal democracy."

Autocrats in the region have long played on the West's fear of fundamentalism, in some cases shaking down Western nations for money or concessions, in others demanding acquiescence to abuses. Political leaders in the West can rarely admit to embracing such "cynical" policies, but everyone on the inside knows what was whispered in the corridors of foreign ministries (and in many places still is): that, while one might not exactly have liked Saddam, he at least kept the fundamentalists at bay. Similar apologias are offered in some quarters in behalf of Assad's rule in Syria. For related reasons, many Western foreign policy establishments have expressed a special animus against the Shia form of Islam, which since the Iranian revolution has developed a reputation for being more chiliastic than the Sunni form. Realists have accordingly preferred to work with Sunni forces, even though branches of Sunni Islam have produced their own forms of fundamentalism--notably Wahhabism, one of the most virulent of the Sunni sects and the state religion of Saudi Arabia. During this time, Western intellectuals and journalists have practiced their usual opportunism by attacking America for doing business with autocrats, usually to secure oil concessions, only to criticize it for its naiveté or utopianism when it supports democratic movements, which are said to "destabilize" the region.

II

NOTHING IS MORE IMPORTANT for practical policy assessment than to determine whether the fundamentalism vs. democracy dilemma is as intractable as many have depicted it. But the sad truth is that in the West today the subject has become almost impossible to discuss on its merits. The reason has nothing to do with the realities of the Middle East or Islam, and everything to do with a major dispute that is taking place within our own societies about the role of faith in political life. What passes today for examination of religion in Islamic nations is often little more than a cover for efforts by some to score points for their position in the theoretical dispute about faith in the West. Before we can begin to discuss their religious problem, we must first come to grips with our religious problem.