The National Interest

The National Interest

Fall 2002

The Impossible Imperative?

by Adam Garfinkle


. . . Not only are liberal democratic attitudes toward pluralism, majority rule and equality before the law mostly absent from the Arab world, that world counterposes entrenched attitudes that are their antitheses: concepts of monadic political authority, consensus forms of decision-making and natural social hierarchy. We know that attitudes acquired and reinforced over centuries maintain a grip on the patterns of any group's social relations, for better or for worse, even long after the conditions that spawned them have disappeared; so it seems indeed a reach too far to expect Arab societies to become liberal democracies anytime soon—certainly not soon enough to supply us with help for the problem of apocalyptic terrorism. And though we certainly wish them well, there is little that even the best efforts of the National Endowment for Democracy, of the new White House Office of Global Communications, of Charlotte Beers marketing Uncle Sam as a brand name from the State Department, and of U.S. government-sponsored Radio Sawa, pumping out news in Arabic along with Jennifer Lopez and Lionel Ritchie music, can do about it.

These efforts, after all, are unlikely to change the contemporary Arab view of liberal democracy as an alien Western idea at a time when Arab societies are struggling to cope with Western-wrought modernity. They cannot erase the fact that most Arab societies tried but failed during the late 19th and 20th centuries to adopt Western ways to achieve wealth, power and respect, or erase the legacy of simultaneous envy and resentment created by that failure (explaining why many Arab youths who in the morning declare their enmity for the West in the afternoon express a desire to emigrate there). They cannot change the reality that societies which undervalue scientific education, restrict the flow of information, simultaneously educate and oppress women, maintain bloated public bureaucracies, avoid real privatization and free trade, and base economic relations on primordial affiliations of ethnic or religious identity will never be able to compete with the West, the states of East Asia or—most frustrating for them—Israel. Nor can these efforts stem the rise of identity politics that is reducing the appeal of liberal democracy in much of the Arab world, or persuade the rentier elites who own and run that world to take an interest in resisting that trend. To put it mildly, then, Arab antipathy toward the West and Western ways, including democracy, is not mainly a public relations problem.

Does this mean that Arab democracy is an oxymoron? Of course not. Other cultures need not become Western in order to become democratic; it is vapid historicism to point to the cultural particularity of the Reformation and the Renaissance and then wave one's hands in despair over the supposed authoritarian fate of others. There is nothing "wrong" with Arabs, either cognitively or morally, and there is nothing indelibly "wrong" with Islam. There certainly are theological and cultural predicates for democracy within Islam—and they are neither minor nor obscure—should anyone wish to use them. Some do: there are genuine Arab democrats, and they deserve our support. The problem is that there are too few of them and, in the end, there must be widespread indigenous interest in democracy for help from abroad to "take." Unfortunately, one will do best looking for such interest in self-exiled communities of Arabs in Europe and North America—or in Egyptian jails—for it is uncomfortable these days to be a democrat in Araby. . . .