Parties of God: The Bush Doctrine And The Rise of Islamic Democracy
Wednesday, March 7,2007 00:00
By Ken Silverstein,

Among the precepts of the Bush Doctrineas loyalists to the current president call the set of foreign-policy principles by which they, and no doubt he, hope his tenure will be rememberedby far the most widely admired has been his stance on democracy in the developing world. The clearest articulation of this stance can be found in a November 2003 speech at the Washington headquarters of the United States Chamber of Commerce, when Bush sharply denounced not just tyranny in the Arab states but the logic by which the West had abetted it. Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safebecause in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty, he said. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. Saying it would be reckless to accept the status quo, Bush called for a new forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. At least in its rhetoric, this was nothing less than a blanket repudiation of six decades of American foreign policy.

Since the presidents speech, democracys cause has suffered a series of setbacks in the Middle East. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has been arresting government critics and has rejected calls to hold elections for even a toothless consultative council. (The kingdom has no parliament.) In Egypt, which receives $2 billion per year in American aid, President Hosni Mubarak was reelected two years ago in a landslide, nine months after his regime jailed his primary challenger, Ayman Nour, on the spurious charge that he had forged signatures for his partys registration. Political repression has also increased in Jordan, another recipient of vast U.S. financial aid. The government has imposed new restrictions on free speech and public assembly, a crackdown designed to squelch overwhelming domestic opposition to the regimes close alliance with the Bush Administration.

Notwithstanding President Bushs new forward strategy of freedom, the United States has marshaled nothing more than a few hollow demurrals against the antidemocratic abuses by its allies, and it maintains close partnerships with all of Americas old authoritarian friends in the region. When reaching out to opposition figures, it has chosen pro-Western elites such as Nour in Egypt or Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq, both of whom are more admired in Washington and London than they are at home.

Above all, America has refused to engage with Islamic opposition movements, even those that flatly reject violence and participate in democratic politics. It is true that many Islamists long rejected the concept of elections, which the more radical of them still argue are an infringement on Gods sovereignty; others rejected democracy because they believed, with good reason, that elections in their countries were so flagrantly rigged that they offered no realistic path to change. (Of course, Islamic groups that did seek to campaign in elections were frequently barred from doing so by dictatorial regimes.) But since the 1990s, growing numbers of Islamists have concluded that reform from within can be achieved gradually, through electoral politics.

Today, there are dozens of active Islamic political parties, both Shiite and Sunni, with diverse political and ideological agendas. Their leaders are certainly not liberal democrats, and some, like Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon, maintain armed wings. But it is not entirely accurate to describe them, as is frequently done in the United States, as fundamentalist or backward or even necessarily conservative. The new Islamic movements are popularly based and endorse free elections, the rotation of power, freedom of speech, and other concepts that are scorned by the regimes that currently hold power. Islamist groups have peacefully accepted electoral defeat, even when it was obvious that their governments had engaged in gross fraud to assure their hold on power. In parliaments, Islamists have not focused on implementing theocracy or imposing shariah but have instead fought for political and social reforms, including government accountability.

And increasingly the Islamists have numbers on their side. Were democracy suddenly to blossom in the Middle East today, Islamist parties would control significant blocs, if not majorities, in almost every country. Hamas swept to victory in the Palestinian elections of 2006, in a vote among the freest ever seen in the Middle East. [1]The Shiite group Hezbollah, which, like Hamas, is designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, picked up parliamentary seats in Lebanons 2005 national balloting and entered the cabinet for the first time. Egypts Muslim Brotherhooddespite being officially banned, and despite massive fraud and violence against supporterswon eighty-eight seats in parliament two years ago, making it by far the largest opposition bloc. The Islamic Action Front, Jordans major Islamic party and a wing of the local Muslim Brotherhood, is generally considered to be the countrys best-organized political movement and won 15 percent of the parliamentary seats in the most recent election.

One need not endorse either the ideology or the tactics of these groups to wonder if the wholesale rejection of dialogue with them is truly in the long-term interests of the United States. Indeed, looking beyond the disastrous war in Iraq, perhaps the central questions facing American foreign policy are as follows: How is it possible to promote democracy and fight terrorism when movements deemed by the United States to be terrorist and extremist are the most politically popular in the region? And given this popularity, what would true democracy in these nations resemble? It is impossible to answer these questions without first listening to these movements, but the U.S. government and, frequently, the media have deemed them unworthy even of this; their public grievancesover Americas seemingly unconditional support for Israel, its invasion of Iraq, its backing of dictatorial regimes that rule much of the Muslim worldare dismissed as illegitimate or insincere, their hostility explained away as a rejection of Western freedoms. In fact, as I discovered during my own visits with Islamist leaders over the past year, these groups are busy forging their own notions of freedom, some of them Western and some of them decidedly not. If we want to envision a democratic future for the region, we need not embrace these ideas, but we most certainly need to understand them.

* * *

To write with any nuance about Islamists for an American audience is to invite controversy. I experienced this firsthand a year ago when, as a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I visited Lebanon for a story that discussed Hezbollahs evolution from its origins during the countrys civil war and the basis for its popularity. My trip fell during Muharram, a ten-day religious holiday for Shiites; during the holiday, Nasrallah was speaking in the southern suburbs every other night, and I went to see Hussein Nabulsi, head of Hezbollahs media relations center, to ask if it would be a problem for me to attend. Nabulsi initially balked, but after looking me up and down he quickly relented: given my dark features, thin beard, and blue jeans, he concluded that I would be indistinguishable from most party militants. He insisted, though, that I speak no English while in the crowd and that I find a local Shiite to accompany me to the event. This latter role was filled by Mostafa Naser, an industrious, neatly groomed man in his mid-twenties who had been recommended by my rent-a-car agency when I had asked for a driver well acquainted with the southern suburbs.

That night we parked on a main road in the Dahiyeh and joined a stream of thousands of people heading to an auditorium in the heart of Haret Hreik, the district where Hezbollahs political offices are located and where Nasrallah was to speak. After passing through three checkpoints, where we were patted down for weapons, we reached an auditorium decorated with green, black, and red flags commemorating Muharram. (The first is the color of Islam; the second conveys grief for the death of the Prophet Muhammads grandson, the Imam Hussein, who was killed along with his followers at Karbala in 680 a.d.; and the last signifies Husseins blood.) We dropped our shoes near the entrance and then tiptoed through the packed crowd, which was divided between men on the left and women on the right.

Nasrallah took the stage with such little fanfare or applause that I first mistook the man at the podium for a political warm-up act. Even to a non-Arabic speaker, Nasrallahs charisma was readily apparent. He spoke for an hour, seeming never to refer to notes, and kept the crowd alternately applauding and pumping fists throughout. Naser periodically whispered a few translated snatches from the speech, which mixed religious and political messages. Heavy anti-Israeli commentary drew a particularly noisy response; the crowd erupted in laughter when Nasrallah derided the United Nations as an American toady and heaped scorn on its call for Hezbollah to disband its militia.

As unsettling as Nasrallahs cult of personality may be, much of what I saw in the Dahiyeh surprised me. Although the area is often referred to as Hezbollahland, it hardly has the feel of a so-called Islamofascist state. At corner cafs, men and women sip small cups of thick, black coffee or cocktails made with fresh fruit topped with whipped cream. In a small Christian section, bars serve alcoholcloudy, anise-flavored arak is particularly popularand attract a fair number of Shiite clients. Many women wear a long gown and hijab, the traditional Islamic head scarf, but Western-style clothing is not uncommon, and there were no Hezbollah Revolutionary Guards to enforce dress codes. On the street one day I saw a Shiite woman decked out in a short blue-jean skirt, low-cut top, and black bootsunusual dress for the area, to be sure, but she drew hardly a glance. Beyond such matters, it was obvious that Hezbollah was organically rooted in Lebanese political, social, and cultural life and that reducing it to the standard caricatureterrorist groupwould be grossly misleading. [2]

I also saw how important it was to lay out Hezbollahs own political narrative, which is frequently given short shrift, at best, in American accounts. For example, virtually any news story about the group will recite the litany of civil war‒era attacks on American targets in Lebanon, especially the bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the Marine barracks. But at the time, many Lebanese Muslims saw the United States as a hostile force that had intervened in the civil war on behalf of Israel and its Lebanese Christian allies in the government; the attack on the Marine barracks came after American warships battered antigovernment positions with shells. And although Hezbollahs control of its own militia is clearly untenable in a democratic Lebanon, the partys explanation for why it has thus far refused to disarmthat is, to defend against Israelis hardly without merit from a Shiite point of view. Since 1982, some 20,000 people in Lebanon, many of them Shiite civilians, have been killed by Israeli attacks, and Hezbollahs militia is the only entity in the country that represents any type of credible deterrent force.

After submitting my story, though, I ran up against insurmountable editorial obstacles. It was clear that I was deemed to have written a story that was too favorable to Hezbollah, even though any article seeking to examine its popularity would, by necessity, require some focus on the groups more attractive aspects. After the story was near completion, a new editor was called in to review it because, I was told, Hezbollah had a history of inviting reporters to Lebanon and controlling their agenda. The obvious implication was that this had happened in my casedespite the fact that, outside of my interviews with Hezbollah officials, I had had no contact with the party. I had hired my own driver (who turned out to be sympathetic to Hezbollah, like most Shiites, but not connected to the movement) and translators (all Christians), with no restrictions placed on where I went or who I met with; and in fact I had spent significant time with the groups critics.

The primary problem, it soon became clear, was fear of offending supporters of Israel. At one point I was told that editorial changes were needed to inoculate the newspaper from criticism, and although who the critics might be was never spelled out, the answer seemed fairly obvious. I was also told in one memo that we should avoid taking sides, which apparently meant omitting inconvenient historical facts. Over my repeated objections, editors cut a line that referred to Israels creation following World War II in an area overwhelmingly populated at the time by Arabs. That, I was told in an email from one editor, David Lauter, was

the Arab view of things. Israelis would say, with some justification, that much of the area wasnt overwhelmingly populated by anyone at the time the first Zionist pioneers arrived in the first part of the 20th century and that the population rose in the mid-decades of the century in large part because of people migrating into Palestine in response to the economic development they brought about.

But that argument, which in any case doesnt refute what I wrote, was long ago rejected by serious Mideast scholars, including many in Israel. It also avoids confronting a root cause of the conflict. According to the Jewish Agency for Palestine, the original Zionist governing body in what was to become Israel, there were roughly 1.1 million Arab Muslims living in Palestine at the time of partitiontwice the number of Jews. Perspective is everything, I replied in an email to the editors. If my name was Mostafa Naser and I grew up in the southern suburbs of Beirut, I seriously doubt I would be an ardent Zionist. If we cant even acknowledge that Arabs have a legitimate point of viewand acknowledge what the numbers showwe caricature them as nothing more than a bunch of irrational Jew haters. As I noted in a conversation with one editor, religious hatred, on both sides, is an element in the conflict, but it is fundamentally a struggle over land and national identity. If an Eskimo state had been created in Palestine in 1948, one suspects that anti-Eskimo feeling would have increased markedly in the Arab world.44 When I asked Musawi about the Holocaust denial that has been espoused by some Arab leaders, and suggested it reflected an unwillingness to acknowledge Jewish suffering, he replied, We are not denying that European racists persecuted an entire people or belittling the suffering of the Jewish people, and we say this with utter frankness and without compliment. But Europeans committed those crimes, and then we were made to pay for them with our land. After days of unfruitful negotiations, and a final edit that in my view gutted the story, I decided to pull the piece rather than inoculate it to the point of dishonesty.

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