Sunday, August 18, 2013

Delusions of democracy

RtO has not had anything to say about the Koran Belt for a while. At last check-in, about 10% of majority-Muslin "nations" were failed states, and another 10% were headed that way.

And western liberals were ignoring all that and expecting an Arab Spring to reverse the political trajectory of 14 centuries (50, in the cases of Iraq and Syria). Rightwingers were even more delusional,  expecting  cheap, quick military action to -- well, it was never made any clearer what was expected out of invading Libya, Syria or Egypt than what was expected of invading Iraq, but something good, and, if that road was not taken, then they could at least whip Obama for being a sekrit Mooslim and/or weak-kneed.

There is no sharper division of opinion between left and right Americans than their differing conceptions of Muslims as political actors. Leftists believe that, if only freed long enough to choose, Muslims will choose modernity and democracy, but that while this choice will be indigenous, it will also be broadly friendly to infidels and mostly compatible with western values. In other words, Muslims are like Japanese, despite quirks, like us. Rightists believe that, given the proper doses of carrots and sticks, Muslims will subordinate their local interests to whatever does America, and especially American business interests, the most good.

It is interesting, then, to ask Muslims what they want. And to pay attention to the answers. One person who does this is Shibley Telhami, who has a depressed answer in a Washington Post piece called "Egypt's Identity Crisis."

Nut grafs:

Islamists may have also misunderstood Arab attitudes about democracy. When Egyptians are asked which country they would want their own nation to look like, their top choice has been Turkey, a democratic Islamic nation ruled by an Islamist party. And in 2011 and 2012, Egyptians and other Arabs identified Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the leader they most admired outside their own country.

It is easy to misinterpret such admiration as Arabs seeking only the right mix of Islam and democracy. But the reasons are far more complex, as I found in my polling results. Arabs want a combination of many things that Turkey’s model offered: a country that balances democracy and culture, but also a stable, strong, prosperous nation, and one that makes them feel proud on the world stage. Erdogan, who personally symbolized the mix of Islam and democracy in many Arab minds — at least until the recent upheavals in Turkey — was not selected by Arabs as the favorite leader until he was seen as standing up to Israel on the 2008-09 Gaza war.
Telhami here makes the fundamental mistake that Americans, left and right, always make about Turkey. It is not, and never has been, democratic. For generations, it was a disguised military despotism; and, by a unique but not unpredictable maneuver, transformed into a (not very well) disguised religious tyranny.

But that error does not negate the value of Telhami's listening. Notably, Muslims, at least the Arab ones, will subordinate almost any of their local or national interests to hating on the Jews.

Few majority Muslim states are natural nations. Turkey, like Egypt, is two countries sacked up inside one border. What Telhami describes is not Turkey but Istanbul. Egypt is similar, but its split is not urban/rural but Muslim/Copt.

The better model to use to describe Egypt under "democracy" is Lebanon under its "democracy."

The cobbled together condominium that attempted to balance the sectarian interests in Lebanon appeared, for a while, to have created a stable and prosperous, though not strong nation. The prosperity was (like America's today) unbalanced, mostly because the Muslims and Druze refused to modernize.

Be that as it may,  politically the condominium was unstable. The differential birthrates meant that, as long as elections continued to be held, the Muslims would soon dominate. It would have occurred by now.

But Muslims do not -- as one commenter to Telhami's piece observes -- think democratically. To them, politics is a zero-sum game. Winning an election, if that is the form that transition takes, merely means my side gets to be the oppressor now.

Lebanon's outlook was not enhanced by the baneful presence of Palestinians, who are the political plague of the Arab world, but even without that infection, the antidemocratic feelings of the Arab Muslims would have led to what did happen. Rather than wait to take over a functioning state at the ballot box, they preferred to destroy it immediately.

When Muslims tell Telhami they want prosperity, it may be so; but there is little evidence they understand how to go about it.

Telhami thinks the Egyptian Islamists "may have misunderstood" Arab feelings about democracy. More likely, they did not care. RtO has often quoted the Syro-German political scientist Bassam Tibi to the effect that Arabs do not care about democracy.

This is certainly true of the Muslim Brothers. Their ideology is antidemocratic, so it was always delusional to think that "first democratically-elected president of Egypt" was a meaningful title.

But on the purely practical level -- politics as George Washington Plunkitt described it (protecting "honest graft" by timely delivery of scuttles of coal to shivering constituents) -- the Brotherhood despised looking after its own interests.

The minimum requirement for dealing with Egypt's many problems was to at least leave the Copts alone. The government, such as it was, made a priority of harassing them.

Probably it had to make at least some gestures against the Copts to mollify the hatreds of the majority -- these gestures could have been scuttles of coal, not sufficient to genuinely improve the condition of the core constituency but enough to keep them quiet so the government could get on with governing (especially, from the Brothers' perspective, of quietly neutering the modernizing and secularist sectors of the cities).

But like the Islamists in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, they just couldn't.


  1. "But Muslims do not -- as one commenter to Telhami's piece observes -- think democratically."

    I would say that, these days, very few people think democratically.

  2. I do not agree. Even in your neck of the woods, where I used to think that caudillos would remain dominant forever, functioning popular governments are more common than not.

    (I prefer the term popular self-government to democracy because defining democracy is not simple, but we can tell easily enough whether popular input changes governors, at any level from local commune through municipality to province to nation.)

  3. Harry:

    Sorry, but to describe me as living in the woods is, well, quite a lack of geographic notion. Google "Brasilia" and take a look of the surrounds in Googlemap. Very few forestry.

    Now, my commentary was in the direction that people are less and less tolerant to differences, and to respect for the next one - even more if the next one is a muslim nation. Your commentary, like most commentaries you can read from Americans since 9/11, is full of those misrepresentations and caricatures.

  4. "Neck of the woods' is a folk expression. I did not mean I think you live in a forest.

    I am sorry you think my views are misrepresentations. It really is true that Muslim-majority states fail at a much higher rate than the rest of the world, though.

  5. Ops, sorry, I did not know the expression.

    I believe the degree of fredom and the quality of life varies too much within Muslim countries to allow the generalizations you take.

    I very much appreciate democracies, but nowadays I am very skeptical of classifications based only on that. After all, I must believe Iraq is now a nice and functional democracy (when it is a total mess), while Iran is routinely portrayed as hell in Earth (when it looks better than Iraq in any comparison I can think of).

  6. I don't think you have to accept Iraq as a functional democracy. It's on the way to being a failed state.

    It's back to civil war, and neither the parliament nor the ministries are effective.

    Iran is, despite a figleaf of parliamentarism, not greatly changed from the despotism it has enjoyed all along. Different oppressors, same oppressed.