Cultivating the seeds of democracy

ANWAR IBRAHIM is a former finance minister and deputy prime minister of Malaysia. He is a visiting professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Washington.

SINCE 9/11, the United States has pursued what the White House calls a “forward strategy of freedom” predicated on the belief that a dearth of democracy in Muslim countries has led to the spread of a deadly strain of Islamic extremism. Emboldened by a hard-won ideological victory over the regimes in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, the U.S. once again has sought to foment democracy abroad to ensure security at home.

However, as the first returns come in on this democratization effort in the Muslim world, there is growing anxiety in the U.S. about the resulting character of these nascent, freely elected governments. Some have begun to even question whether these countries have the innate ability to sustain democracy.

Although it cannot be denied that U.S. initiatives for reform have contributed significantly to developments in the Middle East, fear is growing that radicals may hijack democracy. Recent Islamist electoral successes in Iran, Egypt and the Palestinian territories have given rise to questions about the ability of liberal forces to prevail against fundamentalism.


For the United States, the fear is real, though perhaps tinged with a bit of Islamophobia: How terrible an irony it would be if this grand effort to spread liberty abroad resulted in anti-U.S. Islamic states imposing Sharia, or Islamic law, on their people.

The example of Hamas’ ascension in Gaza and the West Bank presents obvious difficulties. But it would be fallacious to assume that it was democracy that voted in Islamic extremism. More correctly, it was the years of corruption and abuse of power of the Fatah-led administration that voted Hamas into power. If the exercise of democracy is about venting the people’s anger and dissatisfaction with the powers that be, then the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

Be that as it may, there are some who say that “stability” not liberty is what the U.S. should be promoting throughout the Islamic world. Their view is that championing electoral democracy does not immediately serve U.S. interests abroad, particularly in the war on terrorism, and that the hearts and minds of terrorists and suicide bombers are not turned by the virtues of democracy. They say the war against terrorism must be waged with an iron hand, not kid gloves woven from the fabric of constitutional liberties.

These views on democracy and stability in the Muslim world are not only wrong but carry grave consequences.

In a way, Washington’s strategy may be viewed as expiation for past sins, when the U.S. was a stumbling block to democracy in the Middle East. Iran was a democracy in 1953 when the CIA engineered the coup that transformed it into an absolute monarchy. The U.S. also has supported other tyrants in the region, including, of course, Saddam Hussein. All of this in the name of stability and security in the decades-long confrontation with the communist bloc.

Is Washington really caught between the Scylla of supporting dictators and the Charybdis of promoting democracies that could bring Islamist radicals to power?


THE BEST ANSWERS to the question of whether America should reassess its strategy lie in Indonesia and Turkey, refreshing examples of Muslim democratic self-assertion.

Seven years ago, Indonesia plunged headlong into democracy after more than 30 years of autocratic dictatorship. As the largest Muslim nation in the world, it stands out as perhaps the most significant political phenomenon in the recent history of democracy. Indonesians have gone to the polls twice since, and they overwhelmingly rejected the Islamist radicals, who then tried to push their agenda through other avenues. Again, this was met with a resounding “no” by the Indonesian people, including major Muslim organizations.

The press in Indonesia is free, and the elections are fair. Fundamental liberties are enshrined in the constitution and fully recognized and respected by the powers that be. For example, unlike in neighboring Malaysia, Indonesians may gather to protest government decisions and policies without fear of reprisals. Arbitrary arrests and political detentions are unheard of.

As fledgling democracies, Indonesia and Turkey still have a long way to go. In Indonesia, it is in fulfilling the socioeconomic objectives of democracy that can only happen over time. In Turkey, the containment of an unrestricted military establishment has aided in that country’s European Union ascension. Nevertheless, they now stand as beacons, both for Muslim nations and for those who seek to help them.

To be successful in its efforts to spread freedom, the U.S. must remember that constitutional democracy cannot take root in a society, whether secular or Islamic, without the firm commitment of the politically empowered to protect the fundamental rights to liberty, equality and freedom of all.

The true cultivation of democracy requires more than simply the introduction of elections. It also requires the establishment of democratic processes and a leveling of the political playing field. It needs the guarantee of a separation of powers and the liberation of the judicial system from the stranglehold of autocrats and tyrants. Most of all, it requires the protection of fundamental liberties and a free press.

It is in these prerequisites of democracy that the U.S. and the Muslim world need to invest, with far more significant effort, for the causes of liberty to truly prevail.