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October 16, 2002

Can There Be Democracy in the Arab Middle East?

In a well-thought out speech, the writer argues that it is a matter of attitudes rather than mere voting that makes for a democracy. And those attitudes can not be imposed by outsiders.
Martin Kramer
Address to the 2002 Weinberg Founders Conference
Landsdowne Conference Center, Leesburg, Virginia, October 5, 2002

Can there be a liberal, democratic Middle East? This is very much a loaded question. It reminds me a bit of the famous exchange between a journalist and Mahatma Gandhi. The journalist asked Gandhi: what do you think of Western civilization? To which he replied: I think it would be a good idea. Gandhi's point was that the modern West had failed to live up to the promise of the rich legacy of its civilization.

If I were asked today what I think of modern Arab civilization, I would probably answer the same: it would be a good idea. Here, too, there is a great legacy that the contemporary Arab world has been unable to renew. And nowhere has that been more apparent than in the failure of the Arab world to create the climate of free inquiry without which modern civilization is impossible. In our times, it is difficult to create such a climate without democracy.

If the 20th century has left us with a lesson, it is that the civilizations that will flourish in the 21st will rest on democracy. Every form of dictatorship, from communism to fascism, was discredited in the 20th century. We are approaching the point in human history where democracy will be deemed a prerequisite of modern civilization itself, and its absence, the most obvious symptom of modern barbarism. If that becomes so, then there is little doubt which side of the divide the Arab world will occupy. Freedom House ranks it as the least free part of the globe. And certainly there is a high correlation between the prevalence of despotism and a whole range of barbaric outrages, from the gassing of Kurds to 9/11. We know from experience that despotism generates terror. And has there ever been a form of despotism in modern times that did not encourage and even nurture anti-Semitism?

Since 9/11, many commentators have looked at the Arab world, made similar observations, and then drawn a conclusion. The conclusion is this: the United States should use its vast power to promote democracy in the Middle East. Not only should it plan to replace hostile despotisms, like Iraq's, with democratic regimes. It should compel our allies, such as the Egyptians and the Saudis, to open up their politics. The theory is that if these were more open systems, this would drain away the intolerance and hatred that pervade these societies, including the hatred of America and the desire to eradicate Israel