Monday, July 17, 2006

The Kidnapping Of Democracy

On Friday Thomas Friedman wrote a New York Times piece titled "The Kidnapping of Democracy" that explains some of the dynamic behind the current conflict between Israel and Hizbullah/Hamas. Here are a couple of excerpts:
What we are seeing in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon is an effort by Islamist parties to use elections to pursue their long-term aim of Islamizing the Arab-Muslim world. This is not a conflict about Palestinian or Lebanese prisoners in Israel. This is a power struggle within Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq over who will call the shots in their newly elected "democratic" governments and whether they will be real democracies.

The tiny militant wing of Hamas today is pulling all the strings of Palestinian politics, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah Shiite Islamic party is doing the same in Lebanon, even though it is a small minority in the cabinet, and so, too, are the Iranian-backed Shiite parties and militias in Iraq. They are not only showing who is boss inside each new democracy, but they are also competing with one another for regional influence.

As a result, the post-9/11 democracy experiment in the Arab-Muslim world is being hijacked. Yes, basically free and fair elections were held in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq. Yes, millions turned out to vote because the people of the Arab-Muslim world really do want to shape their own futures.

But the roots of democracy are so shallow in these places and the moderate majorities so weak and intimidated that we are getting the worst of all worlds. We are getting Islamist parties who are elected to power, but who insist on maintaining their own private militias and refuse to assume all the responsibilities of a sovereign government. They refuse to let their governments have control over all weapons. They refuse to be accountable to international law (the Lebanese-Israeli border was ratified by the U.N.), and they refuse to submit to the principle that one party in the cabinet cannot drag a whole country into war.


Why don't the silent majorities punish these elected Islamist parties for working against the real interests of their people? Because those who speak against Hamas or Hezbollah are either delegitimized as "American lackeys" or just murdered, like Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

The world needs to understand what is going on here: the little flowers of democracy that were planted in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories are being crushed by the boots of Syrian-backed Islamist militias who are desperate to keep real democracy from taking hold in this region and Iranian-backed Islamist militias desperate to keep modernism from taking hold.

It may be the skeptics are right: maybe democracy, while it is the most powerful form of legitimate government, simply can't be implemented everywhere. It certainly is never going to work in the Arab-Muslim world if the U.S. and Britain are alone in pushing it in Iraq, if Europe dithers on the fence, if the moderate Arabs cannot come together and make a fist, and if Islamist parties are allowed to sit in governments and be treated with respect while maintaining private armies.

The whole democracy experiment in the Arab-Muslim world is at stake here, and right now it's going up in smoke.

While I agree with Mr. Friedman's basic premise and his conclusions I'll quibble with one key point he makes: Hizbullah and Hamas are not tiny and both represent a significant part of the population in their respective areas.

Hamas was elected overwhelmingly by the Palestinian people and all polls show that they still enjoy widespread report. I also don't believe you can divide Hamas into a "tiny militant wing" and something else. One needs only read Hamas' charter to understand that it is an Islamist/jihadist organization dedicated to the destruction of not only Israel but of Jordan and other western-leaning Arab governments as well and their replacement with a pan-Arab Islamist state. There is no moderate, non-terrorist element to Hamas and there does not appear to be a moderate majority among the Palestinians.

Similarly Hizbullah is enjoys widespread support among Lebanon's Shiite Muslims and most polls show it's support level at 30% or so of the Lebanese people as a whole. That is a very significant minority, particularly in a multi-party parliamentary system.

In order for their to ever be peace in the region there has to be a sea change in Arab opinion. There has to be an acceptance, however grudging, of Israel's existence and it's permanent nature. Until that happens the region is doomed to a cycle or warfare. Arab leaders have to do what Israeli leaders like Yitzhak Rabin did: build a consensus for peace.

Can democracy take root in the Arab world? Someday, maybe. Right now I'd settle for stability and sane leadership, something that Jordan, Egypt, and several of the gulf states enjoy. The move towards democracy in the region will have to happen through a natural evolutionary process, not a process of imposition by foreign powers. In that Friedman is absolutely correct.

Thanks to Aharon at Blogs of Zion for the link and for quoting the Friedman article.

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