Thursday, February 02, 2006

Squaring Islam With Democracy

By Jim Hoagland
The Washington Post
Thursday, February 2, 2006; A21

"I have no idea what the result will be, but I am certain that it will lead to a very interesting situation."

-- Arthur Balfour, on issuing the 1917 declaration that promised a national home in Palestine for the Jews.

President Bush has created his own Balfourian times to live in by betting his legacy on the shifting sands of Middle East politics and religion. Iran's demagogic president, Iraq's Shiite clerics and the Palestinian radicals of Hamas have in recent days reminded Bush of the audacity of his bet that democracy will transform and stabilize the region.

How much more interesting can it get? Hillary Clinton is running to the right of Bush with a call for economic confrontation with Iran. Centrist support is growing for John McCain's view that bombing Iran is now in the cards. Kofi Annan has joined European foreign ministers in telling Hamas to recognize Israel or in effect go hungry.

But these tactical maneuvers are likely to fail in the absence of a larger strategy to reconcile democracy as understood in the West and Islam as practiced in much of the Middle East. Bush should not abandon his push for Middle Eastern democracy because radicals draw temporary advantage from it. But he needs to reexamine where that push is taking him. This means forging a new Western strategy to engage with and support moderate forms of political Islam, rather than assuming that democratic elections and other reforms will automatically separate religion and politics and devalue the former in favor of the latter.

That theme echoed through the State of the Union address. Bush twice condemned "radical Islam" and said it would be defeated by American resolve. But he remained silent on mainstream Islam's role in politics and in jihad. A stronger commitment to democracy would overcome all, he suggested.

This fails to adjust his policies to the changes they have helped produce. Political Islam has largely been treated by American and European policymakers as an extremist phenomenon since Iran's Shiite clerics seized power in 1979. The tendency was reinforced by the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001. Under the Bush doctrine, political Islam is to be fought country by country, through counterterrorism programs, diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions.

But political Islam finds democracy to be a congenial rather than an antithetical force. Calling for the destruction of Israel, as Hamas and the Iranians do, is a popular program sold to the masses under an Islamic banner. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was warned by friendly diplomats last September that his hard-line speech to the U.N. General Assembly would cost him international support, he reportedly scoffed: "I am getting good news from home" about reaction to the speech.

Or take Hamas's electoral victory over Fatah and other remnants of the Palestine Liberation Organization. It is the final nail in the coffin of pan-Arab nationalism, which is now as much a relic of history as the PLO itself. The obsolescence of pan-Arabism was also underlined by the victory of Shiite religious parties in Iraq's recent elections.

It is possible to reconcile democracy, Islam, peaceful coexistence with Israel and good governance. Turkey and Morocco are examples of countries making significant progress on these fronts. Iraq has the potential as well to show that Bush's emphasis on promoting democracy is not guaranteed to boomerang on him.

Bush's demand that freedom and democracy become the beacons toward which all nations in the region should advance was neither inherently flawed nor clueless, as critics maintain. The post-colonial Arab political order of militaristic or hereditary authoritarianism was tottering toward collapse in any event. American efforts to help channel the coming upheaval were, and are, appropriate.

"A democratic election is an exercise in accountability," says former secretary of state George Shultz. "It is no surprise the electorate threw these rascals out when they got the chance," continued Shultz, who in 1988 approved the first official U.S.-PLO dialogue and held the guerrilla organization to strict account on its promises.

"I wouldn't automatically say you won't talk to somebody in this situation," he added. "What is important is what you say: Tell them what you stand for and what you hope will happen. But you sure don't have to fund them."

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