Lost in the Middle East

Excerpt from Of Empires and Citizens: Pro-American Democracy or No Democracy at All? by Amaney A. Jamal:

They hate what we see right here in this chamber—a democratically elected government. . . . They hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble.

— President George W. Bush, September 20, 2001, quoted in The Stakes: America in the Middle East by Shibley Telhami.

Perhaps nothing is more insulting to Arab societies than U.S. claims that America values freedoms in ways that ordinary Muslim and Arab citizens don’t—or even worse, can’t. It is one thing to claim that the United States has strong geostrategic interests in the region that render democracy inconsequential; it is another altogether to sell such interest, which has resulted in authoritarian durability, as the result of something inherently undemocratic among the people of the region. Not only has the United States continued to invest in the myth of a civilizational divide but it now designs policies to remedy this clash that miss the root cause of the problem and, indeed, perpetuate it.

Because democratic inferiority is the policy theory du jour, we are now confronted with a new set of policies aimed at addressing it. The United States is currently engaged in bolstering liberal and secular elements of Arab societies as a means to counter the influence of Islamists. This strategy does little to address the sources of anti-Americanism in the region. But describing the problem as an ideological one exonerates the United States from culpability because this strategy implies that Islamists are problematic because of their Islamic belief systems and not their anti-Americanism.

In fact, commentators often assume that Islamists are anti-American by default, failing to recognize the significant variation that exists among Islamists in their anti-American sentiments. While Islamists have shown significant levels of moderation on domestic political issues relating to Islam, whether it is human rights, women’s rights, or democracy, they have been less compromising on the issues that they are most passionate about, like foreign policy. Islamist groups have shown a remarkable willingness to play within the rules of democratic elections—in part because they can be confident about the level of their support among the voters. According to Muriel Asseburg, “The democratic openings that have been achieved, albeit limited, have encouraged many Islamists to pursue their agendas through the ballot box rather than violence; when and where Islamists have been allowed to do so, they have started to work for change within the political systems.” [Continue reading…]

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