Mr. Sharansky, ease my doubts

On February 23, 2005, Tel Aviv University hosted a panel on democratization, featuring Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and political prisoner, who currently serves as the Israeli minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs; Hebrew University political scientist Shlomo Avineri; and Martin Kramer. The panel focused on Sharansky’s much-discussed book, The Case for Democracy, which President George Bush has praised as the best argument for his vision of a democratic world order. (Bush also received Sharansky at the White House to discuss the book.)

The following are Martin Kramer’s remarks, made in response to Sharansky’s presentation.

I gather that my function on this occasion is to play the role of the Middle East expert. Theories have been propounded by my fellow panelists, broad generalizations have been made. The question you will ask is whether any of this makes sense to someone who spends most of his time watching the Arab-Muslim world.

Now area experts, on the Middle East or any other area, often suffer from one of two weaknesses (and sometimes from both of them). The first is an attitude to the peoples they study that is colored by emotion, so that expertise is vitiated by bias. The second is an overwhelming knowledge of detail, enough to defeat any generalization, including useful and valid ones. These two weaknesses explain why so many policymakers and generalists have decided that Middle East experts are useless, or even worse than useless. I certainly have contributed my share to that attitude, having written a book with the subtitle “The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies.”

But if experts still have some value, perhaps it is not in the answers they provide, but in the questions they pose. And in that capacity, I am going to pose a few questions to Mr. Sharansky. He does not claim to have made a lifelong study of the Middle East, its peoples, or its cultures. His argument is based on the idea that all peoples share a love for freedom, regardless of history or culture, and that the United States should seize upon this universal yearning and make it the basis of its policy in the Arab-Muslim world. It is said of the Jews that they suffer from this peculiar flaw: they allow the least bit of doubt to be decisive. So let me express a little bit of doubt, in the hope that Mr. Sharansky will ease it.

Why the tyranny?

My first doubt has to do with the reason the Middle East remains the last redoubt of tyranny and despotism. (Even before Mr. Sharansky’s intervention, the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya described these regimes as “republics of fear.”) In particular, was this situation created by the West, and has it been sustained by the West (as Mr. Sharansky suggests)? Or does it have an indigenous origin, and is it sustained from within?

Until Mr. Sharansky came along, the argument that the West was to blame figured most prominently on the far left. The far left systematically accused the West, and particularly the United States, of installing and backing dictators, of keeping them in power by trading lethal weapons for their oil, and so on. The most significant chapter in this narrative revolved around the CIA plot to overthrow Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, in a coup that restored the Shah to power. The anti-imperialist left blamed the United States for the frustration of the freedom-loving peoples of Iran, and indeed the entire Middle East. This theme is pervasive in the writings of Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali and the late Edward Said.

I have a hard time accepting this notion that the West, and particularly the United States, is responsible in any significant degree for the fact that the region is ruled by tyrants and despots. If I had to draw up a list of causes, I would start with the patriarchal social order, which venerates strong authority figures and marginalizes women; the primacy of kinship, tribalism, and sectarianism, which blocks the growth of civil society; oil, which concentrates wealth in the hands of rulers and discourages productive work; and bad memories of past attempts at constitutionalism, which ended in failure.

Not only do these regimes not depend for their survival on Western support; they survive even in the face of Western boycott and pressure. Look at the Iranian regime, which remains firmly in power despite a quarter of a century of sanctions and attempts at isolation. Each promised wave of reform breaks on the resolve of its clerical rulers. Look at Saddam Hussein during the long years of sanctions. Everyone hoped the Iraqi people would find a way to get rid of the dictator, but they did not, and the job had to be done with U.S. arms. The longest-ruling dictator in the region is Libya’s Qadhafi. To what Western government does he owe his longevity?

Regimes do not fall for domestic reasons, whether they are pro-Western or anti-Western, whether they trade everything with the West or languish under sanctions. This is because survival does not depend on outside support. It depends on inside support. Some of that is the result of fear, but it is not just fear of the ruler; it is fear of the foreigner, of the neighbor, of the political, social and cultural chaos that might accompany change.

Who wants freedom?

And this brings me to my second doubt: the idea that the peoples of the Middle East all want freedom. Now of course there are liberals who want freedom as we would understand it—freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of religion, all belonging to the autonomous individual. These are the “freedom of” people, many of them with direct experience of Western democracy, having visited at length or lived in exile in the West. They have created various associations and NGOs, which Western governments and foundations fund. They are good people. Unfortunately, they are relatively few.

A much larger group is what I would call the “freedom from” people. Their idea of freedom is somewhat different. It is freedom from oppressive government, not so much for the individual, as for the collective—the kinship group, the tribe, the religious sect. The quest for this kind of freedom has existed in the Middle East from time immemorial. The late Elie Kedourie put it best. “The Middle Easterner,” he said, “is very far from thinking that he has a right to have a say in politics. All he wants is to be left alone and not to be oppressed.” Elsewhere he wrote of the Syrians, as archetypes of the Arabs, that “they have never been much accustomed to being asked their opinion about their rulers. For them the happy man has always been he who has a beautiful wife, a comfortable house, a lucrative occupation, who does not know government, and whom government does not know; in short, the private man.”

No doubt this is a desire for freedom, but it is freedom from, not freedom of. What is the difference? You may desire freedom from oppressive government, and still deny your beautiful wife the freedom to drive, or get an education, or go about in public. You may fervently wish not to know government, but still expect blasphemers and adulteresses to be punished by law. You may fight for freedom from oppression for yourself, and not much care if your neighbor is oppressed, especially if he is from a different family, or tribe, or sect.

It can well be argued that democracy’s concepts of freedom began with this more basic concept. The concept of “freedom of” begins with the desire for “freedom from.” But this is where there is a blockage in the Arab-Muslim world, an obstacle, and it brings me to my third doubt.

An Arab exception?

It has to do with a certain understanding of Islam, sometimes called Islamism. Muslims who are under its sway uphold divinely-revealed Islamic law as the blueprint for the just society. I will spare you the details, but this law is not compatible with democracy, or even with a plural society. It is predicated on a set of dichotomies, primarily between believer and unbeliever, secondarily between men and women. Some of its provisions are open to interpretation, but it is not infinitely elastic. Most importantly, Islamic law does not recognize the autonomous sovereignty of man, only that of God. And Islamists are largely indifferent to the means by which they would establish Islamic law and the regime to implement it.

To those who want freedom from oppressive government, the Islamists offer as an alternative not the collective will of the people, but the divinely-revealed message of God. And that is the blockage that prevents the transition to democracy. There is a widespread desire for “freedom from” in the Arab-Muslim world, for an end to tyrannical government. But the Islamists warn that “freedom of” is even more dangerous than tyranny, because it will unravel the entire social order. They offer a different alternative, which might be called “submission to”—submission to God. (Islam means submission.) This alternative has great appeal. Every single polity that has opened itself to free and unencumbered elections in this part of the world has seen Islamists make tremendous gains, or even take power.

Is it possible that one part of the world, one unique nexus of history and culture, is an exception to the rule that leads peoples to democracy? If you answered “yes” in Middle Eastern studies over the past thirty years, you were denounced as a heretic, or even worse, as an orientalist. The worst orientalist thought crime was the belief in Islamic or Muslim exceptionalism. Now that same belief has become a thought crime in the neoconservative doctrine.

But to hold the view that there are no exceptions, you have to believe that the passage of power to Islamists is not point final, but an interim phase. To go from “freedom from” to “freedom of,” Arabs have to pass through “submission to.” To get from tyranny to democracy, they need an interim phase of God’s sovereignty—God as a transitional figure, God as Gorbachev.

Alas, to date, there is not a single example of any polity that has followed this path to democracy. Above all, Iran is clearly stuck in the “submission to God” stage. The reason is that the people who exercise power in the name of God do not see themselves as managing a transition to a “freedom of” society. Quite the opposite: they use their power precisely to block the emergence of those freedoms, because they cannot relinquish power exercised in God’s name.

Proceed with caution

So I have expressed my doubts. Having done that, I am not going to follow the Jewish route, and permit them to be decisive. I do not think that democracy is achievable in all of the polities of the region. But it is a diverse region, and the conditions exist in a few settings for progress. And I am not so certain of my own generalizations that I would disparage a determined effort to generate positive change, by an American democracy galvanized by 9/11.

In the promotion of democracy, however, it is important to bear two things in mind. The first is to distinguish between the places where pressing for it might do good from those places where it is more likely to do harm. You need experts for that.

The second is to remember that these are times of war, not times of peace, and that means we may continue to find ourselves in bed with dictators and despots for some time to come. “Of course, a time of war is different,” Mr. Sharansky has told an interviewer. “No one would have expected Roosevelt and Churchill in 1943 to say to Stalin, ‘You are not our ally because you have the gulag.'” Neoconservatives believe that we are now in another world war—that is how Norman Podhoretz described it recently. If this is a world war against jihadism or what some call Islamo-fascism, we need allies, and we will continue to find them in certain dictatorial regimes. We have to be careful not to undermine them, before we have defeated our greater enemies. After all, we do not want to become unwitting agents of Osama bin Laden, destroying the existing order he failed to destroy, merely to open the route to power for his admirers and fellow travellers.

Like Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington, Natan Sharansky has given us a vision. Like their vision, his too provokes thought. Unlike theirs, his has been endorsed by the most powerful people on earth. And unlike mere professors, he is also a man of action. He knows that ideas have consequences. This means he has a certain obligation to continue to interpret his own ideas, lest they be misused. I hope I have persuaded him to shift a few emphases. Call it “expert advice,” given at no charge.