Democracy and the Role of the U.S. in the Middle East

Michael Craven | Center for Christ & Culture | Monday, April 4, 2011

Democracy and the Role of the U.S. in the Middle East

For many Westerners, the hope of peace between the Middle East and the West rests in the spread of democracy. The recent protests and uprisings have given many cause for hope as one regime after another is confronted by popular revolt. As the world’s military superpower and reigning vanguard of liberal democracy, many Americans naturally feel that we have a place in supporting those opposing the despotic regimes currently under assault.

In the case of Libya, where unarmed protesters were being attacked by Gaddafi’s (spelling varies) government forces, the questions surrounding military intervention are no doubt exceedingly difficult. My concern is that our present foreign policy in the Middle East is supported by a naiveté that unwittingly identifies with “revolutionaries” and “rebels” as kindred spirits, making us all too eager to deploy military force. But are these revolutionaries in search of the same thing sought by our founding fathers? The fact is, Western and Islamic understandings of democracy and freedom are subject to very different interpretations.

In the West, we speak of democracy in terms of individual liberty and freedom for all persons, regardless of race, gender, religion, ideologies, and so on. Granted, we don’t and haven’t always lived up to these ideals but the ideals themselves have existed since the transformation of Western civilization by Christianity. Long before their cultural acceptance and social implementation, these virtues were often enshrined in our essential governing principles and documents. From the Magna Carta to the U.S. Constitution, the biblical conceptions of human rights and political power were integral to their formation. Furthermore, because they were rooted in the Christian consensus there existed a universal authority above our social and cultural conventions to which the oppressed could appeal.

In the Islamic world, namely the twenty-two member states of the League of Arab States, the concept of democracy does not—indeed cannot—follow this same understanding. Modern interpretations of the Islamic religion include intrinsic barriers to freedom for “all persons regardless of race, gender, religion, and ideologies.” Liberal democracy is a uniquely Western concept that could not have arisen without Christianity. (And likely cannot endure.) Thus democracy remains nonexistent within the Muslim world. According to the Democracy Index published by the Economist, a British journal, the only country in the Middle East that has an “established democracy” is Israel—and it only achieves the status of a “flawed democracy.”

At present, revolutionaries in the Middle East are most likely motivated by one of two objectives, neither of which are democracy in the sense of freedom for all.

To begin with, most Middle East nations are, in effect, “rentier states,” meaning they derive all or a substantial portion of their national revenues from the rent of indigenous resources (i.e., oil) to external clients (i.e., Western oil companies and markets). Rentier states are further characterized by their reliance on this external revenue or rent. As such, rentier states tend not to develop a strong domestic production sector. This naturally limits the nation’s wealth to the export of their natural resource and fails to provide a broad economic opportunity for its citizenry. These rentier conditions are further compounded by the fact that those in power and not the people, end up being the primary recipient of the proceeds.

These are the real conditions oppressing many within the Middle East. Despotic strongmen and monarchs have plundered their nation’s resources for personal gain leaving the people impoverished and without opportunity. Despite increases in oil prices, the total economic output of all Arab countries is less than that of Spain! Thus the “pie” remains very small, leaving very little for the people after the Mubaraks and Gaddafis have had their fill. Not surprisingly, these conditions, along with high unemployment (around 14 % on average among all Arab states) and increased food prices/shortages, have driven many to desperation and public protests. Their motivations are not as connected to idealistic thoughts of liberal democracy as they are the product of desperate people seeking basic subsistence and economic opportunity.

The other motivational force is radical Islamists who seek to capitalize on the public unrest as an opportunity to reestablish Islamic rule. (They succeeded in Iran during the late ’70s.) The Islamists argue that these despots were in league with the West, apostates who abandoned the true faith, and only a return to it (in their view, radicalized Islam) will restore the glory of Islam. In either case, the West is regarded as a coconspirator in their oppression or vilified as an infidel opponent of Islam.

However, does one truly believe that under any new regime—where the Islamic worldview remains the general consensus—that women will receive the same rights as men or that unbelievers and people of other faiths will be welcomed? How can liberty exist where polygamy is still practiced and women are subjugated? How can freedom reign where non-Muslims are not tolerated and justice is a travesty? As such, one has to ask, “Is liberal democracy even possible within a Muslim nation?” The people of the Middle East are oppressed, indeed, but their oppression is institutionalized in Islam and the tyrants who exploit it to serve their own ends.

If that is the case, can any good come from our continued military intervention in the Middle East? Does our involvement bring peace or foment further division? Might we and the Middle East benefit by removing the U.S. as a convenient scapegoat for all their woes? Every step toward social progress and human rights within the West has been the result of internal examination and confrontation with our own ideas and values. Any attempt by an outside force to challenge us on these various points would have no doubt been perceived as an act of aggression. Should we expect the Muslim to think any differently?

I am not a pacifist by any means, but our recent military actions in Libya have nothing to do with national defense and may only serve to establish the next radical Islamic regime. By not understanding the differences between our respective worldviews, our thoughts of democratizing the Middle East are misguided at best and destructive at worst. If we are called to be peacemakers, should the church encourage and pursue means other than war when it comes to nation building if nation building is the goal? Isn’t Jesus the only hope for peace, prosperity, and freedom in the Middle East? I remain uncertain as to the proper course and role of government at this point but I am convinced of this: the church can (and must) offer better insight and solutions than our government, which no longer understands—and subsequently rejects—the essential role of religion in the formation of Western government much less the Middle East.

© 2011 by S. Michael Craven Permission granted for non-commercial use.

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Democracy and the Role of the U.S. in the Middle East