Across the Bay

Friday, July 09, 2004

Beware the Trust-Fundamentalists

Lee Smith wrote a very interesting piece in Slate today, which really touches on important topics I've tried to grapple with on this blog, namely the issue of regime change and the democratization and liberalization of the ME.

On one hand, the piece helped with some points I was stuck with, but on the other, it remained silent about the crux of the problem. For instance, Smith makes a very interesting and daring point on the need for liberalization to come first before democratization. If you recall my discussion with Joshua Landis, people think democracy first, but then faced with an illiberal culture they shy away, or propose slow and inviting engagement. That, in essence, is Landis' position on Syria. Of course, in Syria's case, Landis concluded that with religious education for example, Bashar Assad is the worst possible candidate for reform because he's a minority Alawite, and thus, cannot touch the Sunni religious education without losing all legitimacy.

So Smith turns this around and starts by pushing liberalism first, tied to conditions and incentives for aid packages:

"Certainly, the United States should demand a full range of reforms tied to any aid packages for Egypt, but those reforms should be focused on liberalization rather than democratization."

I.e., exactly what Landis calls for, only aimed directly at the heart of the problem: education and liberalization of the culture, not just the economy or the political system.

But here's the crux, isn't that the problem!? Doesn't this bring us back to square one? I.e, how to bring Islam to the 21st c., not as a pseudo-reincarnated fossil of the 7th c., but as a dynamic modernizing, and intellectually liberalized and pluralistic culture, i.e. similar to what happened with Christianity in the West.

Smith is aware of this, as evident from his indictment of Arab intellectuals, the raison d'ĂȘtre of this blog:

"Egypt's political and intellectual leadership should have prepared the nation for peace and democracy long ago, but instead it indulged in the violent political rhetoric and ideological habits that have galvanized the region's furies over the last 50 years."

That is why, in the end, the "intellectuals" are indeed as guilty, if not more guilty than the clerics or the dictators. That's why it's a cultural problem involving all facets of society.

So Smith's gloomy picture is understandable:

"[T]he country's immediate future is not more democracy, but yet another dictatorship ultimately controlled by the military, and it is unlikely U.S. officials will argue that it should be otherwise."

Smith doesn't elaborate on what measures exactly are to be taken to push for liberalization and re-education without arousing the toughest of defensive, and Occidentalist, attitudes. Already the Arabs, backed by Europe and the watered-down G8-contaminated US ME democracy initiative, have already anticipated this and are calling for "democracy from within" with no interference from the West. This means that we're going nowhere. After all, snail man Jacques Chirac pontificated that the Arabs "don't need missionaries of democracy." Instead, he said:

"The conflicts ravaging the region are today the paramount obstacles to its development ... We must take measure of the resentments and frustrations from one end of the Arab world to the other, fueled by the daily spectacle of violence and humiliation in places so laden with history and symbols."

What was Michael Young's term again? Ah yes, "Pipe Dream."

Quel Dommage.