February 1, 2006

February 1, 2006 | WebMemo on Middle East

State of the Union 2006: Democracy in the Middle East

In his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush correctly proclaimed radical Islam "one of the main sources of reaction and opposition" to freedom. He noted: "The perversion by a few of a noble faith into an ideology of terror and death. Terrorists like bin Laden are serious about mass murder... They seek to impose a heartless system of totalitarian control throughout the Middle East, and arm themselves with weapons of mass murder."


Unfortunately, one such radical Islamist terrorist organization recently achieved some measure of democratic legitimacy. On January 25, the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, won elections in the Palestinian territories. The Administration had given its blessing to Palestinian parliamentary elections amidst ongoing hostilities between Israelis and the Palestinians while disregarding the normative standards that should apply to any potential participant in a democratic process.


Many signals from the Palestinian Authority, which saw the potential Hamas victory coming and hoped to postpone elections, were ignored. Meanwhile, the U.S. pressured Israel, which protested Hamas' participation, to support the elections despite the clear demand in the Quartet's Road Map for all participants to disarm and renounce violence.


Attempts to impose such substantive criteria now are like closing the doors of the barn after the horse has escaped. While democratic processes, including elections, are important, procedure cannot supersede substance. The Hamas victory is a catastrophic event that should force reassessment of policy in the Middle East.


When promoting democracy, U.S. foreign policy practitioners should keep in mind the following criteria which need to be applied to political actors:


Substantive content. Participants in the political process should be pluralistic, democratic, and non-violent. They should recognize minority rights, women's rights, and, where relevant, the right of Israel to exist with secure borders. A political party can be Islamic and democratic, such as the ruling AK Party in Turkey, but the U.S. cannot tolerate а party that preaches violence or denies the rights of significant parts of its country's population.


U.S. interests. Support for democracy will serve long-term U.S. national interests in the Middle East, including international security, fighting terrorism, access to energy resources and strategic waterways, and support of allies. But when election outcomes jeopardize such vital American interests, the support of democracy needs to be weighed against other U.S. concerns.


Election alone does not equal democracy. Civil society, rule of law, protection of minority rights, freedom of speech and worship, and other individual rights are all part of democracy. Legal norms and political culture influence the exercise of these rights. While President Bush is correct to say that democracy in the Middle East will not resemble democracy in America, one must consider the length of time it took Western, and especially Anglo-Saxon, societies to develop into thriving democracies-from the Magna Charta to the American Revolution to the Civil Rights movement. Democracy in the Middle East will not spring like a genie out of the bottle. Democratic development takes time.


Terror and institutionalized hatred annul popular legitimacy. An examination of the charters and other literature of Hamas, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood and a survey of the transcripts of their imams' sermons and statements by their leaders demonstrate that these are totalitarian organizations that aim to deny even their own supporters basic civil rights. They exist to wage war against "infidels," especially the United States, and other "non-believers." They advocate discriminatory practices, such as the imposition of a special head tax, jaziyah, on Christians and Jews, forced conversions for Hindus and others, and the subjugation of women. They exploit children as young as five to brainwash them into becoming suicide bombers. Their goal is the establishment of a state based on Sharia law leading to a global Caliphate-a worldwide Islamist religious dictatorship. 


The U.S. and its allies should not deal with a Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority or any other popularly elected jihadist entities and should not provide them with diplomatic recognition, direct or indirect economic assistance, or any other form of international legitimacy. The U.S. and the West should support Israel in any self-defense measures it may be forced to take to protect itself against Hamas's terrorism.



President Bush is right to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle East and around the world. The U.S. must do so realistically, taking into account its own national interests, as well as the complexity of foreign political cultures and traditions. A healthy respect for the limits of its own power and for the history, religions, and politics of the Middle East can only do America good.


Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Ener­gy Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Institute for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Stud­ies, at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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