Prospects for Liberal Democracy in the Middle East

The world has been mesmerized by the uprisings taking place in the Middle East against authoritarian regimes. Some speculation is that this effect was caused by the example of Iraq sustaining multiple democratic cycles. By force, the Bush administration annihilated Saddam's brutal regime and forced into place a democratic process. The speculation is that people in neighboring countries have been observant of the changes and now seek democracy for themselves. However, a liberal democracy is comprised of particular attributes such as representative government, rule of law, equality before the law, just punishment, property rights, and certain freedoms (e.g. religion, speech, association, etc.). It remains to be seen what the Iraqis and, for that matter, the rest of the Middle Eastern revolutionaries make of their opportunity.

Liberal democracy grows only in certain cultures. History has empirically demonstrated that cultures stemming from Christian, Eastern, and Far Eastern religions are compatible with stable, long term liberal democracies. On the other hand, it is not obvious that cultures emanating from an Islamic foundation are compatible with liberal democracy. This uncertainty is a key reason the European Union has resisted integrating Turkey. It may explain why there are no Muslim liberal democracies.

After World War I, Mustafa Ataturk brought the power of the Turkish state to bear against fundamentalist Islam. In an attempt to modernize, Ataturk forcibly introduced Western systems and required a secular bent. However, in current times, Recep Erdogan has leveraged public disapproval of government corruption, incompetence, and ineffectiveness to make gains in legislative representation. His Justice and Development Party, with ties to an earlier Islamist party, have been leading Turkey since 2002. While shair'a has not been formally declared the law of the land, a cultural shift is apparent by observing the effects of increased pressure on women to conform to Islamic dress styles (e.g. head scarves, veils) and public behaviors (fewer single women about, fewer women intermingling with men socially, etc.). In a downward trend, Freedom House notes the loss of freedoms of speech and the press. Even Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul, admits civil liberties are endangered. Within the last year, in foreign affairs, Turkey has distanced itself from Israel and moved closer to Syria, a client state of Iran. Also, Turkey instigated the attempt to break Israel's blockade of Gaza in order to aid the Muslim Brotherhood progeny Hamas. The Muslim Brotherhood aims to install totalitarian Islamist governments in all Muslim countries; oppression and persecution of non-believers is conjoined with their goals and not incidental.

New constitutions for both Afghanistan and Iraq were catalyzed by the United States. Unfortunately, both of their constitutions include diametrically opposed ideas. For example, both constitutions convey freedom of religion to citizens. But both also recognize the supremacy of Islamic law known as shair'a. Shair'a is opposed to freedom of religion. This tension suggests shair'a or the constitution must give. So far, in both countries, illiberal shair'a has prevailed. On several occasions, Afghanistan has attempted to impose the shair'a penalty of death on Afghans who converted to Christianity from Islam. And Iraq's Christian population has been targeted for violence to the extent that a small fraction of believers remain in their country today compared to several years ago.

Iran purports to be a democracy. But the current repression against the Green Movement after the corrupted 2009 presidential election indicates little tolerance for dissent against the theocracy. Following the fall in 1979 of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi by the Iranian Revolution, Khomeinists established a theocratic constitution. This has prevented any effective liberal opposition from forming legally. Now, that opposition is being brutally repressed even to the point of civilian deaths.

It is difficult to establish causality for the reason Muslim countries are inhospitable to liberal democracies. But there are many reasons shair'a is incompatible with classical liberalism. A leading reason is that shair'a is a totalitarian system brooking no dissent. Submission is required by shair'a of believers and non-believers alike. There is no quarter given for debate or reasoning.

One feature of liberal democracy is representative government. Juxtaposed against this is shair'a's imposition of poll taxes on non-believers in order to discourage participation. Also, there can be prohibitions against non-believers holding government office or judicial positions. Shair'a does not recognize the separation of mosque and state, so only particular political parties are allowed to form.

The rule of law is central to liberal democracy. However, shair'a doesn't consist of codified statutes per se. Rather, shair'a includes Koranic content and practices of Mohammed (sunna). Any fatwa, or religious ruling, issued by innumerous individuals, could result in an ex post facto hazard. Also, there are no trials by jury, but only trials before religious officials.

Equality before the law means that men and women have equal legal standing in a liberal democracy. But shair'a devalues the worth of women. As witnesses, a woman has half the value of a man. This means two women must contest one man's claims. A wife must prove her innocence if a husband accuses her of adultery, but a wife must prove her husband's guilt if she accuses. Wife beating is the prerogative of her husband's governance. Females are entitled to half the inheritance of males. Also, drawing the greatest distinction in inequality, shair'a countenances slavery. Enslavement can range from servitude to treatment as chattel (i.e. the slave does not retain even rights over his/her own body).

Liberal democracies eschew cruel and unusual punishments. But shair'a requires imprisonment and even severing of a hand of a thief, stoning to death for adultery by married men or women, and lashings for other sexual transgressions. Homosexual behavior and sodomy are punishable by death.

Property rights are not uniform under shair'a.  For example, Saudi Arabia has no churches anywhere in the country. Elsewhere, in Muslim countries, it is not uncommon that Christians may not build churches. For churches that already exist, approval might be withheld to effect repairs.

Shair'a does not sanction freedom of speech or the press. The orchestrated worldwide violence protesting the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of September 30, 2005 depicting Mohammed is consistent with Islamic fundamentalism. Contesting Islamic beliefs is considered heresy and punishable by death. This is consistent with the lack of freedom of religion imposed by shair'a. Apostasy is a capital offense. The Koran encourages conversion at the point of the sword and permits killing non-believers who won't convert.

Optimists, multiculturalists, ignoramuses, and naifs think protesters in the Middle East will replace tyrannies with liberal democracies. Unfortunately, you can't get to there from where the protesters are starting. With the sole exception of Israel, cultures in the Middle East, dominated as they are by shair'a, are inimical to liberal democracy and liberty. Tyrants may fall, but any democracies that are established will devolve sooner or later into the totalitarian state that shair'a demands. In general, American foreign policy decisions should be informed by the constraints shair'a imposes on movement into modernity in the Middle East. In particular, Americans should not expend one drop of blood or any treasure on current or future uprisings in the Middle East.