Islam, America, and the political economy of liberty.
THESE ARE CHALLENGING TIMES for many scholars in the general area of Middle East affairs. Those who labor on the complex issue of relationships between the Islamic world and the West perhaps face even greater obstacles. The challenge is especially acute where issues pertaining to democratization, and the fostering of liberty in the Islamic and Arab world, are concerned. (1)
Here, one is perpetually confronted with the riddle of just how full-or how empty-the glass of democratization may really be. The challenge confronting the United States today is to encourage Muslims, in their own ways and using the ample resources available within their own tradition, to create for themselves a recognizably democratic future. That, however, will surely be the work of decades. Concerning the progress of democratization in the Islamic world, one would do well to have a glacial sense of time.
Democratization, especially in the Arab world, will not be fostered by intrusive or heavy-handed American or Western initiatives. Moreover, it will certainly not be advanced by the creation of any new Occidental imperium in the Islamic east. Rather, democratization will be fostered in Arab and Muslim lands only by economic, cultural, and personal, non-military interaction between Westerners and Muslims, and in particular by Muslims with Americans who can listen as well as lecture.
For Americans, a priority should be given to the reestablishment of credibility throughout the broader Middle East. U.S. credibility has suffered enormously in recent years because of Muslim reaction to specific U.S. foreign policies. Indeed, a sophisticated attempt should be made to foster religious consultation, and cooperation between the West and the world of Islam, as a replacement for the current policy of confrontation. This should be done on a basis of mutual respect and forbearance. Any such demarche will need to go far beyond "public diplomacy," which is doomed to failure as long as current American foreign policy remains unchanged. The recent Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report suggests what many of those policy changes need to be. However remote from reality such a new approach to the "Other" might seem today, it constitutes the only realistic Western formula for moving forward the agenda of democratization in the contemporary Islamic world.
However, one must distinguish between "democratization" and "democratism." (2) Far too often, America's push for "democracy" in the Middle East is understood by Muslims to be merely a grossly hypocritical "democratism," based on a campaign to seize and occupy oil-rich Arab and Muslim lands. From this perspective, the U.S. effort to foster "democracy," of which Muslims would in fact love to have more for themselves, appears rather to be the blunt instrument of a "democratism" intended primarily to reestablish some sort of New World Imperium with the United States at its head. In far too many countries in the Middle East, "democracy" today has become the "d word" not used in polite society. Rejection by the United States of the results of recent democratic, or at least partially democratic, elections in Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and elsewhere only confirms Muslim cynicism. Until the Islamic conviction of U.S. "democratism" is removed, American attempts to foster democracy in the Middle East will remain dead in the water. Muslims do not hate America for what is, but for what it does, how it does it, and to whom it does it.
These days, what passes for conservatism has largely been transformed from what one of my own mentors, the late, great litterateur and traditionalist thinker Russell Kirk, identified with the "politics of prudence," (3) into something almost its polar opposite. Currently, conservatism appears to have largely abandoned its traditionalist and non-interventionist credo. Moreover, it has transformed itself into something most closely resembling a revolutionary Trotskyism, gnostically bent on the creation of a new heaven as defined by ideological and religious sectarians. Truly conservative voices such as Edmund Burke, Eric Voegelin, and Gerhart Niemeyer, as well as the views of such distinguished contemporary figures as Claes Ryn, George Carey, and John Lukacs, (4) currently receive all too little attention. Given the degradation of conservative thought that presently exists, many of the thinkers mentioned might all too easily be misunderstood as somehow representing the radical Left.
Amid the flood of contemporary rhetoric, home truths are either unknown or flatly denied. To wit: (1) The Islamic world possesses a sufficiency of resources from within its own tradition to construct viable democratic systems. (2) Support for democracy, responsible and responsive government, and a commitment to human rights is today fully as extensive on the popular level in the Islamic world as it is in the West. (3) Ownership, property, and entrepreneurship are religiously validated in the Islamic world, arguably even more so than in the Christian West. (4) America will most effectively contribute to democratization in the Arab and Islamic world by employing other than military means. Where U.S. national security requires an American military presence, that presence should be "over the horizon" from the Arab world, rather than remaining in its very heart.
Each of these points is worthy of discussion.
The age of the Prophet Muhammad witnessed a variety of initiatives that constitute an ideal foundation upon which contemporary Arab and Muslim liberals might build the institutions that support freedom. (5) For example, in 590 the young Muhammad, a full 20 years before the Quranic message began to be revealed to him, witnessed ratification of the alliance called the Hilf al-Fudul. This pact was concluded by assorted Arab tribes in the vicinity of Mecca. This alliance was the first public treaty anywhere guaranteeing human rights. The Hilf al-Fudul is a remarkable document. (6)
The Pact's purpose was to ensure the rights of the weak and strangers against the powerful, and thereby to preclude exploitation of the defenseless. In other words, the Pact's objective was to shield any individual from abuse at the hands of another, no matter what a potential exploiter's status or origin might be. Much later, Muhammad is reported to have commented that this pact was more precious to him than the most abundant of material blessings. The Prophet added that if someone were to invoke it under Islam, he would respond affirmatively. An interest in human rights, and a determination to protect such rights, had arguably become of deep concern to Arab tribes in the vicinity of Mecca at the very moment when Islam was about to be revealed.
Another and specifically Islamic example of tolerance from the age of Muhammad, and an articulation of the principles of citizenship, equality, justice, and freedom of religion, is represented by the Constitution of Medina, which Muhammad personally negotiated with Jewish and Arab tribes in Medina in 625, fifteen years after the beginning of the Islamic revelation. In the Constitution of Medina, the great chronicler ibn Ishaq reports, "[Muhammad] drew up a written document among the [emigrant Meccans] and the Medinans in which he made a pact with the Jews [in Medina] establishing their right to practice their religion and retain their property, and in which he made and accepted conditions of mutual coexistence in the city." Specifically, the Constitution of Medina stated: "The Jews have their religion, and the Muslims have theirs ... the Jews of Bani Najjar will have the same rights as the Jews of Bani Awf, and the Jews of Bani Harth will be as the Jews of Bani Awf...." Given the largely savage world which confronted Muhammad in the Arabian Peninsula in the early seventh century A.D., the Constitution of Medina is another and perhaps even more remarkable index of the moral and political breakthroughs that marked the age of the birth of Islam.
Certainly, in its endorsement of freedom of religion and the novel notion of citizenship, the Constitution of Medina was far ahead of anything that existed in early seventh-century Europe, or indeed for centuries afterwards. Most importantly, the Constitution of Medina, like the Hilf al-Fudul, is a powerful precedent for Muslim democrats to invoke today. After all, neither undemocratic Arab regimes nor the likes of Usamah bin Laden can argue that such precedents are somehow "Western," or "American," or are in any way alien to the Arab and Muslim tradition. Above all, both the Hilf al-Fudul and the Constitution of Medina received the specific blessing of the Prophet Muhammad himself.
This legacy of protection of human rights, and a respect for what one can only call pluralism, was endorsed and applied by important leaders of the Muslim community after the Prophet's death. One example, as described by the great medieval Muslim historian Tabari, was the Caliph Umar. Indeed, it was Umar who foreshadowed much of contemporary debate by appointing a woman to the important post of market inspector for the city of Medina, and entrusting his copy of the Quran, which was the basis for the final version, to a daughter and not to a son.
Moreover, in 638, when the Muslims had conquered Jerusalem, Umar wrote a letter to the people of Jerusalem in which he guaranteed the safety of their churches and property. The letter stated that churches were "not to be razed or taken [by Muslims] as dwellings," and were "not to be reduced in size, nor...their crosses or any of their wealth ... taken away." Caliph Umar's letter declared that Christians were "not [to] be forced to practice any religion against their will, nor ... any of them ... harmed." (7) In addition, the Caliph refused to pray in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem when invited to do so by its Patriarch because Umar feared that any such action by him might lead to the site being seized later by Muslims for use as a mosque. This Umarite Covenant is a remarkable document for the Caliph's time, and perhaps even more so for our own. (8)
From the medieval Mutazalites to the present, "liberals" of one sort or another have been present in Arab and Muslim history. During the last two centuries prominent names include those of the Egyptian Rifa al-Tahtawi, Khayr al Din al Tounsi (the nineteenth-century North African de Tocqueville), the Syrian Abdul Rahman al-Kawakibi, the Egyptian Qassim Amin (author of a pathbreaking book, The Emancipation of Women  and a particularly strong opponent of polygamy, divorce, and the veil), the Egyptians Muhammad Abdu and Taha Hussein, and the tragic Sudanese martyr, Mahmud Muhammad Taha.
As a foundation for present efforts at democratization in the Arab Middle East, the words of al-Kawakibi may have special resonance: He wrote:
We have said that government, of any sort, is not to be forgiven for being ... oppressive simply because no rigorous oversight exists and thereby the government is not made to answer for its actions.... There is no ... government that [is] safe ... from blame [just because] ... the nation's people are inattentive or negligent, or simply disregard it. [Any such government] hastens to clothe itself in the attributes of tyranny; and once that is achieved [such a government] will not abandon it.
The many Arab and Muslim reformers now active in countries from Iraq through Syria to Jordan and Egypt, and also in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf region and elsewhere, surely can today find no better counsel than this.
The fact that democratic systems in the Islamic world will inevitably have a religious coloration should not be taken to imply any necessary religious coercion. The Quran itself states: "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256), and "You have your religion [dinukum] and I have mine" (109, 6). The 2004 Arab Human Development report, written exclusively by Arabs, is more specific on the subject of religious liberty:
"There should be no privileged position for religious institutions that would permit them to dictate policy to a democratically elected government," it states. "Individuals and religious groups must be guaranteed independence vis-a-vis both the government and other religious groups. This independent arena must protect the right of people and groups not only to worship as they wish in private but also to promote their values publicly in civil society. [People] must be free to create organizations or movements within political society for the same purpose ... it is unacceptable to prevent any societal group, including religious groups, from forming a political party."
The Arab authors of the Arab Human Development Report for 2004 add that the Quran (that "bearer of multiple perspectives"), its interpretation ("which is multiple"), and Islamic history ("which reflects great variety"), all "embody the core principles that sustain freedom and good governance.... These principles include obligatory consultation [shura], respect for freedoms, [the] questioning [of] rulers], and the holding of them accountable. The dominant trend in Islamic jurisprudence supports [both] obligatory consultation and freedom."
The Arab Human Development Report also highlights the tragedy of much of recent Islamic history: namely, the fact that political forces have selectively appropriated Islam to "support and perpetuate their oppressive rule." Surely, contemporary Muslim democratizers can find ample encouragement not only from the Arab Human Development reports but also from frequently ignored aspects of Islamic history itself.
The specific degree of support for democratic liberal values within the contemporary Islamic world is striking.
Today, specific quantitative data exist concerning the widespread popularity of democracy, liberty, and constitutionalism in the Arab and Muslim world. Utilizing data drawn from the last two World Values Study [1995-2001] (9) of the beliefs of both Islamic and non-Islamic publics in 75 countries including 80 percent of the world's population, Professors Pippa Norris of the John F. Kennedy School of government at Harvard and Ronald Inglehart of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan conclude that support for liberal and democratic systems in Arab and Muslim countries is in fact fully as high as it is in the West. In other words, the polling data show that the popular Arab and Muslim desire for democracy is deep and widespread. It is worth looking at these data in some detail.
The World Values Study includes nine countries with Muslim majorities ranging from 71 percent to 96 percent: Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Albania, Morocco, Iran, and Egypt. Mean scores on the political and social values scales may be especially revealing.
Norris and Inglehart divide the world's societies into two categories most relevant to the present discussion: (1) Western Christianity and (2) Islamic. Among the basic values rating scales used are: (1) Approval of Democratic Performance; (2) Approval of Democratic Ideals; and (3) Disapproval of Strong Leaders.
The data collected show a mean score in the "Approval of Democratic Values" category of 68 for Western Christianity, and 68 for Islamic society. As for "Approval of Democratic Ideals," Western Christianity earns an 86 and Islamic society an 87. In the "Disapproval of Strong Leaders" category Western Christianity and the Islamic world again tie: both the West and Islamic society receive a 61. The very least that one can conclude from the data is that support for democratic values is statistically identical among Muslims worldwide with what it is in the West, and certainly in the "new Europe."
This is most definitely not what proponents of the "clash of civilizations" thesis originally propounded by Professors Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington would have one to believe. Nor is it the message that issues from the American media.
But does this deep support for democratic values in the Islamic world mean that there are no essential differences between Islamic societies and the rest of the world? Not in the least, as Norris and Inglehart demonstrate.
Norris and Inglehart construct another rating scale, that of "Liberal Social Values." Using the same three categories, they show that "Approval of Gender Equality" stands at 82 in Western Christianity and 55 in Islamic society. Concerning "Approval of Homosexuality," Western Christianity earns a 53 but Islamic society only a 12. As for the "Approval of Abortion," Western Christianity scores a 48, but Islamic society a 25. In the category of "Approval of Divorce," the grades are 60 for Western Christianity but only 35 for Islamic society. Norris and Inglehart note that the gap on the values scale has steadily widened in recent years as the younger generation in the West has become more liberal in its sexual mores, while the same cohort in the Islamic world has remained deeply traditional.
What conclusions can one draw from the near identity of democratic political values between Western Christianity and the Islamic world on the one hand, and the marked difference between the two on the scale of liberal social values on the other?
Professors Norris and Inglehart state the case bluntly. It is "mistaken," they argue, to assume that the "core clash between the West and the Islamic world concerns democracy." On the contrary, the evidence suggests "striking similarities in the political values held in these societies." The basic "fault line" between the West and the Islamic world, they argue, "concerns the issues of gender equality and sexual liberation." In their words, the "culture gulf separating Islam from the West involves Eros far more than Demos." (10)
There is even more recent data pointing in the same direction. Indeed, today there seems to be, in the words of Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute, a "tectonic shift toward liberty across the Muslim world." (11) Evidence for this is amply apparent in the ratings provided by the Freedom House report for 2005.
Freedom House, a distinguished nonpartisan think tank, employs a variety of categories to assess the state of political and civil freedom, and their progress or decline, in every country and political entity in the world. What the 2005 report shows about the Arab and Islamic world is that the old order is breaking up, and that progress toward freer societies is being made almost everywhere (although not to date in Iraq).
Of the nine countries that improved their ratings, two thirds (six) are Muslim countries. Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Mauritania, and the Palestinian Authority moved from "not free" to "partly free." Even more encouraging, Indonesia moved from "partly free" to "free." Of the four countries that became less free in 2005, none was a Muslim country. To appreciate this, one need only compare the 2005 Freedom House report with the 2001 report. In 2001, only one of the 47 countries that have Muslim majorities was rated as "free." Eighteen Islamic countries were rated as "partly free," and 28 were "not free." But note that even before the year 2000, as the Norris and Inglehart data demonstrate, most Muslims yearned for democratic governance.
Of course, whether this dramatic progress of democratization in the region has anything whatsoever to do with American foreign policy, or is in fact occurring despite American policy, is a matter worthy of the most careful consideration.
Many other scholars have reached conclusions similar to those of Norris, Inglehart, and Muravchik. For example, Professor Fawaz Gerges states: "We are in the throes of a ... new wave [of democratization]." Those under 30 constitute what Gerges calls the "freedom generation." This generation today constitutes some 60 percent of Muslims worldwide. Young people in this generation say they are "fed up with the autocratic political order," Gerges reports, and are "demanding a voice in shaping their countries' future ... they want to be heard, to be in charge of their destiny.... The gap in the Arab world has never been wider between those who govern and those who are governed." (12)
The author's personal experience with Arab and Muslim students, especially over the last decade, points in the same direction. For example, those in their early and mid-twenties whom he has taught annually in the International institute for Political and Economic Studies in Greece (www.tfasinternational.org), sponsored by The Fund for American Studies in Washington, D.C., and accredited by Georgetown University, indeed constitute a "freedom generation." This cohort, educated by Americans in what one might call the "political economy of liberty," continues its democratizing march through institutions across the Arab and Islamic world. All evidence indicates that vast changes in the Arab and Islamic order impend.
The fact is that there is nothing in either Islamic or Arab culture that opposes the installation of democratic political systems. It is past time for lingering impressions to the contrary to be finally put to rest.
In the area of economics and commerce, the conservative social values that are the hallmark of the Islamic order are broadly complemented by an understanding of economics that should delight American conservatives and classical liberals. The Prophet Muhammad was himself a merchant, and as ayoung man served as an agent of the wealthy widow Khadija in the Hijazi caravan trade that flourished between Mecca and Damascus. Evidently, Muhammad learned from practice the ineluctable rules of the price system, much as the great thinker ibn Khaldun did so much later.
In what it has to say about political economy, the Quran is fundamentally a free-market document. In the Quran, commerce is given the most important place among a variety of occupations, and economics is never separated from values. In both the Quran and Hadith (the latter the record of what Muhammad reportedly had said), the right to property is endorsed, price fixing is condemned, and the free market is supported. Most broadly, the Quran states: "And when the prayer has been ended, disperse abroad in the land and seek Allah's bounty" (62:10). The emphasis that the Islamic tradition places on employment and productive labor would have delighted eighteenth-century American Calvinists, and especially Benjamin Franklin.
Concerning the right to property, the Quran remarks: "Men shall have the benefit of what they earn, and women shall have the benefit of what they earn" (Quran, 4:32). Price fixing and monopoly are condemned. One is told in the Hadith that "Whoever withholds cereals that may become scarce and dear, is a sinner" (Mishkat, 12:8). The Quran denounces war to acquire wealth, and endorses the free market: "Do not devour your property among yourselves [but trade] by your mutual consent" (Quran, 4:29). All of this should resonate with those who are convinced that democratization and liberty in the Islamic world will remain a mirage without major economic development.
In both the Quran and Hadith, ethical conduct is adduced as inseparable from acceptable economic intercourse. For example, the Quran states: "Give a full measure when you measure out, and weigh with a fair balance" [17:35]. The Hadith adds: "Whoever takes any part of land without having a right to it shall be ... sunk into the earth to the depth of seven earths" [Bukhari 46:13]. And again: "The truthful, honest merchant is with the prophets and the truthful ones and the martyrs" (Tirmidhi 12:4). (13) All of this should resonate deeply with contemporary Western conservatives and those who believe that morals matter.
But is all of this of historical interest only? What relevance does it have to the Islamic world today?
Here, the news is good. After its infatuation with Nasserite socialism in the 1950's and 1960's, the Arab and Islamic world have long since returned to a commitment to the price system as the only game in town. In particular, moderate Islamists have led the way in endorsing the free market as the only sure road to economic development. In so doing, they have returned to the fundamentals of their own religious tradition. One example of this is the recent endorsement of an economy that is at once "free and humane" by such distinguished Arab Islamist intellectuals as Kamal Abu al Magd, Taha Jaber al Alwani, Muhammad Amara, Rachid al Ghannoushi, Fahmi Huweidi, and Munir Shafic. (14) This, too, should be of encouragement to all those in the West who are supportive of democratization, liberty, and ethical conduct.
A desire for some form of democracy and support for a market economy are today strikingly apparent in most parts of the Islamic world. That is the good news. The bad news (perhaps) is that there are things that Arabs and Muslims want even more than either democracy or a price system. Those other, primordial desires include what might be summarized as independence, authenticity, and redemption. Most of all, most Muslims today want freedom from the United States. Group all of these under the rubric of nationalism (now with an Islamic rather than a secular hue), and one may understand why there is no future for any American imperium in the Islamic Middle East.
The hard truth is that secular democratic contagion in the Middle East, imported on the back of American tanks and U.S. government officials, has always been the stuff of which dreams are made. Many of those dreams have now become nightmares, nightmares that weigh heavily on U.S. foreign policy throughout the world. It is past time for the United States to recognize the power and prevalence of nationalism in the heart of the Islamic east.
Above all, Arabs want self-determination, and they want independence. Today, it is essential that American foreign policy reflect that enduring reality. Muslim and Christian Arabs should best be left to reclaim their own authenticity, and realize their own redemption, in their own ways, and in their own good time. (15)
America will best foster democratization, and a political economy of liberty, by prompt disengagement from the heart of the Islamic world. As indicated above, there are other, non-imperial ways whereby the United States may encourage free societies in the Middle East. But that is really another story, for another time.
Concerning history, realism, and non-interventionism there is perhaps no better guide than T.S. Eliot. In 1946, Eliot wrote that
Justice ... tends to be corrupted by political passion; and ... meddling in other people's affairs which was formerly conducted by the most discreet intrigue is now openly advocated under the name of intervention. Nations which once shrank from condemning the most flagitious [sic] violation of human rights in Germany, are now exhorted to interfere in other countries' government--and always in the name of peace and concord. Respect for the culture, the pattern of life, of other people ... is respect for history; and by history we set no great store. (16)
In the Middle East, history lies heavy upon the land. Lawrence of Arabia, nearly a century on, is with us yet. In his classic meditation in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) Lawrence observed that "All men dream. Those who dream by night wake in the day to find that [their dreams] were vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible."
Precisely so. Today, in the harsh glare of the afternoon sun, in Iraq or elsewhere, daytime dreamers have no future.
1. Always remember that the Arab and Islamic world are most definitely not the same. Arabs constitute only some 20 percent of the world's Muslims. 2. For this distinction I am indebted to Professor Louis Cantori, Department of Political Science, University of Maryland at Baltimore. 3. See Kirk, The Politics of Prudence (Bryn Mawr, Pa., 1993). 4. Modern Age, The University Bookman, Humanitas, and The American Conservative are the principal journals that still express this sort of traditional conservatism today. 5. What follows concerning the background of liberalism in the Islamic world is drawn primarily from the Arab Human Development Report 2004, United Nations, (New York, 2005), 47-103, passim. 6. The Hilf al-Fudul owes its name to the fact that those who entered into it included three men from the Jurhum tribe, all of whom were named al-Fadl (al-Fudul is the plural of al-Fadl). 7. I am profoundly grateful here and elsewhere to Ms. Nancy Roberts for assistance with accessing and translating selected Arabic primary materials. 8. For a brilliant analysis of the way in which this original Umarite Covenant has been misused and misunderstood, see Asma Afsaruddin, "Of Caliphs and the Caliphate: Setting the Record Straight," New America Media, 22 March 2006. Professor Afsaruddin notes: "A very different Umar crops up later in history as a kind of intolerant twin of the [original]. In contrast to the [original] Caliph described by the [historian] Tabari, this [later] Umar forbade Christians from repairing their churches and imposed humiliating restrictions on the practice of their faith ... [This second] Umar does not make his appearance in any historical source before roughly the 11th century. The ... later Umar was clearly invented in more sectarian, troubled times." 9. The World Values Study is an international investigation of socio-cultural and political change. It builds on the European Values Surveys first carried out in 22 countries in 1981. 10. The data presented here are drawn from a manuscript prepared in 2002 that is part of a larger project on which Professors Norris and Inglehart continue to work. 11. See Muravchik, "Freedom Had A Good Year," The Los Angeles Times, 24 December 2005. 12. Fawaz Gerges, "A Change of Arab Hearts and Minds," The Christian Science Monitor, 2 February 2004. 13. There is a rich literature on the political economy of liberty in the Islamic world. For a few sample titles, see Muhammad Abdul-Rauf, A Muslim's Reflections on Democratic Capitalism (Washington, D.C., 1984), Mahmood Ibrahim, Merchant Capital and Islam (Austin, Texas, 1990), Atilla Yayla, ed., Islam, Civil Society, and Market Economy (Ankara, Turkey, 1999), and Peter Gran, Islamic Roots of Capitalism: Egypt, 1760-1840 (Syracuse, N.Y., 1998). 14. See the "Statement of Purpose of The Circle of Tradition and Progress," MESA Newsletter, August 1997, 11. 15. For one of many examples of data validating these particular points, as well as the widespread support for democracy that exists, see the December 2005 ABC News/Time poll focusing on Iraq which is available in pdf format on the web. 16. As quoted in Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (New York, N.Y., 2005), 1038.
ANTONY T. SULLIVAN is founder and Director of Near East Support Services, a consulting firm. He earned his Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan in 1976.