The Commander in Chief
observing the results of his Iraq Policy
Boston Globe Editorial
Defining democracy down
January 29, 2006
THE POPULAR electoral support for the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas raises many knotty questions, not the least of which concerns the wisdom of President Bush's ambition to bestow democracy on the Arab and Muslim world.
The impulse may be a generous one, but Bush's notion that he can act as a Johnny Appleseed sprinkling Jeffersonian principles in the Mideast is too rooted in lessons taken from the implosion of communism and too little grounded in the specific realities of Egyptian, Syrian, Turkish, and Saudi society.
If elections are held in a country that has been deprived of freedom of expression, where no true opposition has been allowed to flourish, and minority rights have been savagely suppressed, it should not be surprising if the opposition parties that arise are as illiberal as the regimes they seek to supplant.
This denial of differences, commonly masking identity politics of an extreme kind, has been a crucial factor in most countries of the larger Middle East. As a consequence of Iraq's postwar experiment with holding elections and drafting a constitution, the long-obscured reality of communal and sectarian identification has burst into the open.
Kurds, having been subject to Saddam Hussein's genocidal crimes, are now determined to govern themselves and defend themselves. They may be willing, pragmatically, to share power in a democratic, federal state, but they identify themselves as Kurds, not Iraqis. They have the bitterest memories of seeing their villages destroyed, their women and children gassed to death, and their men murdered and buried in mass graves in the name of an Arab nationalist ideology.
Under Hussein, that pan-Arab ideology served as a masking agent for the rule of a Sunni Arab minority, just as another version of Ba'athism is used to rationalize the rule of an Alawite minority over a Sunni majority in Syria today. In Iran, the Islamist ideology of a Persian Shi'ite regime acts to suppress the communal identities of significant Kurdish, Azeri, Arab, Armenian, and Baluch minorities. To enforce a Kemalist ideology of Turkish nationalism, Turkey's central government fought a long, dirty war against Kurds in the southeast of the country who had been denied linguistic and cultural self-expression. And in Saudi Arabia, the austere religious doctrine of Wahhabism is used to enforce a second-class status on women and Shi'ites.
The Mideast may need its own version of glasnost -- telling the truth in public about each country's disparate ethnic and communal identities -- before it can blossom into the free play of ideas and interests that defines a healthy, pluralist democracy.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.
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