By Julia I. Bertelsmann
Julia I. Bertelsmann ’09 attends Harvard College and is an Economics Concentrator in Eliot House.
The assassination of Pakistani opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on 27 December 2007 was the latest, most dramatic manifestation of the crisis facing the idea of liberal democracy in the Islamic world. Political violence is not unique to Muslim countries, of course, but political Islam poses a unique challenge by asserting that God, not man, is the source of law, and that (male) religious leaders are the sole bearers of political legitimacy.
Everywhere in the Islamic Middle East, the democratic gains of the past few years are being reversed or threatened, and hostility towards democratic institutions is palpable. As Palestinian human rights activist, Bassem Eid, puts it in this issue, “Creating a human rights organization under an Arab regime is like committing suicide.”
Despite sometimes affecting the appearance of democracy, as Cindy D. Tan ’08 describes in this issue, Iran continues to persecute dissidents. The Iranian government recently detained and brutally tortured a group of students in the notorious Evin Prison. Not content with attacking domestic critics, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime has detained Iranian-American academics as well. Like the earlier arrests of British sailors in the Shatt-al-Arab and their staged appearances in traditional garb before television cameras, the most recent political arrests remind the world that Iran’s democratic institutions are a pretense.
Hezbollah continues to menace the Lebanese government, which recently faced down a threat from Al-Qaeda but still cowers in the shadow of resurgent Syrian power. And Iraq has become more stable in the past several months but still remains as fragile and fragmented as ever before. In this issue, Jonathan S. Greenstein ’10 argues that rentier states, Iran and Syria, have learnt how to profit from provoking unrest in Iraq and Lebanon without being held responsible.
Khartoum continues to foment genocide in southern Sudan and Egypt adds to the suffering of Darfur refugees through violent, racial persecution, as Abigail R. Fradkin ’09 reports. Blocked by China and the Arab world, however, international institutions are struggling to hold Khartoum accountable.
Across the Muslim world, and most particularly in Islamic states, rampant misogyny manifests itself in “honor killings,” lashings, and other forms of brutal oppression, as the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby detailed last month.
In this issue, Palestinian intellectual, Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, reminds us that politics is the art of the possible. Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria and Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, among others, have argued persuasively that there is nothing inherent in Islam that prevents Muslim countries from achieving stable democracies. And, indeed, there are several examples of success. Indonesia has made the transition from authoritarian rule; Turkey remains an example of success in the Islamic world.
Yet Turkey’s stability has rested on a strict separation of religion and the state, enforced by the courts and, occasionally, the army. The election in September of Abdullah Gül as Turkey’s first Islamic presi-dent raised fears that political Islam may yet undo the achievements of the past eighty years. As these debates have raged, American foreign policy has struggled to face up to the new challenges.
Pakistan represents the clash of two often-contradictory U.S. for-eign policy goals, which are themselves the product of a clash between U.S. institutions. The Pentagon strategy is exemplified by President Pervez Musharraf, who broke his pledges on democracy but is an ally in the war on terror. The State Department strategy was carried by Bhutto, who pursued democratic reform despite the risks.
Both security and democracy are essential to the future of the Mid-dle East. But the U.S. has been uncertain about how to balance these two priorities, to make them reinforce rather than harm each other. In contrast, China’s economically-oriented approach to the Middle East has been far simpler. As Gabriel M. Scheinmann ’08 writes in this issue, China’s goals may conflict directly with American concerns.
The potential for conflict has been realized in Sudan, where China, through its oil-based ties to the Khartoum regime, has contributed indirectly to the atrocities in Darfur. The U.S. is one of the few nations to have condemned the genocide as such, but has not intervened, partly because Khartoum has assisted the War on Terror and because of the delicate peace between north and south Sudan, among other causes.
What the U.S. is suffering from is a lack of clarity about whether (and where, and when) democracy and human rights are more impor-tant than security and stability. Backing away from the region, an option some Americans seem inclined towards, is neither realistic nor responsible. Clear, visionary leadership is needed—both in the Middle East, and in the West—to define the region’s goals, and fight for them.