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Democratic roots in sand

The Future of Freedom:, Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Fareed Zakaria, W.W. Norton: 288 pp., $24.95 The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World, Joseph Braude, Basic Books: 288 pp., $26

June 22, 2003|Stephen Schwartz | Stephen Schwartz is the author of "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror" and directs the Islam and Democracy Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.

Nineteen months after Sept. 11, in the immediate aftermath of the war in Iraq, "big books" on terrorism are giving way to more modest books on the challenges of democracy. But such meditations come at a peculiar time for the very concept of democracy. Almost unnoticed, the term has become a dirty word in the rhetoric of liberals and the left: After a faction of neoconservatives proclaimed that its goal was the democratization of the Arab and Muslim world, especially in Iraq, democracy suddenly became an object of widespread derision. This dismaying development was soon complemented by a revival of anti-democratic braying among new isolationists, exemplified by Patrick J. Buchanan.

Democracy, we were suddenly told, was an inappropriate goal for the millions of Arabs and other Muslims. Left and right identified democracy with Western imperialism, as if exporting a free press (to cite only one item of the democratization agenda) were the same as the British introducing opium from India to China in the 19th century. The underlying, if unspoken assumption, seemed to be that the Arabs and Muslims were unprepared and probably unfit for democracy, as if it were a matter of genetic predisposition.

Ignorance of Islam, and even of Islamic extremism, was a given among the Western "chattering classes." Less predictable has been the tongue-tied manner in which the defenders of democracy attempt to define their topic. Aside from almost universal confusion in the West about how these issues intersect with those of Islamic tradition, Washington policymakers also have succumbed to ignorance and diffidence in dealing with the ideals they claim to cherish. Put bluntly: Democracy is bourgeois revolution, based on the consolidation and triumph of entrepreneurial classes. So it was in France, so it was in the U.S., so it was in Germany and Japan, in South Korea and Taiwan, in Spain and Mexico, in Slovenia and Hungary. There is, simply, no other way. American military force enabled the German and Japanese capitalist classes to stabilize themselves and function within a democratic structure. Iraq has a chance to bloom in this way.

Yet Western commentators dance around this vulgar fact, and in "The Future of Freedom," Fareed Zakaria, a Newsweek editor and pundit, offers only a partial exception to this rule. His book is little more than a grab bag of useful insights combined with useless cliches. Above all, he has noticed that promising democracies, like India, his birthplace, can collapse into nationalist and even fascist regimes, as the state created by Nehru, on a multiethnic and multiconfessional basis, has given way to an ugly ultranationalism under the Hindu chauvinists of the Bharata Janata Party. The latter sprang from the movement that murdered Gandhi, then inherited the government that had followed Gandhi's vision.

Such would be a sobering matter for anyone to ponder, were it not, in the end, something other than news. Mussolini inherited the Italy of Garibaldi, not that of the Roman inquisition; Hitler took over a Germany that had basked, for a century, in the traditions of Goethean humanism and Bismarckian social welfare, much more than of Wagner. The path to Stalinism in the Soviet Union was laid as much by Tolstoy and the peasant Social Revolutionaries as by Dostoevsky or Rasputin. The America created by Jefferson tolerated slavery far too long, and the America left as Lincoln's legacy institutionalized Jim Crow. There is a common element here: bourgeois weakness. Nehru's India did not produce an Indian bourgeoisie capable of ruling the country, Russia has never had one, and America had to wait until civil rights were an indispensable requirement of capitalist growth for racial equality to be fully instituted.

Zakaria prefers to see the necessary foundation of democracy in a structural principle that he calls "constitutional liberalism." More obvious is the lesson that history is fickle, and that today's Arab democracy could produce tomorrow's new, improved Nasser, the Arab Napoleon, long awaited. But to paraphrase neoconservative pacesetter Richard Perle, when he was questioned whether an Iraq free of Saddam Hussein could turn in an Islamist direction: The risk is worth it, and the goal of the liberation strategy is to allow Iraqis to decide their future for themselves. "Creative destruction," a term originating with the economist Joseph Schumpeter, is the essence of bourgeois transformation: Rather than embodying a specific model, the liberation of the Arab and Muslim countries means sweeping aside obstacles, not imposing new ones.

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