Open Letter On Democracy & Islam

To US Grand Strategists:

Paul Kagame, the current President of Rwanda, described that a certain wave of democracy that has taken root across the world, notably in Africa. In his summation, “democracy has been adopted in form, but not substance or style.” Kagame, who has long remained President of post-war, post genocide Rwanda, is one of many leaders in emerging countries trapped in democratic transitions. Having endured decades of colonial rule, enforced segregation of the country’s Hutu and Tutsi tribes, and then a civil war turned genocide, Rwanda was a long hoped for example of democracy in Africa. However, Kagame, like other fledgling democratic states, represents the application of western democracy in societies with traditions independent or antithetical to the system. He has extended his stay in power beyond that of traditional and stable democratic rulers, founded in his own influence over his ruling party, and assisted by corruption and inadequate democratic institutions. Even now, 20 years after the genocide that shocked the world in its utter brutality, it has take time for traditions, ideas, and a culture of accountability to the system to seep into the society, even building the idea of true democracy in Rwanda, a sotry translatable to other areas of the world.

Recently, an open letter presented by the Legatum Institute’s “Democracy Lab” column called for the United States to restore its foreign policy commitment to spreading and promoting democratic values globally. In the turn of the century, the high-watermark for the export of American democracy worldwide was in 2004, when US military forces attempted to establish democratic regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, both largely Muslim societies in the process of deterioration or open civil war following US intervention and occupation. Having thrown out autocratic regimes and deposing of Saddam Hussein, Washington began building democratic institutions in both those countries, attempting to build model democracies in regions ruled by secular autocrats and one-party governments. In Afghanistan, US military forces fought and reduced groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda in power, nearly expelled both from the country, while engaged with its allies in a delicate peacebuilding exercise for nations that never knew open societies dominated by the rule of law. While Afghanistan could have been characterized as an action to restore peace, the nation building exercises in Iraq was remodeling a broken country with people unaccustomed to making decisions by the ballot, especially as divided ethno-religious factions that greatly distrusted each other. Why did these efforts fail, and what does that say about US capacity to spread democratic values effectively going forward?

As kids, we are taught the US was (and is) a unique country, because it proved democratic traditions could flourish in a large country, beyond the confines of the city state. Democracy or representative government, comes from the Greeks, where “demos” means “people” and “-cracy” means “Rule Of,” whose city-state Athens pioneered the system’s early emergence. Exported culturally through the Mediterranean by Greek settlers, the Romans reinvented democratic institutions  and created Republicanism, where power was concentrated in a few, elected representatives. Today’s American democracy is born out of the religious freedoms gained by the religious wars of the Reformation, and the intellectual traditions of the Enlightenment. Coupled with a long history of expanding the franchise of citizenship and establishing the rule of law through checked-and-balanced-governance, Americans believe in the harmony of revolutionary values that have shaped our political system and way of thinking. This cultural melding of values over 400 years has allowed us to have the longest enduring constitution and blueprint of government in modern political history.

The harsh reality that many young Americans are not taught, and many older citizens forget, is that these traditions are not universal, and in many way inapplicable beyond Western traditions, or countries highly influenced by the West (Japan, South Korea, India, and Brazil, to name a few). Henry Kissinger in book “World Order” discussed how these different societies have different worldviews, and this shapes their approach to defining both domestic and international relations with each other. Suddenly, the concept of exporting democracy becomes a lot more complicated, assuming that the brand of democratic governance is the same as the sender. Western Democracy has been supplied throughout the world to various countries through conquest and cultural imperialism. As colonialism receded, western traditions have been adopted and adapted for various purposes, but subject to revolutionary blowbacks of re-emerging cultures not compatible with western political thinking, creating radically departed versions of a democratic state. No case is better than the Islamic World.

The Islamic World may have come from the same biblical roots as Judaism and Christianity, but the societies that emerged could not be more different. As opposed to a system of tribal nations unified under a single faith called Christianity, Islam assumes one people, the umma, and everyone else outside of the faith. Islam is a “faith of empire,” spread and established throughout the Mediterranean world through conquests. Christianity reached full maturity as a state-sponsored religion within an empire long past its peak, and then became a moral foundation for the kingdoms and the future nation states of West. The state and the religion, while they became entertwined, were always contained in seperate institutions, with the states concerned with secular, non-religious matters. This is not the case in Islam, and Arab secularism evolved later from western influence in the Middle East. Islam has never achieved any principle of separation of Church and State (going back to the rivalry of religious leaders and the Roman Emperors), because Islamic leaders were essentially political figures where religion was the primary unifier, downplaying ethnic identities. That system continued under successive empires all the way to Ottomans, until 1918. With  Ottoman collapse and that of the colonial empires,a nation-state system was left behind in the Islamic World, leaving the residue of one world order upon another. They are two worlds in conflict.

Both 1953 and 1979 are important years for Middle East, because the United States and the West enforced a worldview on one of the principle states, Iran, and experienced a blowback that has haunted American diplomats for the last 40 years. The rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the Islamic Republic created a unique situation where Islam and western democracy intertwined, where the institutions of republicanism met the imperial rulership of the Shia cleric. The Iranian regime has implemented shariah law that strips its citizens of valued human rights, and allows rampant abuse of its people, from unlawfully detaining journalists, activists, and political enemies, to imprisoning foreigners with due process. But the inspiration of the Iranian Revolution, much like that of the French Revolution (minus Napoleon), was exported across the Middle East through Iranian proxies and state sponsored terror groups, leading to a coalition of western-backed partners to contain the the fledgling radical state.

So how does democracy, as defined by the tenants of US foreign policy, apply to Iran? Though the Republic has democratic institutions in the form of a parliament and higher elected house (the Assembly of Experts), it’s powerful executive council is ruled by the Ayatollah who maintains control over foreign policy and veto over the elected president. They maintain quasi-state security force that guards the tenants of the revolution, existing outside of the law, and subjects the elected government to its edicts. However, despite the level of the Ayatollah’s control, many functional parts of democracy thrive in Iran, including political parties, fair elections within the bounds of Iran’s constitution, and a functional media and press. In spite of interference in who can run, the actions respect a level of democratic decision making, from public institutions to public discourse.  If you were to look at the essential foundations of the Iranian State, which has a quasi-elected executive, popularly elected assembly, and a system of checks and balances rooted in Islam, Iranian Republicanism may in fact be a model of what democracy looks like in the Islamic World, though still in a radical phase of development. 

Neither of these cultural or situational circumstances excuse poor behavior on issues of human rights, saber rattling, and threatening peace through forceful interference in the sovereignty of neighboring states. However, exporting American style democracy and enforcing those standards through force in the Islamic World only emboldens groups like the Islamic State or countries like Iran to continue their behaviors. It will neither advance understanding, nor will it lead to improvements in the lives and conditions of people living under regimes like the one in Iran. However, more than any other Islamic country with the exception of Oman, Iran offers a model for implementation of republicanism and democracy in Muslim societies, albeit incomplete. The gradual transition from radical state to a normalized status quo, which I believe the 2016 Majdis elections symbolized, is still taking place, but it gives positive signals for the way forward.  That pathway is not through establishing American style democracy, but encouraging the growth of a Islamic Republicanism, and help fashion a level of understanding that builds friendlier, systematic relations between the West and the Islamic World.

So how should we act towards Iran or states like Iran that burnish Kagame’s vision of democracy, but still fall short of our own foreign policy expectations? It first starts with our own. If we were to accept the policy prescription of Legantum’s letter, we have to reconsider who is carrying out US foreign policy regarding democracy abroad, which is colloquially called “cultural diplomacy.” We can only do this by discarding the “Pentagon-First” model where the military considerations are the first on the table, and generals determine the solutions to our problems. We have to reinvest in our diplomatic corp, aid programs, and the attitudes and culture surrounding strategic diplomacy.  By keeping diplomats to high level, strategic negotiating role and reducing the roles of State and USAID representatives in place of military, the natural policy outcome is a military one.  We need increase our funding for our diplomatic corp and programs that promote greater cultural diplomacy between the US and majority Muslim countries.
Furthermore, we need to create new objectives and understand our best partners to promote our new democracy agenda in the region that respects the Islamic worldview. With the US drifting away from the Middle East through energy independence and China’s emerging power abroad, our strategies will become less about military influence and more diplomatic. While we must be tough on groups like the Islamic State, we need to reconsider who are allies are, and begin investing in new relationships to help in rebuilding war-torn Syria and Yemen, tempering the ambitions of Turkey and Iran, and ending Saudi Arabia’s exportation of terrorism abroad. These goals should be part of any strategy to bring about transitions to democratic and culturally respective governance to the Middle East.

-Keith Brannum

Writer and Editor, Artemis- Foreign Policy

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