US democratization offerings to the Muslim world supposedly carry America’s good will and soft power. It is a gesture of peace and friendship. A few Muslims however appreciate the urgency with which they are being wheedled to accept the democracy gift. By all counts, the timing is suspicious. At a time when the Pentagon is pulverizing Iraq and Afghanistan, the White House is threatening action against Syria and Iran, US generals are ridiculing Allah and military guards are desecrating the Quran, and hundreds of Muslims are rotting in secret prisons, the soft talk of democracy comes across as brazenly cynical. Muslims worry that if they accept the US sponsored democratization, soldiers will pop out from the belly of the Trojan horse.
A few days ago, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, a pastor’s daughter, speaking at Cairo’s American University, gave a condescending sermon on benefits of democracy, as if over a billion Muslims “seeing they see not; and hearing they hear not.” The Egyptian audience gave no applause to Secretary Rice even though the rhetoric of liberty was well crafted and ably delivered. One Egyptian- American said to me: “What Rice did was ill-mannered. It is like visiting somebody’s house as a guest but demanding that their living room furniture be replaced.”
But even when US officials act suave, their lectures on democracy sound hollow. Look who’s talking, says the audience. The same ruling elites who have mangled civil liberties throwing away the constitution and have waged a senseless war throwing away international law are touting liberties and accountability to the Muslim world. Do they know and do they care about the anger and hatred that flow like molten lava in hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims across the globe? Muslims see US ruling elites as bullies who disdain the rule of law they preach. Since long, Muslims have hated Israel the most. Now, the US is fast earning that dubious distinction.
Even if hatred fades, US elites drumming democracy would face stiff opposition in the Muslim world. They should know that words such as freedom and liberty have negative connotations for traditional Muslims- –just as the phrase “law and order” carries an ominous message for African-Americans. (American criminologists are well aware that white Americans hear the phrase “law and order” as police efforts to prevent crime whereas African Americans associate the same phrase with police brutality and arbitrary stops.) Freedom and liberty mean one thing in America, quite another in Muslim countries. Freedom and liberty are positive concepts for Americans who see in these words assurances for self-expression and self-development. For most Muslims, these words mean sexual promiscuity, disrespect for parents, selfishness, breaking away from social mores, ignoring religion, and pursuing irresponsible lifestyles.
Responsibility and not freedom constitutes the ethos of Muslim cultures. So when Muslims hear that US elites wish to bring freedoms and liberties to their communities, they become instantly apprehensive and defensive. They infer that America is waging a cultural war to undermine their family and religious values. And they see alcoholism, abortion, pornography, high divorce rate, runaway children, and nursing homes where elders rot in grief and sorrow, all this and more that they associate with caricatured views of American life infiltrating and infesting their societies.
Despite their profound concerns about US sponsored freedoms and liberties, Muslims nonetheless aspire to embrace a conception of democracy under which governments are removable and accountable. Corrupt and incompetent governments, many pro-American, rule the Muslim world. And they become abusive when the people challenge their power. Ironically, many Muslim populations blame the United States for supporting, and now installing, sham democracies and puppet rulers.
For example, General Pervez Musharraf’s superimposition over Pakistani democracy might be good for America in the short run but Pakistan would fall precipitously if its top ruler were required to be a White House viceroy. Likewise, American liaisons with Hosni Mubarak, who has single-handedly steered Egypt for decades, going nowhere, have cultivated everything but democracy. Despite shedding tears over supporting dictators, as Secretary Rice did in her Cairo speech, US crocodiles enjoy little goodwill in the Muslim world.
No one disputes that Muslims need democracy. Unfortunately, the American gift of democratization will confuse the process. Rightly or wrongly, most Muslims see the US democracy initiative as part of a larger war against Islam. It would be best for all, therefore, if the democratization carousel stops. Let Muslim nations ride their own fate and build their own democratic structures. But will the US ruling elites accept such a genuine notion of self-quest and self-rule?
Ali Khan is a professor of law at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. His book A Theory of Universal Democracy (2003) presents a conception of democracy for Muslim nations. He can be reached at: email@example.com.