Democracy Not an Export Item
by Leon Hadar
response to the Danish cartoons shows that the Middle East may not
be fit for democracy after all.
In a new film,
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, comedian Albert Brooks
is dispatched to south Asia by humorless Bush administration officials
to look for, well, comedy in the Muslim world.
Trying to cope
with the depressing reality of a post-September 11 world in which
Americans now occupy some parts of an angry anti-American Muslim
universe, the gloomy bureaucrats in Washington hope a Jewish comic
from Hollywood will help them discover what makes Muslims laugh.
laughter is a universal trait, and if we Westerners laugh, the Muslims
will probably laugh with us. And who knows? This could be a form
of Preventive Comedic Diplomacy: A laugh a day in Baghdad, Kabul
and Tehran could keep the US military away.
Brooks's mission of making the Muslim world safe for comedy proves
to be a sad joke. As with most of his liberal Hollywood colleagues,
Brooks believes that all cultures can be brought together by shared
commitment to universal values. But these fellows in India and Pakistan
just don't get his sarcastic and self-deprecating sense of humor,
not to mention the double entendres and sexual innuendoes.
Hour is a flop and he discovers to his chagrin that while Muslims
do laugh "like us", their concept of what is funny is not the kind
that might work for a stand-up comedian in New York, Melbourne or,
for that matter, a cartoonist in Copenhagen. It's not that the 12
cartoons of the prophet Mohammed published in the small Danish newspaper
Jyllands-Posten were very funny; they were quite tasteless and offensive.
But you could say that about much of the stuff that we find any
day of the week in our Western media, including caricatures that
mock Jesus, bash Catholic priests, offend Jews and insult racial
If you don't
like what you see, feel free to send angry letters to the editor,
boycott and demonstrate against the offensive newspaper and ask
public figures to condemn it. But in a society where freedom of
expression is valued, you don't threaten the life or use violence
against those who disturb your political beliefs or religious sensibilities.
And that includes crude anti-fill-the-blank cartoonists.
That this kind
of commitment to a free exchange of ideas and tolerance of dissent
that those of us who were raised and educated in the West seem to
take for granted, like the air we breathe, is not shared by many
Muslims across the world, and especially those residing in the Arab
Middle East, has become quite evident in a very dramatic way in
perpetrated by the mobs in centers of Arab civilization, such as
Beirut, Damascus and Cairo, is very disturbing and reflects an illiberal
political culture that is breeding religious intolerance and anti-modern
attitudes. And it is strengthening the power of radical Islamic
groups, ranging from the Arab-Sunni Muslim Brotherhood to the Shia
What is even
more disturbing is that some of this anti-Western frenzy has exploded
in places in the Arab Middle East – in the new Iraq and in Palestine
– where the Bush administration has been promoting its campaign
to spread freedom and where open elections were showcased by Washington
as highlighting its Wilsonian agenda of making the region safe for
of the radical political Islamist groups elected to power during
this US-produced celebration of democracy – Iraq's Shia clerics
and Palestine's Hamas terrorist group – have, with rare exceptions,
been serving as cheerleaders for mobs attacking Americans and Europeans,
including Danish troops maintaining peace in Iraq and officers of
the European Union in Gaza, which is the main source of economic
assistance for the Palestinians.
But the neoconservative
intellectuals who have been the driving force behind the pro-democracy
campaign in the Middle East refuse to admit that, not unlike Brooks's
comedy spiel, their own democracy shtick has been a policy disaster.
In two strategic parts of the Middle East – the Persian Gulf and
Israel/Palestine – it has led to the victory of political parties
whose values run contrary to that of the US.
for instance, would reverse women's rights and give second-class
citizenship to non-Muslims. And their goals – in Iraq, an alliance
with Iran, and in Palestine, a refusal to recognize Israel – would
harm US strategic interests, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process
and hinder efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
So much for
the idea that free elections give birth to liberal pro-Western governments.
As policy analyst Fareed Zakaria argues, elections that take place
in societies that lack the necessary institutional foundations –
a functioning civil society, free markets, independent press and
judiciary, religious tolerance – tend to produce an "illiberal democracy"
that only exacerbates the problems of divisions and dysfunction
and bring to power nationalist and religious populists who exploit
their people's fears of the "other".
From that perspective,
the US push for democracy in the Middle East has been a self-defeating
strategy that has made the region safe for nationalism and other
radical forms of ethnic, religious, and tribal movements that regard
the US and its allies in the region as the source of all evil. It's
difficult for American neoconservatives who fantasize about a global
multicultural community committed to liberal democratic values to
admit that perhaps the Muslims are not "like us" after all.
laugh, but don't appreciate our sense of humor. They want to be
free, but don't share our concept of liberal democracy, a set of
values and institutions that can only develop through a long process
of trial and error and in a hospitable environment. Perhaps the
time has come for Washington to adopt a more realistic approach
and stop looking for democracy in the Middle East while pursuing
a policy that secures the real interests of the Western democracies
in the region.
liberal democracy, like humor, is not an export commodity. And,
unlike humor, it's a very serious business.
Hadar [send him mail] is
Washington correspondent for the Business
Times of Singapore and the author of Sandstorm:
Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit
© 2006 The Australian. Reprinted with permission of the author.