December 3, 2004


Islam and Freedom (James Q. Wilson, December 2004, Commentary)

What are the prospects for the emergence of liberal societies in Muslim countries? Note my choice of words: “liberal,” not “democratic.” Democracy, defined as competitive elections among rival slates of candidates, is much harder to find in the world than liberalism, defined as a decent respect for the freedom and autonomy of individuals. There are more Muslim nations—indeed, more nations of any stripe—that provide a reasonable level of freedom than ones that provide democracy in anything like the American or British versions.

Freedom—that is, liberalism—is more important than democracy because freedom produces human opportunity. In the long run, however, democracy is essential to freedom, because no political regime will long maintain the freedoms it has provided if it has an ironclad grip on power. Culture and constitutions can produce freedom; democracy safeguards and expands it.

This is what lies at the heart of our efforts to make Afghanistan and Iraq into liberal states. Some on both the Left and the Right think it impossible to introduce democracy into the Muslim Middle East. One left-wing politician has condemned the effort as “gunpoint democracy”; a well-known leftist academic has pronounced it a “fantasy”; to a conservative journalist, open electoral systems in the Muslim world will only stimulate a competition among demagogues to see who can be the most anti-American. When it comes to Iraq, the columnist George F. Will has asserted that the country lacks both democratic citizens and a democratic culture, to say nothing of lacking George Washington, James Madison, and John Marshall. Even to hope for a “liberal” regime there, he argues, is like hoping in 1917 that the socialist leader Alexander Kerensky might continue to rule Russia after Lenin and the Bolsheviks arrived.

There are certainly grounds for pessimism. For centuries, only Great Britain and its former colonies—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States—could be called democratic. And even in those countries, the struggle to acquire both liberal and democratic values had been a long and hard one. It took half a millennium before England moved from the signing of Magna Carta to the achievement of parliamentary supremacy; three centuries after Magna Carta, Catholics were being burned at the stake. The United States was a British colony for two centuries, and less than a century after its independence was split by a frightful civil war. Elsewhere, Portugal and Spain became reasonably free only late in the 20th century, and in Latin America many societies have never even achieved the stage of liberalism. The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked that, of all the states in existence in the world in 1914, only eight would escape a violent change of government between then and the early 1990’s.

Nevertheless, liberal regimes have been less uncommon than democratic ones. In 1914 there were three democracies in Europe, but many more countries where your neck would be reasonably safe from the heel of government. You might not have wished to live in Germany, but Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Norway, and Sweden offered reasonably attractive alternatives even if few of them could then have been called democracies in the modern American or British sense.

As for the Middle East, there have been only three democracies in its history: Lebanon, Turkey, and of course Israel. Israel remains free and democratic despite being besieged by enemies. But of the two Muslim nations, only one, Turkey, became reasonably democratic after a 50-year effort, while Lebanon, which has been liberal and democratic on some occasions and not on others, is today a satellite of Syria and the home of anti-Israel and anti-Western terrorists; Freedom House ranks it as “not free.”

Is the matter as universally hopeless as this picture might suggest? Suppose, as a freedom-loving individual, you had to live in a Muslim nation somewhere in the world. You would assuredly not pick Baathist Syria or theocratic Iran or Saddam’s Iraq. But you might pick Turkey, or Indonesia, or Morocco. In what follows, I want to explore what makes those three countries different, and what the difference might mean for the future.

Freedom, in turn, is less important than liberty, indeed, is as much the the enemy of liberty in the long run as is democracy. Perversely, the very qualities of Islamic society that resist liberalization initially are likely to provide a better base for enduring liberty than existed in the Europe we liberalized in WWI and WWII. The elevation of freedom as the highest value has led to rapid European decline; hopefully the Islamic world can avoid that fate.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 3, 2004 9:05 AM

The problem for democracy advocates in the Middle East is that, as the Greeks noted, democracy without a protection for individual rights is simply mob rule. There is no culture in the Umma of individual property rights, freedom of conscience, contractual integrity, government transparency, none of that stuff that is essential to democratic behavior. Despite the claims of the article, all Turkish attempts at democracy have failed because of the lack of the other software of a democratic state. And most Turks would prefer the generals to be back in power than to maintain their corrupt civilian leadership.

Posted by: Bart at December 3, 2004 10:00 AM

The Turks have sustained as regular a democracy as just about any Western nation--outside the Anglosphere--for decades.

Posted by: oj at December 3, 2004 10:11 AM

They had a President, Erbakan, ousted in a coup in the 1990s.

Posted by: Bart at December 3, 2004 3:08 PM


Yes and then re-established democratic government themselves. Compare and contrast with the 20th Century experiences of France, Germany, etc.

Posted by: oj at December 3, 2004 4:30 PM

Germany has had a democratic government since Adenauer. In that same period, Turkey has had 3 military dictatorships and a coup. France, with the exception of Vichy, has had democratic governance since 1871 and has had a system responsive to popular will since the fall of Charles X in 1830 and the institution of the 'bourgeois monarchy' of Louis-Phillipe. Switzerland has had democratic governance since the mid-19th century. Holland since the end of the Napoleonic Empire. Belgium since its creation in 1830.

The correct comparison for Turkey is with Latin America, and its record for democracy is for the most part no worse, and its record for economic opportunity for its citizenry, other than Chile, is better.

Posted by: Bart at December 3, 2004 4:57 PM

So after excusing Nazi Germany and Nazi France and ignoring Communist East Germany and the fall of the Fourth Republic or whatever they called it....

Posted by: oj at December 3, 2004 5:01 PM

My references to Germany are to postwar Germany, after the end of Nazism. East Germany was militarily occupied by the Soviets and hence irrelevant to the discussion.

The question was whether the French had a democratic government, not how competent it was, although France certainly did have significant economic growth in the 50s. The 4th Republic because of proportional representation was doomed to failure, in pretty much the same way that the 3d was unable to fight Hitler. The factional BS just got to be too much. But it did at least try to preserve the life, liberty and property of its citizenry. (For example, it had no income tax) And most Frenchmen would agree that two of its main leaders, Schumann and Mendes-France, are in the panoply of greatest Frenchmen.

Turkey is an LDC and it makes sense to compare it with other LDCs where it stands up well. It is unreasonable to expect it to compare with the great cultures of Continental Europe, nations which have had universal literacy for over a century for example. Turkey does not yet have this.

Posted by: Bart at December 3, 2004 6:35 PM


Yes, I know your point was to carve and slice reality until there was some remnant that you could use to pretend you're right. The tatters you're holding up are still laughable though.

Posted by: oj at December 3, 2004 7:27 PM