February 27, 2006


Democracy Angst: What's the alternative to promoting freedom in the Middle East? (Opinion Journal, February 27, 2006)

[T]he underlying argument deserves thoughtful consideration, and it goes something like this: Contrary to the rhetoric of the Bush Administration, the taste for freedom--and the ability to exercise it responsibly--is far from universal. Culture is decisive. Liberal democracies are the product of long-term trends such as the collapse of communal loyalties, urbanization, the separation of church and state and the political empowerment of the bourgeoisie. Absent these things, say the critics, democratic and liberal institutions are built on foundations of sand and are destined to collapse.

This account more or less describes the rise of liberal democracies in the West. Yet simply because it took centuries to establish a liberal-democratic order in Europe, it does not follow that it must take centuries more to establish one in the Middle East. Japan took about 100 years to transform itself (and be transformed) from a feudal society into a modern industrial democracy. South Korea made a similar leap in about 40 years; Thailand went from quasi-military dictatorships to a genuine constitutional monarchy in about 20. As the practice of liberal democracy has spread, the time it takes nondemocratic societies to acquire that practice has diminished.

But, say the critics, Islamic and particularly Arab countries are uniquely resistant to change. Between 1981 and 2001 the number of non-Islamic countries rated "free"--that is to say, both democratic and liberal--increased by 34, according to Freedom House. By contrast the number of free Islamic countries remained constant at one, in the form of landlocked Mali. During the same period, the number of Islamic countries ranked "not free" increased by 10.

No doubt deep-seated cultural factors go some way toward explaining these statistics. But why seek abstruse explanations? In the same period when the U.S. was encouraging democratic openings in Eastern Europe, East Asia and Latin America--areas previously thought impervious to liberty, often for "cultural" reasons--it was supporting or tolerating undemocratic and illiberal regimes in the Middle East.

That period also coincided with the rise of al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah, the first World Trade Center bombing, the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa and the USS Cole, the outbreak of the terrorist intifada in Israel, and September 11. Mr. Fukuyama may or may not be right that promoting democracy does not resolve the problem of terrorism in the short-term. What we know for sure is that tolerating dictatorship not only doesn't resolve the terrorist problem but actively nurtures it.

Obviously if after they've had liberal democracy for two hundred years the Middle Eastern states are still impoverished and spitting forth suicidal terrorists we'll have to re-examine the assumption that Arabs are just as capable of democracy as blacks, Germans, Catholics, Slavs, Asians, etc. turned out to be, but for now it seems a tad premature to claim they aren't. For the nonce they're an argument against our historic support for colonialism and dictatorship in the region.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 27, 2006 5:00 PM

Democratic and liberal institutions are not built on foundations of sand but on human nature. Of course cultural traditions play a role, but a secondary one.

Posted by: Luciferous at February 27, 2006 5:29 PM

Exactly. There is no real alternative now. The alternative before GW2, after removing sanctions from Iraq after the inspections, was to let the M.E. continue to fester until an atomic bomb developed by Iraq/Iran/Pakistan/Libya/N Korea went off somewhere in Israel or the United States. Critics of the current strategy - the easier alternative - REALLY wouldn't like our response to that event. Ditto a few hundred million others.

Posted by: Rick T. at February 27, 2006 5:34 PM

Mr. Judd;

Once again you conflate race and culture. The entire essay is about culture, yet your comment is about Arabs. Why do you do that, even after you yourself have called it nonsense?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 27, 2006 5:45 PM

Because it's a racial notion, not cultural, as referring to blacks as being capable of democracy from South Africa to Chicago or Catholics from Ireland to Constantinople. Witness the lack of understanding of the differing cultures within Islam.

Note that those on the Right who espouse the theory most forcefully are those who also defend Darwinism, and notions of racial superiority, most fiercely.

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2006 5:56 PM

Besides which, the Arabs are the Arabs. Whether we understand that as being genetic or cultural, there is still no reason to think that they are either uniquely unsuited, genetically or culturally, for democracy.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 27, 2006 6:12 PM

Mr. Cohen;

Why not, at least culturally? There are two counter points here.

The minor one is that you and Mr. Judd constantly add the adjective "uniquely" when no one on the other side does. Even the most rapid racists and nativists never claim that, yet it is a regular trope of you two. Is your claim so weak that you must create such a strawman?

The second one is that the distinction between genetics and culture is much more than simply substituting the words in various phrases. The fact that Arabs can become members of a liberal democratic society in the USA demonstrates the falsity of the genetic claim, but says nothing about the cultural claim. This is no small distinction.

I would ask, is no culture unsuited to liberal democracy? Have you adopted the multi-culturalist view that no society is functionally different from any other? Is this one feature on which every single culture gets the exact same score? Is every possible cultural trait equally compatible with liberal democracy?

Relatedly, one might ask what exactly is meant by saying the Arab culture cannot adapt to liberal democracy. I would make the same claim about Japanese society before 1853. The fact that Japan is now a liberal democracy was accomplished by abandoning the culture that existed then and replacing it with Japanese flavored variant of Western culture. Is that a change of culture, or a culture adapting? I think that Arab culture will require a change at least as radical. I consider that to be the abandonment of the current culture and its replacement by a new one. One is reminded again of the difference between the Kurds and the Palestinians as a clear example of this.

P.S. Interestingly, OJ agrees with this implicitly by discussing how Arabic Islam will be Reformed. If it were currently capable of supporting liberal democracy, it would hardly need Reform. Yet he reacts quite energetically when anyone else makes the equivalent claim in non-protestant terms.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 27, 2006 11:03 PM

AOG: You've proved our point.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 27, 2006 11:19 PM

Mr. Cohen;

Whatever. At this point, I have not the slightest idea what that point might be, but glad to be of service.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 28, 2006 5:34 AM

Uniquely because we haven't yet run across any type of people who can't, under the right conditions, conform to democracy.

Of course we've got to change their culture in order to make democrats of them. That's the whole reform of Islam/the Caliph lives in Washington point. Those who are anti-Islam argue that Islam is uniquely incapable of change because there's no Pope, or no coordinating counsel, and the Koran is that to be supreme and unchanging. This, at the very least, reflects an odd understanding of European history.

The Japanese are the perfect example of a people culturally or genetically incapable of democracy. And yet ...

Posted by: David Cohen at February 28, 2006 7:21 AM

Recall too, that the Left used to justify leaving Eastern Europe to the Bolsheviks because Slavs were uniquely incapable of and uninterested in democracy. It's always merely a justification for our own behavior.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2006 7:31 AM

And while democracy in Iraq is by no means a done deal, none of us have ever bet our lives on voting the way millions of Iraqis did three times in a year.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 28, 2006 7:45 AM


How does the view of the Q'ran as supreme and unchanging word of Allah reflect an odd understanding of European history?

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct. at February 28, 2006 10:27 AM

Tom: It's odd to think that this distinguishes Islam from Christianity. The irony is sharpest when considering the King James' bible, which is inerrantly true because God inspired the translators. At least Islam understands that any translation is only going to be the approximate word of God.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 28, 2006 10:57 AM

Mr. Cohen;

There is clearly no point in discussing this any further, as you continue to persist in invalid context switches and strawman attribution.

On the first, my entire last comment was about culture, yet your response switches back to "peoples". If you wish to debate that with those who hold such opinions, have at, but I see no reason to involve myself.

On the second, it seems we agree that my example contains a culture that couldn't change, but had to be replaced, yet to put Arabic or Islamic culture in the same category is to uniquely put it in that category. How something can be uniquely in the same category as something else surpasses my understanding.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 28, 2006 11:22 AM

Japanese culture wasn't replaced, just adapted somewhat.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2006 11:29 AM


The Vatican, for one, makes a distinction between the inspired and the inerrant and unchanging. Traditional Islam does not. Christianity does not suppose that the human intermediaries involved in actually writing, translating or copying scripture are faultless, sinless beings, merely inspired by the holy spirit. There is little pontification on the law or politics or the relationship bewteen man and the state other than their temporal nature and secondary status versus the relationship bewteen the individaul and God. The Q'ran is different in that interpretation, in the eyes of the Sunni clerics, has been closed for about 1200 years. The most bizarre example of this view was the recent (within 10 years or so) fatwa issued by a Saudi cleric insisting that the world was flat.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at February 28, 2006 11:45 AM

Every beneficial Reform in the West has pointed the errant churches back to the text.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2006 11:50 AM


So what? International relations are based on a literalist reading? Civil and criminal law? Is that what Jesus preached? Does the NT even concern itself with such things?

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at February 28, 2006 12:22 PM

Yes, any regime that does not comport with Biblical teachings about Creation, the Fall, and Imago Dei is not legitimate.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2006 12:27 PM

Any regime which ignores the nature of man will eventually fail. A simple truism.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at February 28, 2006 12:39 PM

btw, oj, Islam does not comport with Imago Dei or The Fall, the concept of original sin in particular. Not sure about the biblical Creation.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at February 28, 2006 1:47 PM


Actually, it does. And Shi'ism even includes Messianism.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2006 1:57 PM


Actually it does not.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at February 28, 2006 1:59 PM

Tom: Not any more, and mostly.

AOG: So the Japanese aren't Japanese now? And the Germans aren't German?

Posted by: David Cohen at February 28, 2006 2:02 PM

"Bible inerrant word god" makes for an interesting Google search.

I'm particularly taken by the Chicago Statement on Bible Inerrancy, which includes this summary:


1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God's witness to Himself.

2. Holy Scripture, being God's own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God's instruction, in all that it affirms, obeyed, as God's command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God's pledge, in all that it promises.

3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture's divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.

4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.

5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible's own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.

Those Christians, obviously uniquely unsuited for democracy.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 28, 2006 2:09 PM


The Judeo-Christian reading on The Fall along with the concept of 'original sin' and Imago Dei and how those ideas relate to understanding the nature of man, are completely at odds with and specifically rejected by basic Islamic theology. The messianism of Shi'ism is not based on scripture but politics and the early schism within the clannish, tribal business that was early Islam.

As I understand it, the evangelical view of New Testament scripture and the Old Testament prophecy it fullfills regards personal salvation through Christ rather than principles to be imposed through force. My undestanding of the evangelical view regarding personal salvation through Christ also implies personal belief in the inerrancy of scripture relating to the ministry,teachings, death and resurrection of Christ.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at February 28, 2006 2:55 PM

btw, David, Evangelicals try to persuade individually rather than impose their literalism through coercion. They are a very Anglo-American phenomonon, very much suited to democracy. In fact, I'll bet most of them reside in demcracies, imagine that!

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at February 28, 2006 3:15 PM

Tom: I really think that you're missing my point. You're also missing the Pilgrim's point.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 28, 2006 4:06 PM

We didn't ask the Indians much.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2006 4:29 PM


If you would be so kind or care to, please, enlighten me.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at February 28, 2006 4:29 PM

There are variations, of course, but the Islamic view of the Fall is essentially Judeo-Christian:


As is the Imago Dei, unless you read image as visual:


Posted by: oj at February 28, 2006 4:48 PM

The point is that these things change. They changed for Christianity, they changed for the Pilgrims (who's mission was to found a state in which God's law would be enacted and to kill everyone else), they changed for the Japanese and Germans and can change for Islam.

In fact, it seems to change pretty quickly in the right situation.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 28, 2006 4:54 PM

The Divine Right of Kings is another nice example of a core Christian political belief that had to change in order for democracy to triumph. Now, someone promoting monarchy would have to be a lunatic, while the rest of us know that G-d is busy giving us the president we need.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 28, 2006 5:11 PM

It's not a Biblical doctrine.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2006 5:29 PM

The Puritan theocracy could not withstand further non-Puritan immigration, it changed as a result. The Christian Bible always leaves open the possibility that one interpretation may be wrong in the particulars and in practice. The failure of Puritan utopianism and it's subsequent 'evolution' into a workable economy is a fact. The culture that Puritans brought with them saved them from their religous,utopian fervor after most of them had died off.

The Indians could have assimilated although most chose not to. A mark against their noble savagery.
The Puritans changed. The Indians did not. Change is not inevitable. Culture plays an important part.


Traditional Islamic theology has no place for 'original sin'. Allah has nothing in common with man other than offering rewards and punishment in the after life or aiding in the spread of Mohammad's religion in the here and now. The concept of God's UNCONDITIONAL love is an alien concept. Allah always has conditions for his favor, like a benevolant despot who requires submission to his governor before granting peace.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at February 28, 2006 5:30 PM


Islam teaches that we don't each bear responsibility for Adam's sin, but that the Fall demonstrates our sinful natures. That's rather orthodox.

Islam heightens personal responsibility by making each of us responsible for deserving God's love. That works.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2006 5:39 PM


The traditional ideas concerning human nature, freedom and responsibilty are related to the Christian understanding of original sin. Individual choices continually need to be made, 'submission' isn't enough. We are, and will always be imperfect, regardless of said benefits of 'submission' to another man's interpretation of the will of God.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at February 28, 2006 6:09 PM

Yes, but if we did completely and freely submit to God's will for us we would indeed be perfected. We know that to be an impossibility, but there's no harm in trying.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2006 6:15 PM

The 'lack' in Islam is not so much in the area of original sin, but in the area of grace.

Islam deals with submission, but not with an end. God is distant and must be appeased. But why? To avoid hell. That is not an end, and if Allah is appeased, he cannot be worshiped (adored, venerated, blessed, imitated - all of it).

For the Jew, and the Christian, God is to be loved. He is sought after, praised, followed, desired, and he is (to be) known.

In the NT, we see Jesus saving his harshest language for the 'religious' folk. The elites, the flowing robe types. The Pharisees, who knew the words but did not know God. They were hateful, proud, scornful, rich, and empty. The Saducees were even worse, because they denied the supernatural.

Sounds like some radicals we know.

Islam needs a reformation, we agree on that - but it needs something more. If it is so fragile, due to the capricious ways of submission, and if it is so easily splintered (by opportunists, to be charitable), then it needs a plumb line most of all.

For the Christian, Jesus is the ultimate plumb line. God in the flesh, holiness and humility in the same frame. But the incarnation is abhorrent to Islam. As is the atonement. And yet, Jesus is a Prophet, incapable of error.

Had Islam developed some sort of sacrificial "system", things might be different. Interesting that it did not.

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 28, 2006 11:25 PM


Of all the adjectives we could use to describe Islam, "fragile" doesn't exactly jump out at me.

Posted by: Peter B at March 1, 2006 6:11 AM

Actually, there is an end it just isn't achievable, thus the psychic dislocation caused by Islam falling so far behind Christendom:


Posted by: oj at March 1, 2006 8:00 AM

Actually, Islam is fragile. Doesn't stand up to religious pluralism very well and it prefers not to.

Posted by: Tom C., StamfordCt, at March 1, 2006 10:35 AM

Look at how poor a basis it provided for development of civilization in its unReformed state. It indeed proved too fragile to support great societies.

Posted by: oj at March 1, 2006 10:41 AM


Perhaps brittle is more accurate, but it is certainly not resilient. Nor does it comport very well with the one story (i.e., the "true" myth) that precedes them all. By demanding that all others submit, its weakness is revealed. Glaringly.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 1, 2006 10:44 AM


No, we demand the same thing, just successfully.

Posted by: oj at March 1, 2006 11:34 AM


What, precisely, do we demand? To be left alone? To be free to trade? To protect our security? Did we make a conscious decision to impose our values on anyone arbitrarily? Cultural'hegemony' is more a function of markets than imperialistic conspiracy. The US believes in the marketplace of goods,services and ideas. If you don't approve,don't do business with us. Demands for submission? Poppycock. Please refrain from citing cold war intrigue as proof of bad intentions. If we didn't contain the Soviets, who would?

Posted by: Tom C,Stamford,Ct.. at March 1, 2006 2:21 PM

I think we all agree that Islam has had a rotten century and is in quite the mess right now, but I confess this constant talk about how fragile and failed it intrinsically is puzzles me.

Posted by: Peter B at March 1, 2006 5:39 PM


Yes,m we did in WWI, WWII, the Cold War and now the WoT. It's what we do.

Posted by: oj at March 1, 2006 9:00 PM


It's been in decline for hundreds of years and at its height was living on borrowed knowledge, not any it created on its own.

Posted by: oj at March 1, 2006 9:06 PM


Look at it this way - Christianity has had its moments of going off the rails, but there have always been corrections, by going back to the basics. There have always been people who, by their faith and sheer presence, were able to thrust the basics back to the fore (e.g., Wilberforce and the slave trade, Dr. King and the 'early' civil rights movement, etc.).

And when Christianity has expanded into different cultures, the same basics are found - in China, in Africa, and, prior to 1989, behind the Iron Curtain. Sure, worship in Africa isn't going to be like First Baptist in Atlanta or Nashville, but it isn't going to be an outright contradiction, either. In fact, as we are seeing, the gospel is now more clearly taught and spread by Africans and Asians.

Islam (as a global entity) has had to deal with the succession split since the beginning, and also with cultural infections (i.e., tribal customs and the like) in Africa and Asia. Because the Koran is scattershot and an underlying theology is so difficult to propound, these issues become part of the religion and are not rejected (female circumcision, honor killings, all the confusion about 'jihad', etc.).

David's mention of the Chicago Inerrancy statement is instructive - Christians believe in the 'authority' of the Scripture. Not because Paul was perfect, but because Jesus himself said that the Scripture cannot be broken (referring to the OT). The prophets were not perfect (e.g., check out Jonah or Elijah or even Abraham), yet they spoke the "Word" of the Lord.

The Koran is different - it is a dictation, a summons (as I understand it). But it does not permit 'interpretation' in the same way the Bible does. Verses, chapters, and narratives in the Bible can be set against each other, and we can 'interpret' what is there by seeing the whole and then looking at the piece. For example, there are many statements, across the centuries, that God knows all things. The word omniscient is not used, but here in 2006 we know what is meant. Readers knew what it meant in 325 AD.

I don't believe the Koran provides for the same process. Hence, the brittleness. If each statement has to be defended (or interpreted) on its own, the result is chaos.

Consider one example - the apparent tension between Matthew 5:16 ("Let your good works shine before men....") and just a few sentences later, Matthew 6:1 ("Do not perform your charitable works before men...."). A single-verse reading would confuse anyone, but most people understand what Jesus is saying in both cases. By knowing the themes of the entire Bible, a serious reader can navigate the tension. I do not believe the Koran is the same, so the loudest voice is going to win any dispute. Hence the brittleness.

Sorry for the length - I hope it makes sense.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 1, 2006 11:44 PM


That's similar to my thoughts on the issue, which is basically that Islam doesn't have the self correcting properties of Judeo-Christianity. It's not more likely to go off the rails, but when it does it can't get back.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at March 2, 2006 9:49 PM