One Size Fits All?

In the discussion thread of our recent post about Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the issue soon became: what should the attitude of the West have been toward the democratic uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere? On the one hand, as Americans it seems we ought to support democracy wherever we can; on the other, democracy will produce different results when practiced by different peoples. My own concern, which has so far been borne out by events, was that these revolts would lead directly to Islamist regimes in the region: hardly a gratifying outcome in terms of Western interests.

The ‘crux of the biscuit’ is this question: Do Western normative principles appeal to universal longings, and are therefore universally applicable across all peoples and cultures? Both liberal muticulturalists and neoconservative nation-builders seem to agree that they are.

Our commenter ‘The One-Eyed Man’ summed up with this:

…I do think that the principles in the Declaration of Independence are universal, applying to Muslims equally to Christians and everyone else.

This is a commonly held view, but with particular regard to Islam, it’s a fundamental error, of critical importance. I’ll try to explain.

As much as it may be fashionable (especially among unbelievers like me) to downplay the significance of religion in America’s founding, the Declaration of Independence explicitly expresses a Judeo-Christian understanding of the nature of God, and of God’s relationship with human beings. It clearly declares this understanding in its most famous passage:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…

The central argument of the Declaration of Independence is that the Crown, having repeatedly infringed on the rights of its American colonists, has voided its claim to sovereignty over them. So: what does it mean for men to possess inalienable rights granted to them by God, and how is this belief distinctly Judeo-Christian?

First, this assertion reflects the belief that a loving God grants these rights as part of His covenant with mankind — a covenant made first with the Jews, and then extended to the rest of humanity by Jesus Christ. Central to both is the idea of a loving God who, loving all men as individuals, directly grants each of them the assurance of His protection. The Declaration explicitly places this direct, individual assurance from God above any earthly institution’s power to abrogate.

But the idea of a loving Creator with whom mere humans may enter into this sort of personal covenant is directly at odds with the Islamic concept of God. The Islamic God Allah is perfect, transcendent, and aloof; the idea of Allah deigning to “love” a mere human is absurd, and indeed the thought is offensive to God’s majesty. The great Islamic theologian and philosopher Abu Hāmed Mohammad ibn Mohammad al-Ghazzālī, who died in 1111 but remains probably the most influential Islamic theorist of all time, argued against this by pointing out that love implies a need, an incompleteness, on the part of the lover that can only be fulfilled by the beloved. But God is perfect, continued Ghazzali, and complete unto Himself — so the idea that He might have a longing that can only be fulfilled by reciprocal love with mortal men is an abomination, as is the notion that He would enter into an equal partnership with anyone or anything at all.

This brings us to a second point: the very idea of an irrevocable covenant, as implicit in the concept of inalienable rights, necessarily implies a limitation of God’s sovereignty: for God to make an unbreakable promise necessarily limits God’s freedom of action. But the divine Will and infinite potency of God obviously can permit no such limitation — again, the very idea is an offense and an abomination.

Furthermore, the Declaration of Independence is a product of the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which in turn has at its foundation the idea of a lawful natural world. This concept also reflects the Judeo-Christian assumption of a loving God: one who, having endowed Man with the gift of reason, provided a world that operated without caprice, and that was subject to reliable regularities that human reason could comprehend. But again, this idea of a lawful Cosmos necessarily limits the freedom and sovereignty of God. Indeed al-Ghazali went so far as to say that because God’s power is infinite, His moment-by-moment attention to the world’s every minutest detail is what maintains the world’s seeming regularities, and the appearance of lawful connections between observed causes and effects is merely an illusion. If drinking water seems to alleviate thirst, it is only because God, on each occasion, has chosen to follow our drinking of water with the relief of thirst. But to imply that God’s choice in the workings of His creation is constrained by natural laws is again to suggest that God’s sovereignty is limited, and is again an abomination.

Finally, there is the Islamic concept of tawhid, or the unity of God. This idea was developed extensively by Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya, a medieval Salafist whose teachings still exert great influence. In his widely read paper A Genealogy of Radical Islam, Quintan Wiktorowicz explained (emphasis mine):

One of Ibn Taymiyya’s most important contributions to Salafi thought is his elaboration of the concept of tawhid — the unity of God. He divided the unity of God into two categories: the unity of lordship and the unity of worship. The former refers to belief in God as the sole sovereign and creator of the universe. All Muslims readily accept this. The second is affirmation of God as the only object of worship and obedience. Ibn Taymiyya reasoned that this latter component of divine unity necessitates following God’s laws. The use of human-made laws is tantamount to obeying or worshipping other than God and thus apostasy. [20th-century Muslim theologian Mawlana Abul A’la] Mawdudi adopted this position and drew a sharp bifurcation between the “party of God” and the “party of Satan,” which included Muslims who adhered to human-made law.

This idea, which is very much a part of mainstream Islamic thought throughout the world, raises an impassable barrier between Islam and the Judeo-Christian tradition of a distinction between divine and worldly law — the root of America’s founding principle of a separation of Church and state.

There is much more I could say about all of this, but it’s late, and this post is already long enough. I hope, however, that I have shown that it is a mistake, and betrays a dangerously superficial acquaintance with core Islamic doctrine, to imagine that bedrock American principles — in particular those Enlightenment principles expressed by Jefferson in our Declaration of Independence — apply as aptly to serious Muslims as they do to those of us raised in the Western religious and cultural tradition.

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25 Comments

  1. the one eyed man says

    There are a number of weaknesses in your argument, which I will helpfully elucidate for you.

    1) Your interpretation of the Declaration of Independence is at odds with what the Founding Fathers said at the time. They were not picky about which Creator endows human rights, and explicitly included Muslims among those who are divinely endowed with human rights. While I would love to bring in Thomas Jefferson a la Woody Allen and Marshall McLuhan, due to my inability to time travel, I’ll have to rely on his autobiography:

    “Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

    Now if you’re going to take exception with Mr. Thomas Jefferson, then I shall have to ask you to step outside.

    2) Islam is a religion of over a billion people with lots of deep schisms: Sunni/Shia, devout/secular, modern/traditional. Positing that all Muslims, or even the majority of Muslims, are of one view is like saying that all Christians are born again evangelists who believe in a literal interpretation of the Gospels. There are Muslim countries where bank lending is prohibited because it conflicts with the Koran, and there are Muslim countries with plenty of banks. Among the Muslim world, it certainly isn’t one size fits all.

    3) Your argument ignores that there are Islamic countries which have secular democracies. Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia have governments which are more or less like governments here and in Western Europe. They certainly don’t seem to have a problem combining Islam with free elections, a free press, and so on.

    4) Finally, your argument is circular. If it were true that democracy is incompatible with Islamic belief, then those who have those beliefs would not choose democracy in the first place. Indeed, some haven’t. Whether Saudi Arabia is a theocracy because that’s what the people want is unclear, but what is clear that there is no democracy there and seemingly no groundswell to create one. However, the Islamic democracies which have emerged from authoritarian governments have done so because the people demanded it. If a citizenry decided to organize a government based on democratic principles, by what right can you tell them that it is wrong or incongruent with their faith to do so?

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    I’m working today, so briefly:

    1) The point is not what concept of God and rights the Founders generously wished to extend to Muslims, but rather whether that concept, however well-intentioned, is actually at odds with Islam as understood by Muslims. The ideas I have discussed here are mainstream Islamic doctrine, and have been for centuries.

    2) No, it certainly isn’t “one size fits all”, but it’s important to understand exactly which matters of doctrine differentiate the various sects and branches of Islam, and which ones are generally agreed by all to be essential principles. The nature of God, as described above, is very much in the latter category, shared by Sunni and Shia theologists alike. You may find a maverick or two on the fringes to support almost anything you like, but the points I’ve enumerated here are all very much mainstream Islamic theology.

    3) These Muslim “democracies” are rapidly coming apart at the seams everywhere they exist, as a direct result of the fundamental incompatibility of doctrinaire Islam with Western-style secular democracy, exactly as described in this post. You cite Turkey, for example — whose Islamist president has himself said that democracy is just “a train that takes you to your destination, and then you get off.” This is precisely my point. Everywhere you look — Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, etc. — secular democratic government is eroding due to its incompatibility with core Islamic principles.

    4) Democracy, as we are seeing before our eyes in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere, is a perfectly reasonable stepping stone from secular authoritarianism to Islamist government (exactly as reflected in Mr. Erdogan’s comment cited just above). Throw the old bum out, vote in an Islamist regime under sharia law, then amend your constitution from that point forward to limit Western-style freedoms in whatever ways you like. Under such a system, “inalienable” Jeffersonian rights (for example, the rights of women and infidels) can go right out the window very quickly indeed, all in a nice “democratic” way.

    As H.L. Mencken once said:

    “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

    Finally, you ask:

    If a citizenry decided to organize a government based on democratic principles, by what right can you tell them that it is wrong or incongruent with their faith to do so?

    The only “right” I’m invoking here is my Fifth Amendment right (not available in even the most “democratic” Muslim nation, by the way) to say what I believe. It doesn’t matter in the slightest what I, or any other infidel, “tell” Muslims about their faith — though ignorant Western politicians, who understand Islam about as well as they understand loop quantum gravity, have made it a cottage industry to remind Muslims ad nauseam that Islam is a “religion of peace”, that it has been “hijacked” by “extremists”, and so forth. The chutzpah is breathtaking, and the ignorance is dangerous.

    What arrangements Muslims societies make for their own governance is their own business; they can do whatever they want, and call it whatever they like. All I’m doing here is explaining — not to Muslims, but to us — what mainstream Muslim theology has been saying for centuries, and what it’s still saying, and loudly, all over the world today. (It would be nice if anybody in the West had the gumption to just shut up for a minute and pay attention.) The context here is merely the question of what informed observers of the Muslim world — those, in other words, who actually have made the effort to acquire some genuine understanding of Islam, and of the history of the region and its people — should realistically expect from democratic uprisings in Muslim lands. I think that what we should expect is for democracy to lead fairly quickly to Islamist rule, for the reasons given above. Which is exactly what it’s doing.

    (…I guess that wasn’t as “brief” as I thought it would be.)

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  3. the one eyed man says

    I’ve been to Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and I would take exception to your characterization of them as eroding or falling apart. Admittedly, I was more interested in going to their (spectacular) beaches than boning up on their political systems, but they do have free elections, opposition parties, civilian control of the military, and a free press. You wouldn’t know that you were in a Muslim country unless somebody told you. Moreover, they do this in a context of multi-culturalism. There is a large Chinese population in Malaysia in addition to the native Malays, and Indonesia is home to literally hundreds of ethnicities.

    As for Egypt and Libya: far too early to make judgments or speculate on how they will turn out.

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    While your experiences as an affluent Western tourist in these Muslim nations long ago were no doubt agreeable, and exposed you to nothing that would have diminished your enjoyment of the local attractions (much less your willingness to linger and spend US dollars), I suspect that you have not been paying particularly close attention to the progress of political Islam in these nations over the past few decades.

    As for the Chinese disapora in these South Asian / South Pacific nations, the Chinese (or in some places, the Indians) dominate the local economies, siphon huge amounts of money back to the homeland, and are universally detested by the natives. They are often murdered. If you wanted to select an example of happy multiculturalism in action, you could hardly have chosen a worse example.

    Is it “far too early to make judgments” on how things will move forward in Egypt and Libya? With Salafists and the Ikhwan dominating local elections, and the al-Qaeda flag flying over Benghazi, I think not.

    At any rate, the tendency throughout this first year has been abundantly clear, and perfectly in line with what an informed observer should expect.

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink
  5. Dr. Strangelove says

    I always like to begin a discussion with all the points I agree with the author on and to spell out the dialectic as clearly as possible.

    Points of agreement:

    1. Western normative principles are not universal to all of mankind. (No matter how much we wish they were. Even the most ardent believer in a pluralistic society would have to agree that groups that have a certain level of intolerance are destructive and impossible to integrate with a democratic society. If not they are just being delusional.)

    2. Within the short term a move towards a more democratic governance of Egypt, Tunisia, and any other Muslim middle eastern country is contrary to Israeli and U.S. interests. (A read of “The DIctator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics” makes it clear why it is so much cheaper to buy public policies of other nations if they are run by dictators rather than democracies. For over 50 years we have been buying policies of middle eastern regimes with mixed results, theses efforts will surely be less successful or more expensive going forward. Actually as a gift for writing such an insightful blog I’m going to send you a copy.)

    3. The belief in the unity of religion and governance is antithetical to a democratic society. (As someone who has spent some time in Syria and Turkey I can confirm that the vast majority of the “Arab Street” think of the ideal government as one that is solely based on religious law.)

    Even with all the above agreement, The One Eyed Man and I are more optimistic about Islamic nations becoming secular democracies than yourself. Part of this difference might be because of how we look at the Islamic democracies (using this term strictly so fake democracies such as Pakistan or Iran do not count) that are currently in existence. I think the examples of Turkey & Indonesia should do two things. Firstly they should give us heart that even when the majority of a nation believes in Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya’s Unity of religion and government a secular democracy can be created when enough of the population realize that an Islamist government means choosing a particular interpretation of Islam that might be different than their’s and therefore they realize that a secular government would be in their best interest. Secondly, they should give us pause and make use realize that encouraging The Muslim Brotherhood and other such organizations whose outright goal is the creation of a islamic regime is counterproductive if our goal is helping in the creation of a secular democracy. In Indonesia and Turkey there have been democratic organizations with the explicit goal of changing the law of the land towards their interpretation of Islam. In both countries these political groups have been the clearest threat to the countries’ long term health as a secular democracy. The fact that the current administration seem not to see the danger of this is extremely concerning.

    There is so much more that could be said but for now I guess I ought to get back to the class I’m in.

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Dr. Strangelove,

    I’m glad you’re in broad agreement with the points I’ve made here.

    I think the examples of Turkey & Indonesia should do two things. Firstly they should give us heart that even when the majority of a nation believes in Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya’s Unity of religion and government a secular democracy can be created when enough of the population realize that an Islamist government means choosing a particular interpretation of Islam that might be different than their’s and therefore they realize that a secular government would be in their best interest.

    Islam’s historical flirtation with secular government has been brief, and the prevailing tendency nowadays in all of the existing Islamic democracies is back toward Islamism. In the newest incubators of self-rule — Egypt, Libya, etc. — the outcome so far has also tilted overwhelmingly toward Islamist government.

    You make a good point about choosing secular government as compromise between rival Muslim sects. However, when such a compromise is arguably at odds with Islam itself, there is inevitably a constant groundswell of traditionalist opposition — and as history reminds us at every turn, there are other, more direct ways of resolving sectarian disputes.

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  7. “As for Egypt and Libya: far too early to make judgments or speculate on how they will turn out.”

    But not too early for self-serving duplicity.

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Henry: what are you saying here? It doesn’t add anything worthwhile just to carp from the sidelines. Come right out and say what’s on your mind.

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  9. “Come right out and say what’s on your mind.”

    OK, I’ll draw you a picture. Peter’s remark is exactly the kind of statement a Leftist cynic would make in the present context. He knows it’s false and he knows that serious people know that he knows it’s false. But he is playing to the useful idiots he hopes are following the conversation. Thus, he hopes to ingratiate himself to them, knowing well that whatever he says here will have no bearing on the actual outcome.

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Henry, I’m not at all sure that’s true. Peter will answer for himself if he likes, of course, but he is a perpetual optimist (not what I’d call a cynic at all), and I think he is genuinely inclined to believe that things may turn out well in the end.

    He’s dead wrong, of course, but I think he’s more or less sincere.

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    If, by the way, anyone has any lingering doubts that the Obama administration believes the Muslim Brotherhood is an outfit we can do business with, there’s this, from yesterday’s New York Times:

    Overtures to Egypt’s Islamists Reverse Longtime U.S. Policy

    I’ll remind readers that the Muslim Brotherhood has explicitly declared that one of its foremost objectives is to “eliminate and destroy Western civilization from within, and sabotage its miserable house.”

    Again, there isn’t a whole lot we might have done; this is the reality of the region, and now we must come to terms with it. But I do hope it illustrates, to the patsies and Pollyannas all over the West who cheered on the cat’s-paws in Tahrir Square last year, that one should be careful what to wish for.

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Permalink
  12. “He’s dead wrong, of course, but I think he’s more or less sincere.”

    A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink
  13. “He’s dead wrong …”

    Hopefully, that’s only half true.

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    Actually, I’d prefer that none of it were true: I certainly don’t wish Peter dead, and I’d be pleasantly surprised if his naively optimistic prognosis for the Mideast turned out to be correct.

    It won’t, of course.

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink
  15. I couldn’t agree more, Malcolm.

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink
  16. the one eyed man says

    I’m certainly not dead, and I don’t think that I am wrong, either.

    I am most definitely an optimist, and not only because of my sunny and cheerful disposition, but because progress is an historical fact. The arc of human history breaks towards Western notions of liberty and democracy, and has done so vividly and emphatically within our lifetimes.

    Countries which were authoritarian dictatorships when I was a child are now functioning if sometimes imperfect democracies. In addition to the above-named Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia, the long list includes South Korea, South Africa, a good chunk of Latin America, and pretty much all of Eastern Europe. Russia and China moved from totalitarian states to a corrupt semi-democracy and a (somewhat) benevolent dictatorship that is (somewhat) responsive to its population. Not great, but a lot better than Stalin and Mao.

    Not incidentally, this wholescale move to what had nearly exclusively been Western forms of government has been accompanied by measurable progress in things like literacy, education, poverty, longevity, and so forth.

    Nor do I think that Muslims are immune to history’s arc. If they were, Syrians would not be dying to rid themselves of a dictator and rule themselves instead.

    I’m not under any illusion that Egypt or Libya will be pastoral enclaves of irenic harmony by the time the next All-Star game comes around, or that human evil and malevolence will ever be extinguished. True progress takes decades, if not generations. However, countries whose transition to democratic principles would have been unimaginable fifty years ago have defied the skeptics, and I see no reason why the countries of the Magreb would be an exception.

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Permalink
  17. “I see no reason why the countries of the Magreb would be an exception.”

    One obvious reason is that they hate the West, they detest the United States, and they want to exterminate all Jews and wipe Israel off the map.

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 9:46 pm | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    Yep. And over in Syria, what we have, in large part, is tribal and sectarian violence (i.e., Diversity showering its customary blessings): majority Sunnis rioting to shrug off minority Alawite rule. If Assad goes, I’ll give you one guess as to what happens next.

    [P]rogress is an historical fact. The arc of human history breaks towards Western notions of liberty and democracy…

    Again, Peter, you define “progress” in your own, Western terms. But “progress” means very different things to different people — and to many (perhaps most) in the global Ummah, movement toward Westernization and secularization is “progress” toward blasphemy, apostasy, and the Fire. The arc of human history breaks towards Western notions of liberty and democracy only where and when the human and cultural resources are suitable.

    South Africa, like Zimbabwe before it, is drifting into violent dysfunction, and decaying fast: its white people are routinely being slaughtered and driven out, and that once-prosperous country now has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Indonesia is slipping into sharia and Islamism, with Christians routinely persecuted and murdered, their churches burned. Etc.

    I’ll give you “a good chunk of Latin America”, though.

    I’ll also give you this: you truly are one cheery SOB.

    Posted January 4, 2012 at 10:38 pm | Permalink
  19. the one eyed man says

    I think that predictions of imminent doom are more reflective of the dyspepsia of the observer than verifiable fact.

    As regards Islam, you could say pretty much anything about a religion with a billion adherents and have it be true. If Andrew McCarthy is your go-to guy on things Islamic, then you will perceive a religion gone amok. Or you could look a place like Iran, where news reports suggest a younger generation which can’t stand the Mullahs and yearn for a more Western culture. Or the gazillion Muslims who practice Islam like Catholics who give lip service to the Pope but use contraceptives anyway.

    The increasing pace of globalization is an irresistable force pushing for modernity and the lessening of cultural differences, and the Internet is globalization on steroids. In the fullness of time, the Truth will be revealed to us all.

    Posted January 5, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  20. Malcolm says

    As regards Islam, you could say pretty much anything about a religion with a billion adherents and have it be true.

    That’s just lazy-minded multiculturalist mush, Peter. You can’t simply take a major world religion, one with clear and specific normative content the vast majority of which has been broadly agreed upon by its adherents for fourteen centuries — and that indeed is far clearer and simpler in its theological content, and about what it requires of its adherents, than any other major religion — and blithely define it out of existence because it suits your rhetorical and ideological purposes. In Egypt, in Turkey, in Libya, in Indonesia, in Malaysia, in Gaza, in Iraq, in the Sudan, in Nigeria, and in most other Islamic countries around the world, the trend is toward a more traditional interpretation of Islam, not toward Westernization. Indeed, the trend is a specific reaction against Westernization, which is seen as a path to decadence, spiritual degeneration, and rejection of God and God’s law.

    As for Iran: as in Egypt, support for a sharia-based government is still predominant as soon as you get away from the urban centers that get so much coverage on TV. The iPhone-toting protesters in Tahrir Square made it seem as if all of Egypt wanted to become the next Denmark; as soon as national elections took place, they were revealed to be nothing more than a tiny, impotent minority.

    I sometimes get the feeling that the last time you read a newspaper was a couple of decades ago. (I also get the feeling that you know absolutely nothing whatsoever about Islam, and just enjoy making things up.) As incredible as this may be, there are major segments of the world’s population who do not yearn to be deracinated, latte-sipping, Silicon Valley atheist Democrats.

    Posted January 5, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink
  21. the one eyed man says

    Of course I read the papers – every day – and I read about things which would have been unimaginable only a year ago, such as free elections in Egypt and Tunisia, a successful revolution against Qadaffy, a revolution which will probably be successful against Assad, and so forth. It is inconceivable that, in due time, the adoption of Western political systems will not ultimately lead to profound changes in the Arab countries, and possibly Iran as well.

    However, we have reached the point where we are going around in circles, so I will keep my pie-hole in the shut position.

    Posted January 5, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink
  22. Malcolm says

    It is inconceivable that, in due time, the adoption of Western political systems will not ultimately lead to profound changes in the Arab countries, and possibly Iran as well.

    “Inconceivable”? Really?

    Oh well, I’ve said all I need to say too.

    Posted January 5, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink
  23. in·con·ceiv·a·ble: not capable of being imagined or grasped mentally

    Clearly a function of mental capacity …

    Posted January 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  24. Dr. Strangelove says

    In regards to your description of Syria, I think no country better fits my idea of a compromise towards a secular government. The Alawites are not the only minority religious group within Syria, as there is also a large Greek Orthodox Christrain population and a large Druze population (there was once a sizable Jewish population but when I was there it had decreased to only 200 Jews within Damascus that are all but hiding). While the nation is almost 70% Sunni the minorities have a strong stranglehold on the nations economy and have thrown their weight behind the Assad family because the alternative (in their mind) is an oppressive Islamic government. The current secular government was only created through the massacre of over 10,000 people (read Sunni’s) within Homs. It is not a conquincidence that one of the major flash points of the current revolt is Homs. However, the Assad government would never have been able to take control of the country without the other minority groups making the calculation that a secular government is worth backing in order to prevent a Islamic government.

    The point of disagreement would be your contention that an overthrow of the Assad government would lead to blood-letting between the religious groups. Even if the Assad government was overthrown the Syrian Sunni’s could make a similar calculation that they would be better off keeping the peace between sects in order to ensure that a repeat of the Homs massacre does not happen.

    I am optimistic like Peter but unlike Peter I have no faith that history shows that we are constantly moving towards progress. Historical movement in one direction does not guarantee continued movement in that direction (this all assumes that we take the present as better than the past, a BIG assumption). I was one of “the patsies and Pollyannas all over the West who cheered on the cat’s-paws in Tahrir Square last year” not because I assumed that a peaceful, efficient, and just democracy would all of a sudden appear from the ashes but because these revolts allow for the possibility for positive change in a way that oppressive secular dictators do not. In the end the “Arab Spring” might turn out to be an unmitigated disaster but at the very least it allows for possibilities not imagined in many decades.

    Posted January 5, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  25. Malcolm says

    DS, I agree with most of what you say here, but I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that whatever comes after Assad is a Sunni-dominated Islamist regime.

    I was one of “the patsies and Pollyannas all over the West who cheered on the cat’s-paws in Tahrir Square last year” not because I assumed that a peaceful, efficient, and just democracy would all of a sudden appear from the ashes but because these revolts allow for the possibility for positive change in a way that oppressive secular dictators do not. In the end the “Arab Spring” might turn out to be an unmitigated disaster but at the very least it allows for possibilities not imagined in many decades.

    I was so confident that it would be an unmitigated disaster that I found it difficult to cheer.

    Posted January 5, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

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