Prospects for Muslim Democracy: The Role of U.S. Policy

Muqtedar Khan
Muqtedar Khan Former Brookings Expert, Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations - University of Delaware

September 1, 2003

Democratization is rapidly becoming the U.S. policy of choice to meet the challenge of anti-Americanism and the radicalization of Muslims, especially in the Middle East. Both the government and experts in the American foreign-policy community insist that only democracy can undermine the conditions that engender political radicalism in the Muslim world. According to this view, a quick transition from authoritarianism to more open societies will improve economic opportunities and foster responsible politics by making governments accountable and giving people a sense of participation. In spite of some prominent detractors, the Bush administration has adopted the view that democracy is not only feasible but also necessary in the Middle East and the Muslim world at large.

In a landmark speech on May 9, 2003, at the University of South Carolina, President Bush announced America’s firm commitment to democracy and freedom in the Middle East as the key goal of America’s war on terror:

“We support the advance of freedom in the Middle East, because it is our founding principle, and because it is in our national interest. The hateful ideology of terrorism is shaped and nurtured and protected by oppressive regimes. Free nations, in contrast, encourage creativity and tolerance and enterprise. And in those free nations, the appeal of extremism withers away. Free governments do not build weapons of mass destruction for the purpose of mass terror. Over time, the expansion of liberty throughout the world is the best guarantee of security throughout the world. Freedom is the way to peace.”

At the recent conference on Islam and democracy, hosted by a Washington think tank—the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy—William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and Lorne Craner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, claimed that promoting democracy in the Middle East had become an important corner-stone of America’s war on terror. In rather candid presentations, both diplomats asserted that America’s foreign-policy establishment was now convinced that the status quo in the Middle East was not stable anymore, and that the United States was now determined to actively push for democratization, regardless of the consequences. The issue of Turkey’s unwillingness to cooperate with the United States in the war against Iraq came up in the discussion, and Secretary Burns pointed out that democracy in Turkey had actually impeded U.S. foreign-policy goals and that democracy in the rest of the Muslim world would perhaps make it more difficult for the United States to pursue its interests in the region. Nevertheless, both secretaries argued that the assumption of “Middle East exceptionalism,” which presumes that democracy is neither possible nor desirable in the region, has been exposed as an untenable policy that fosters radicalism and terrorism.