Making friends in the Middle East


Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA agent now working at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that our goal in the Middle East and the Islamic world should not be to minimize anti-American feeling but to encourage democracy. I think Gerecht has a point. The United States is not in a popularity contest, in which the prize goes to the nation that chalks up the highest favorability ratings in polls in other nations. We're engaged in the much more serious business of trying to ensure that we can live peaceably and safely in the world. George W. Bush has made the determination that that can best be done by promoting democracy and freedom in the Islamic world. You can disagree with that, as some thoughtful people do. But it's at least one plausible way to try to make the world less dangerous.

Gerecht has argued that it's less dangerous to have a terrorist-supporting group like Hamas come to power electorally than to have it plotting out of the spotlight. Here he argues that if the United States and the European nations try to propitiate the Islamists who are leading the organized campaign against the Danish cartoons, they will undermine moderate Muslims, in Europe and the Middle East, who believe in freedom and want to exercise it.

And the controversy over the Danish cartoons could conceivably betray the most important, though least remembered, player in this controversy: the average Muslim in the Middle East. Far more than most Middle Eastern Muslims and politically correct Western scholars of the region and Islam would like to admit, Western standards for individual liberty, curiosity, personal integrity, scholarship, and the political relations among men have become the defining benchmarks for Muslims everywhere, however resented or admired. If our standards collapse and give way to fear, theirs in the long term have no chance whatsoever. The psychology of victimization—surely one of the worst gifts the Western anti-imperialist left has given the Muslim world—can only be made worse by Westerners who treat Muslims like children unable to compete and to defend their religion.
Further, the kind of Muslims with whom we could live peaceably do not all like the United States—far from it. But they may be ready to build democratic and peaceful societies.
Lurking behind much of the American response to the Danish cartoons is a difficult, probably impossible, and certainly unnecessary short-term foreign-policy goal: improving the image of the United States among Muslims. There is perhaps nothing more debilitating for the Bush administration than to believe that anti-anti-Americanism ought to be a key component in our overseas policy. Anti-Americanism in and of itself is not a catalyst for Islamic terrorism. There are many other, vastly more important things, both historical and personal, at work inside young Muslim men (and occasionally women) who decide to kill themselves and others to express their love of God and their hatred of the United States. Muslims who loathe these holy-war killers and want to see them extirpated from their societies can often themselves dislike, if not hate, the United States for a wide variety of reasons, some legitimate, some fictitious, some surreal. On the traditional side, Muhammad Sayyid at-Tantawi, the head of al-Azhar, Cairo's famous seat of Sunni Islamic learning, and Egypt's grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, would probably fall in this category. So would the European Muslim "modernist" Tariq Ramadan and many members of the Arabic Al Jazeera television network, who can marry a real hatred for bin Laden with an exuberant loathing of the United States. Iraq is chock-full of devoutly religious Shiite and Sunni Muslims who abhor suicide bombers and religious radicals in their midst yet harbor—have probably always harbored—distinctly unfriendly attitudes toward the United States.

Gerecht's vision is an optimistic one—some would surely argue too optimistic. But it's worth pondering nonetheless. Here's a final quote:

What we have seen happen in the Islamic Republic of Iran under clerical dictatorship—the conversion of the most anti-American holy-warrior society into the least anti-American, probably most pro-democratic culture in the region—will likely happen elsewhere but even more rapidly if Sunni fundamentalists are given a chance to gain power democratically and demonstrate to their fellow Muslims how their interpretation of the Holy Law and Islamic history will improve their lives.
Correctly understood, anti-Americanism when it accompanies the loosening of political controls in the Middle East is a sign that the status quo that gave us bin Ladenism and 9/11—the perverse marriage of autocracy and Islamic extremism—is coming apart.

But maybe there are precedents. The United States reconstructed Europe and democratized Germany and Japan after World War II. Those policies were successful, but they did not produce an overflowing love of the United States, particularly among the chattering classes. Within living memory of 1945, western Europe and Japan were breaking out in peace marches, their chattering classes and some of their politicians were full of disdain for America and their democratic politicians pursued domestic policies considerably different from those of the United States. While the U.S. remained a very religious country, Europe and Japan became predominantly secular.

Yet Europe and Japan are not threats to our way of life—far from it. We can live comfortably with them. Although, one might add, it might help if the Europeans figured out how to assimilate their Muslim immigrants into their own generally tolerant and peaceable nations.