The Bush administration often claims to have an interest in bringing democracy to the Middle East. To understand the difficulty of that task, Americans need to look deeply at their own democratic roots. To understand what a democracy in that region might look like, you first have to look at the past and present efforts for democratic reform.
In the early 1800s, Alexis de Tocqueville made keen observations on the early days of the American democracy. Among his many insights, de Tocqueville traced the nature of America’s government to systems established earlier by small communities in New England and the committee systems they used to solve problems. Those systems grew out of the Puritans’ religious traditions and their years of self-governance.
Whether or not de Tocqueville correctly understood the roots of the system in the United States, it is clear that American democracy grew from American behaviors and approaches. Democracy is neither inevitable nor universal, and no two democracies are exactly the same.
The democratic process gains increasing support in Middle Eastern countries. Stephen Kinzer said in his book, All the Shah’s Men, before the United States imposed the shah on Iran, they had a democratic, parliamentary government. Even modern-day Iran holds competitive elections, although the candidates are screened by a council of religious leaders before they can run for office.
A democratic system requires a free press and freedom of speech. Al Jazeera represents the first Arab-language media outlet in the region that is not in the pocket of a government. While the news they present is tailored for their audience and often shows American policy in a negative light, the television station presents a much more balanced and open dialogue than anything the region has seen before.
Citizens also need the right to hold property if a democracy is to grow. The emir of Dubai decided a few years ago to allow foreigners to own land within his country, as long as they partnered with a local entrepreneur. While something as rudimentary as land ownership is taken for granted in the West, it is a new development in the Middle East.
Democracy of the people and for the people will wear a new and unique face in the Middle East. Religion enjoys a deep and important place in the hearts of many people in the region, so it stands to reason that their democracies may bear a heavy Islamic influence. Religious leaders may come to power.
Members of organizations such as Hamas, thought of by the United States and its allies strictly as a terrorist organization, may eventually hold offices, as Hamas leaders have already been elected in the Palestinian territories. Often organizations that the West sees as terrorist have a more beneficent local reputation. The humanitarian efforts of Hamas toward the Palestinian people do a lot to explain why its representatives were elected.
The United States needs to back its words with understanding and action. For an American administration to use homegrown democracy as a guide for government abroad, they need to understand of what constitutes democracy in the United States and what historical elements led to its unique creation.
To implement something similar overseas, an understanding of local conditions, interests and temperaments is required. Some of these leaders will be outspoken, deeply religious or even openly hostile to U.S. allies. If the real goal is to bring democracy to all, then these governments must be encouraged, even ones the United States may not approve of.
In the process of putting its money where its mouth is, the United States may even earn back some of the moral authority it has lost over the last few years.
Jason Olivero has received a bachelor’s in anthropology at the University of Florida and is working toward a degree in electrical engineering.