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In Defense Of Democracy Promotion

An Egyptian woman protests in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, considered moderate among Islamist groups
An Egyptian woman protests in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, considered moderate among Islamist groups
Throughout the world, liberal democracy is once again being challenged both as a political system and, more fundamentally, as an ideology. We are engaged in an ideological struggle -- and the United States is losing ground.

The further spread of Islamism will leave America isolated and powerless to achieve its goals in security and foreign policy. Faced with authoritarian threats in both religious and secular forms, the United States should not be questioning whether to promote democracy, but how.

A democracy-promotion effort must not be piecemeal, but comprehensive; a holistic challenge requires a holistic response. The whole concept needs to be redesigned with an eye toward a longer timeframe that lasts beyond any one presidential administration.

In general, the United States looks for short-term successes when a generational commitment is needed, as the administration of George W. Bush originally stated. But again, the United States had to demonstrate success quickly, and thus went for the "low-hanging fruit" -- at points even sounding as doctrinaire about democracy promotion as those who oppose democracy. Now, as a result, we are back at the same point in the cycle -- if not lower.

Despite over 60 years of on-again, off-again efforts at democracy promotion in the Middle East and places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, the binary model that forces a choice between autocrats in power and populist extremists out of power has never really disappeared.

It is a mystery to me why the United States does not remain true to its own values and support the third option: the liberal democrats. Yes, liberal democrats in most parts of the so-called Muslim world are but a small minority today, but they will never grow in support unless backed by the United States; the other two sides already get all the financial and organizational help they could want.

Little Hope For Compromise

The prevailing view -- that Islamists should be co-opted into existing political systems -- simply will not work. Often, Islamists are willing to make superficial concessions while continuing to hold an uncompromising worldview. The United States simply does not understand Islamism, even though it has been an active and increasingly powerful ideology over at least three decades.

But although Islamism is not compatible with democracy, Muslims can be democrats. There is a huge difference.

The academics, analysts, and policymakers who argue that a movement like the Muslim Brotherhood today is "moderate" seem to disregard its ideology, history, and long-term strategy. They even seem to disregard the brotherhood's own statements. It is true that most affiliates of this movement do not directly call for terrorist acts, are open to dialogue with the West, and participate in democratic elections. Yet this is not sufficient for them to qualify as "moderate," when their ideology is so extreme.

Turning a blind eye to ideological extremism -- even for the sake of combating violent extremism and terrorism -- is a direct threat to the democratic order.

It is critically important to recognize that since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, anti-American movements, groups, and leaders from Russia to Venezuela have come closer together in a shared hostility to the Western, liberal system.

The worldwide U.S. commitment to, and promotion of, liberal democracy must therefore not be tacked on to policy as an afterthought, but must be at the core of the U.S. foreign and national-security strategy. This means returning to the fundamentals of what America is about: defending and guaranteeing freedom and dignity.

Anti-Americanism Alive And Well

Yet, it is important to keep in mind that anti-American groups will continue to try to take advantage of open societies. Some intentionally provoke incidents to promote an "us-versus-them" mentality.

They also feed conspiracy theories. The Islamist narrative is about victimization and humiliation; it is part of a deadly mixture of feelings of political and economic inferiority with a sense of ethical superiority.

I believe having President Barack Obama in office will grant the United States only short-term relief; Islamists are working on new narratives and searching for new grievances, since their need to undermine the United States and its democratic vision is so strong. Hopefully, the Obama administration will not be so eager to reverse the unpopularity of the Bush years that it will limit the emphasis on democracy.

America needs to be true to its values and principles. The United States should not be promoting "moderate Islam," but liberal democracy. There is no Arab or Muslim exceptionalism; leaders make these arguments in order to retain their hold on power over their people.

Even though people in different parts of the world may use different terms, the yearning for what we call freedom and liberal democracy is indeed universal.

There are no easy solutions, but if the United States does not show leadership, no one else will. We need to be patient and focus on institution building to enable democratic cultures to emerge. Each country has its own path that is based on its own history, culture, and traditions, and it takes time. There simply is no shortcut.

We should take a lesson in patience from the legend of Scheherazade, whose stories spanned 1,001 nights. Her tale is one of the most beautiful narratives in human history, yet it is unavailable in many parts of the Muslim world where books that preach hatred are freely distributed.

It is a story about a king who would marry and then kill his wives after their first night because he feared they would betray him. But Scheherazade survived, thanks to her wit and imagination: she began telling a tale that continued for 1001 nights, and in this process she gradually opened the king's heart and soul to love. In the end he spared her. In many ways, she spared him too by awakening humanity that allowed him to love again.

This is the kind of story we need. If Scheherazade had not had the right tools to capture the king's imagination, she would have been killed like the others before her. And the king and the kingdom would have continued to suffer.

By spreading the narrative of democratic progress, we can help save other women and men, the rulers and the ruled, and ultimately ourselves.

Zeyno Baran, director of the Center for Eurasian Policy at the Hudson Institute, is writing a book on integration of Muslim youth in the West. This piece was adapted from her February 26 testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.