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On God And Government In The Middle East

A woman casts a ballot at a polling station in Sale, Morocco, in 2007.
A woman casts a ballot at a polling station in Sale, Morocco, in 2007.
The Arab Spring has given way to summer. Syrians are still taking to the streets, while Libya's rebels slog along in their fight against Colonel Qaddafi. Yemen is on the verge of slipping back into civil war. Tunisians, freed from their former dictator, are trying to figure out what comes next.

Yet the welter of news tends to distract us from an event that promises to be particularly momentous. In just a few weeks Egypt is set to hold its first genuinely free elections, elections that are bound to shape the fate of the Arab world's biggest and most influential country. The rest of the world will be watching with anticipation and not a small amount of anxiety. Will Egyptian voters give their blessing to secular democrats -- or to the Muslim Brotherhood, the world's most venerable Islamist party?

So the appearance of "The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East," a new book by Reuel Marc Gerecht, is especially timely. Gerecht, a former CIA analyst who now follows Middle Eastern affairs at a U.S. think tank, offers a provocative message. The West, he says, suffers from crippling ambivalence about the path to democracy in the Muslim world. The U.S. and the Europeans insist on the universality of democratic values, but they shy away in horror when elections in Arab countries threaten to produce victories for Islamists who hold views that are antithetical to Western liberal traditions.

To this the author has an unambiguous response: Get over it.

No one can accuse Gerecht of starry-eyed sympathy for holy warriors. His conservative bona fides, forged during years at some of Washington's leading right-wing think tanks, are unimpeachable. He is unstintingly pro-Israel. He also professes admiration for George W. Bush's "democracy agenda" in the Middle East. He is happy to point out that the existence of an elected government in post-Saddam Iraq has catalyzed discussion of democratic options elsewhere in the Arab world.

His problem with Bush, indeed, is that the president didn't remain true to his instincts. It was the Bush administration, after all, that recoiled from the results of the elections in Gaza that brought the extremists of Hamas to power in January 2006. That shouldn't have come as such a shock. As Gerecht notes, Islamists have scored similar victories in every case -- he mentions Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait -- where autocratic Arab regimes have allowed for limited elections.

He has no illusions about the results. Yes, Islamists are harsh on rights for women or sexual minorities, and they are invariably hostile to Israel. And their professed belief that sovereignty belongs to God rather than man invariably raises questions about the extent of their genuine commitment to democratic values. Given such concerns, it's entirely understandable that Westerners usually prefer to support secular democrats, and to push for the creation of democratic institutions that will ensure a "healthier" outcome when elections are held. Not that that's such a bad thing. It's certainly better than the default policy of support for secular autocrats that most Western governments have resorted to over the past half-century or so.

But each of these approaches, says Gerecht, is essentially a fool's errand. In societies where the attachment to Islamic beliefs is deep and organic, these Western policies all too often fall into the trap of treating "democracy" and "Islam" as mutually hostile value systems. This is simplistic and destructive. In fact, most Muslims want both democracy and Islam -- as the extraordinary intellectual and spiritual ferment that culminated in Iran's so-called Green Revolution so vividly demonstrates. "Sooner or later, we need to understand how deeply democratic ideas have penetrated the Middle East," Gerecht writes. "Intellectually the world has turned upside down." And he can cite sources from across the region that back up the point.

In this reading, the true standard-bearers of democracy in the Islamic world are none other than those "Arab fundamentalists who believe they can save their societies through God and democracy," and the best solution to the pathologies that still plague their world is to let their followers go to the polls.

He concedes that the results will not always be pretty. What we should keep in mind, however, is the moderating dynamic of popular participation. The author urges us to see elections as the start of a democratizing process rather than as its end. Citing the French Islam scholar Olivier Roy, he points out that the big Islamist movements are at their most moderate in those countries where they've been allowed a voice in the political process. (Roy's list comprises Turkey, Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait.) And the Green Revolution, the product of three decades of Iranians voting (however imperfectly) for their leaders, dramatizes the extent to which the draw of the ballot box can undermine the radical fundamentalists.

So the new regimes may not give full rights to women? Perhaps. Yet Saddam Hussein's secular Iraq, for all of its anti-sexist rhetoric, was also a country that used rape as a technique of repression. Secular autocracies can scarcely be regarded as guardians of female sovereignty when it is the secret police who reign supreme. Surely the best antidote for male arrogance is allowing women to go to the polls -- a right that most of the mass Islamist parties actually embrace. True institutional change will come, says Gerecht, as women put their votes to use. (Cultural change, he suggests, is already under way, as more and more women in the region move into the workplace and traditional roles quietly shift apace.)

The same applies to relations with Israel. Israel will achieve lasting security only when the Muslim world accepts it, the author writes, and this will probably take many years. "But evolution is the key, and the only way that Muslim societies are going to evolve positively is through campaigns and elections." The bottom line is that Israel will never have peace "until Muslim Arabs, through their elected representatives, say enough is enough."

I can imagine that this conclusion might come as thin consolation to many Israelis. And there are plenty of places in this rather compact book where a reader might have wished for more detail rather than less. Here and there, for example, Gerecht writes approvingly of the democratic government (messy as it is) that now holds sway in Baghdad. But he never gets around to explaining whether the model of democratization-by-gunpoint pioneered by President Bush constitutes a laudable precedent worth continuing elsewhere -- or whether it was a costly and destructive exception that is better avoided. We are left to figure it out for ourselves.

The great strength of "The Wave," however, is the sure-footedness with which the author guides us through the global Muslim conversation about the relationship between God and government. (In stark contrast to many of the so-called Mideast experts who are so fond of ruminating over these issues in the West, he is actually conversant in the region's main languages, so he's better equipped to tap into local debates.) Gerecht writes with a verve and passion appropriate to one of the defining issues of our time. This is an invigorating book. Let's just hope someone can get it translated into Arabic in time for those Egyptian elections.

Author's note: Reuel Marc Gerecht is married to the director of communications and external relations of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees RFE/RL activities.