For decades, the U.S. government has provided economic, military, and political aid to dictatorships in the Muslim world, on the theory that dictators would provide stability and protect American interests in the Muslim world.
When Muslims tried to pick their own leaders, the U.S. government was unsympathetic. The CIA helped overthrow the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran in 1953. The first President Bush stood silently by as the Algerian military prevented democratically-elected leaders from taking power in Algeria in the early 1990s.
After 9/11 highlighted anti-American feeling in the Muslim world, the second President Bush declared in November 2003 that the U.S. would reverse its policy. “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe — because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo. Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.”
The second President Bush partly justified the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq on the grounds of spreading “freedom and democracy.” He publicly called on allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and hostile states, like Iran, to allow more “freedom and democracy.” In addition, he said that spreading “freedom and democracy” will counter Al Qaeda’s vision of a “heartless system of totalitarian control throughout the Middle East.”
In Cairo in 2009, President Obama told the Muslim world, “But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”
However, both the Bush and Obama Administrations continued to provide significant support to friendly (pro-American) non-democratic regimes in the Muslim world.
Many Muslims around the world are suspicious that the U.S. remains committed to controlling and dominating, not freeing, the Muslim world.
Arguments By Those Who Believe The U.S. Should Promote “Freedom and Democracy”
1. The U.S. should peacefully promote “freedom and democracy” in Muslim countries currently ruled by friendly (pro-American) dictators. Propping up these dictators has turned Muslims in those countries against America and pushed them towards Al Qaeda. One of Al Qaeda’s main selling points in the Muslim world is that the U.S. props up dictatorships. If the U.S. stops propping up dictators, that will reduce Al Qaeda’s ability to raise money and recruit human resources. Furthermore, the risks of propping up friendly dictators are high, as America learned in Iran. If Muslims in various countries succeed in removing American-supported dictators without America’s help (as Iranians did in 1979), that could bring extremely anti-American forces to power. But if America peacefully encourages friendly dictatorships to become democratic, America will be viewed by Muslims in those countries as a liberator; this will generate a lot of goodwill for America. American support for civil society initiatives (independent courts, free press, civic groups, etc.) prior to elections will help create political alternatives to right-wing religious parties. Even if right-wing religious parties come to power, Muslim democracies are unlikely to threaten America; elected Muslim leaders will be accountable to their people and concerned about their people’s needs at home. (For example, Hamas came to power through elections in Palestine, but Hamas poses no threat to the U.S.) Furthermore, given the choice, Muslim voters may like the idea of an Islamic state, but not the idea of a right-wing, Al Qaeda caliphate.
2. The U.S. should fight to promote “freedom and democracy” in Muslim countries ruled by hostile (anti-American) dictators. America’s use of military force to replace unfriendly dictatorships with democracies in the Muslim world can win Muslim friends for America. For example, many Afghans and Iraqis are enjoying new freedoms and the opportunity to pick their own leaders and write their own laws. Elected leaders of different sects and ethnicities are sitting down to peacefully work out differences. This will lead to greater human development and a better future for these countries. Many Afghans and Iraqis, and other Muslims, give America the credit for this. Furthermore, if American troops leave once democracies are established, that will reduce suspicion that America seeks to dominate the Muslim world.
3. America has an obligation to help Muslim countries eliminate their dictatorships, because, in many cases, America propped up those dictatorships and helped make them so strong that the Muslim masses may not be able to eliminate them on their own.
4. Muslims want to choose their own leaders. Early Islamic governance was based on consensus (shura), not dictatorship. Muslims have been denied self-government for so long by colonialism and outside interference (including American interference). When outside interference has been absent, Muslims have established their own democracies, as in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mali, and Turkey. Even Muslims who want to be governed by Islamic law want to choose leaders who will interpret or implement the law for them; they don’t want leaders imposed on them.
Arguments By Those Who Believe The U.S. Should Not Promote “Freedom and Democracy”
1. The U.S. should not promote “freedom and democracy” in Muslim countries ruled by friendly (pro-American) dictators. America is more secure with friendly dictators in power. Dictators, who are dependent on the U.S., are more easily controlled and more reliable allies. Democracies, on the other hand, are unpredictable. Encouraging “freedom and democracy” in friendly dictatorships could open the door for right-wing religious parties to come to power. (For example, Hamas came to power through elections in Palestine.) These groups would be more likely to challenge the U.S. and be less supportive of the War on Terror; they might even support Al Qaeda. Furthermore, American support for “freedom and democracy” will not necessarily reduce anti-American hostility in friendly dictatorships; it will simply be seen as another form of American interference in the Muslim world. Al Qaeda and its supporters will continue to target America, because American involvement will continue to interfere with their effort to set up a right-wing, Al Qaeda caliphate.
2. The U.S. should not fight to promote “freedom and democracy” in Muslim countries ruled by hostile (anti-American) dictators. If those dictators need to be removed by force, they should be replaced with reliable dictators. America’s use of military force to bring “freedom and democracy” to Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, has created more enemies for America. Many Muslims around the world have been angered by the deaths of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians, which occurred after the dictators were removed. Furthermore, many Muslims viewed these invasions as an American attempt to control the Muslim world for religious, military, and economic reasons; they believed that American efforts to promote “freedom” were an attack on Islam, because “freedom” meant encouraging Muslims to stray from Islam. In addition, democratization hasn’t worked in Iraq or Afghanistan. Iraq and Afghanistan remain violent and unstable. Authorities in parts of Iraq and Afghanistan continue to abuse their power and violate the rights of citizens. Iraqis have voted along ethnic and sectarian lines, and their elected representatives are having trouble working together and resolving their differences. Furthermore, promoting “freedom and democracy” in Iraq and Afghanistan has cost thousands of American soldiers their lives; thousands more have been maimed; and America has spent billions of taxpayer dollars overseas that could have been better spent here at home on homeland security. Adding insult to injury, America has been blamed for problems of poor governance or lack of development (caused by poor security) in Afghanistan and Iraq. All this could have been avoided with the imposition of reliable dictators early on.
3. The U.S. should not interfere in any way in the Muslim world. The Muslim masses should choose their own path. America should mind its own business and allow Muslim countries to develop democracy on their own, if that’s what Muslims want. Anything associated with America is tainted in the minds of many Muslims overseas, so American democracy efforts will give democracy a bad name and undermine grassroots proponents of democracy in the Muslim world.
4. Very few Muslim countries are free or democratic. Many Muslims do not want “freedom and democracy,” and the U.S. cannot effectively impose “freedom and democracy” on people who don’t want it. Many Muslims oppose “freedom and democracy” on the grounds that only God can make laws, and man-made “democratic” laws usurp God’s authority.