The Muslim world needs democracy and economic reform — on that, almost everyone agrees. As Rami Khouri, columnist for the Daily Star of Beirut, recently complained: "Arab countries ... have spent nearly a century developing themselves and have so little to show for it. Not a single credible Arab democracy. ... Not a single Arab society that can claim to have achieved a reasonably sustainable level of social and economic development. ..."
But when we talk about democracy and economic reform, do we share a common understanding of what those terms mean? I'm skeptical.
Start with democracy: To some, the word simply implies majority rule. I'd disagree: Without individual and minority rights, majority rule establishes a tyranny of the majority — not much improvement over other forms of tyranny. What we should mean by democracy is liberal democracy — a system in which the government guarantees basic freedoms. Because majoritarianism doesn't provide that, I'd argue that it should be seen as counterfeit democracy.
Perhaps you'll say: "OK, but surely the ballot box is where democracy begins." Again, I'd demur: Democratic outcomes require democratic inputs.
A few years back, I served on a bipartisan "democracy" panel reporting to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She was enthusiastic about the elections the Bush administration had midwifed in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon.
A few of us were unconvinced: These elections would be counterproductive, we predicted, so long as there was no freedom of speech, press and assembly; so long as one political party — Hamas in Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon — was also an armed militia, not to mention a terrorist organization. Rice responded by saying, in effect: "One step at a time!" In retrospect, I think it's clear we were right and she was wrong.
There also is the experience of Iran, where voting began shortly after the 1979 revolution but which has hardly become democratic. Then there is Turkey, which, after nearly a century of voting, has become decreasingly free. In Egypt, elections brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood, whose first order of business was to destroy its rivals. A military coup was the consequence.
Economic reform is, if anything, a thornier issue. A little history may be instructive. From the 15th century to the 20th century, the Muslim world meant the Ottoman Empire, which became wealthy the old-fashioned way: through armed conquest, plunder and taxing subjugated peoples.
In 1453, the Ottomans captured what had been the Christian capital of Constantinople, eventually to be renamed Istanbul. The spread of Islamic imperialism and the growth of Islamic power appeared unstoppable.
What changed the course of history? In Europe about this same time, Johannes Gutenberg developed a printing press that allowed for the mass production of books. That led to what we now call mass communications. And that, in turn, gave birth to what came be known as modernity.
"Islam's greatest mistake," Daniel S. Landes wrote in his landmark 1998 book, "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations," was the refusal of the printing press, which was seen as a potential instrument of sacrilege and heresy. Nothing did more to cut Muslims off from the mainstream of knowledge. ... This self-imposed archaism dissolved the loins of empire."
Over the centuries that followed, Europe would continue to advance technologically, culminating in the Industrial Revolution. In the aftermath of World War II, both the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic caliphate it incorporated would be dismantled.
As one door closed, another was opening — for some in the Muslim world. The internal-combustion engine, one more revolutionary Western invention, transformed oil into a valuable commodity. Those who had seas of petroleum under lands they had conquered would soon become fabulously wealthy — without having to embrace modernity.
Left behind were the Muslim lands without oil. What are they to do? Writing about Egypt after the recent military coup, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman advised: "Our job is to help the new government maximize the number of good economic decisions it makes. ..."
Easier said than done: If we were to pick two economists — say one from Berkeley and one from the Hoover Institution — what are the chances they'd agree on what qualifies as a "good economic decision"?
Finally, there is this: No matter how many "good decisions" Westerners recommend, at the end of the day, it will require Muslim democrats and economic reformers to create and sustain democratic and economically reformed Muslim nations. There are such people — but they are still few, far between and largely powerless.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.