By Brian T. Watson
March 21, 2013
From western Africa to central Asia, Muslim countries are experiencing various degrees of political instability, turmoil, violence or civil war. A partial list includes Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon.
The circumstances in each country differ somewhat, but they all share two troubling similarities. First, to a large extent, the factor behind much of the violence and contentiousness is the struggle between militant, fundamentalist Islam and some more moderate version of the religion.
The second common denominator behind the ongoing strife afflicting these nations is the unfamiliarity or incompetence of their societies with the practices of democracy and, furthermore, the incomplete state of democratic structures and institutions within the countries.
If we look at an obvious example — Afghanistan — we see a country of 32 million, most of whom live in villages without connection to the central government, and for whom our notion of “big” democracy seems unrelated to their tribal or religious lives. In addition, their practice of Islam is being terrorized on the right by the Taliban, and on the left it is being challenged by the young, by modernity and by alien Western values.
The realities in Afghanistan — not least of which is the corrupt Karzai government — ensure that we Americans cannot alone create peace and democracy there.
In Egypt in February 2011, all of the opposition was united against President Mubarak. They wanted his authoritarian rule gone, and then they would create something more akin to a democracy. Today, Egypt is struggling to craft a democracy, and simultaneously fighting Islamic ideologues who would constrain Egyptian liberalism in the name of fealty to Islamic religious strictures. It is unclear where President Morsi wants Egyptian democracy to go.
It’s all a reminder — especially to Americans, who have historically known only democracy, and who are good at actually practicing it — of the incredible difficulty of harmoniously running a country with millions of diverse peoples, diverse religions, varying values, and differing economic and educational circumstances. It’s a reminder that a government in a democracy makes decisions, exercises power and provides order, but does it through representative institutions that respect the people — and conversely — the people respect and accept the institutions and their exercise of power. In any democracy, this reciprocal relationship is always simultaneously resilient and fragile.
With all of this in mind, we can understand why the Western World is struggling to figure out the best way to help the people of Syria. The civil war there is exactly 2 years old, more than 1 million refugees have fled the country, roughly 2.5 million are displaced within Syria, 75,000 people have been killed, towns and cities are being physically demolished, and the fighting is fiercer than ever.
President Assad, who inherited the dictatorship from his father in 2000, shows no signs of yielding, and he now baldly uses tanks, jets, cluster bombs, and other heavy weaponry against civilians and insurgents.
As in Egypt, and so many other nations that are long-tyrannized, motley collections of rich and poor, literate and illiterate, empowered and repressed, devout and infidel, tolerant and intolerant, and modern and backward, Syria’s insurgency can barely agree on anything beyond resistance to a dictator. When Assad falls, the opposition may divide into identity groups that are unable to compromise sufficiently to create a new democracy, or even a new nation.
It is a similar story across big parts of the Muslim world. Sunnis, Salafists, Shiites, Alawites, Kurds, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Taliban, jihadists and more — all carrying generational or ethnic or religious fears and grudges, and perhaps without the leadership, the institutions and the capabilities to marginalize the worst bigots and fanatics among them.
It is tempting for the West to walk away from this chaos. But that would be a mistake. We don’t know the futures of these peoples, but they surely will matter to us. Because the chaos increasingly looks like a battle to define how Muslims will make a way in this shrinking, modern world, the democratic West has an interest in seeing the triumph of enlightenment values.
For two years in Syria, the West has barely assisted the rebels. France and England are now recommending that Europe and the U.S. commit themselves to Assad’s defeat by sending heavy weaponry to the insurgents. Their argument is that the current stalemate only allows more physical destruction of Syria, increases the refugee problem, further destabilizes the region, and, most importantly, enlarges the likelihood that the various rebel groups will increasingly fight with each other for territory, power and post-war control.
Syria is not Iraq; we didn’t start this war. It may be time to pick sides and arm the rebels, even though — as in Egypt — we don’t yet know the character of the winners.
A major issue of our time is the choice that the Islamic world has to make regarding the values that it will hold and defend. Will they be values that can be, and are, compatible across cultures? As Muslims struggle to understand and implement democracy, tolerance and compromise, the West ought to find ways to help them toward wise answers.
Brian T. Watson is a regular Salem News columnist.