Too Much Information   /   Spring 2015   /    Notes And Comments

What Can America Do?

John M. Owen IV

Despite the disappointments of the Arab Spring and the more recent emergence in parts of Syria and Iraq of a terror regime calling itself the Islamic State, there are signs that the winner of the Islamist–secularist contest may be an emerging hybrid, an Islamic democracy comparable to Christian Democracy in Europe and Latin America. That hybrid may prove unsustainable, however, or the states exemplifying it (at present, Turkey) may end up performing poorly.

How, then, ought Americans to think about the end of the Muslims’ long legitimacy crisis? Is there anything the United States and other outside powers can do to influence developments? Or is any attempt to influence the outcome liable to be perceived as imperialistic and to backfire?

The answers are not easy. It is far from clear, for one, which contending ideology would be friendlier to America and its interests. Americans tend to think that secularists are friendlier and Islamists more hostile, but as we have seen, that is not necessarily so. Islamist Saudi Arabia remains one of America’s most solid partners in the Arab world. In the 1980s, Islamists cooperated with the United States to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. Many secularist regimes—Nasserism in Egypt, Ba’athism in Syria and Iraq, the PLO—have been anti-American.

How hostile either ideology is to the United States at any given time and place seems to depend on other conditions. One recent study suggests that secularists and Islamists alike tend to be more anti-American in societies where they are competing with each other most fiercely; where one side is clearly predominant, the nation tends to be less hostile to US interests. That said, for reasons of principle, Americans should want a regime type for Muslims that is just, fair, and conducive to human flourishing. We may argue over how secular or Islamist such a regime may be for Muslims in the twenty-first century. We should agree that it be, in general terms, a constitutional democracy, one that is constrained by law and avoids dense concentrations of power by having an executive checked by a legislature, courts, or both.

Constitutionalism is strongly rooted in much of the West, but it also has a history in the Islamic world, and some of the roots of democracy may be found there as well. No doubt constitutional democracy will look different in Muslim countries than it does in America and the rest of the West. Western constitutional democracies are also liberal, that is, the constitutions that constrain them prize individual rights against the state. In recent decades Western liberalism has come to value individual autonomy against traditional religious institutions and practices as well. Islamist constitutional democracy would be incompatible with this relatively new Western liberalism.

So liberalism may not be an available outcome for devoutly Muslim societies.

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