I don't believe for a minute that Bush, Cheney, and their posse care an iota whether the people of Iraq live in freedom or not. They went into Iraq for the oil contracts, and the construction contracts, and all the billions of other dollars that their buddies have made from this war. But they did hold an election -- of sorts; paid for by the blood of American soldiers and innocent Iraqis; after they had gone out of their way to destroy the entire infrastructure of the country just so their big donors could get paid big money to rebuild everything. An election was held, and some Iraqis did vote. The voted in a majority Shiite government that, almost immediately, began to talk about using Islamic laws and principles as a blueprint for its new constitution.
And I don't believe for the minute that the last presidential elections in Iran were free and fair. How could they be when all the candidates are approved or rejected by a mullah, who draws his authority from God, and whose will supersedes that of the people, and the president, and any other mullahs. But those who voted did have a choice -- dismal as it was -- between Ahmadinejad and a more moderate, pro-reform, pro-dialogue with the US candidate. The fact that the "more moderate" candidate was one of the original leaders of the Islamic Republic under Khomeini, a mullah in full costume and one widely believed to have robbed the country with unusual zeal over the last twenty-some years, is testament to how bad things really are in Iran. Then again, given that choice, the people who went to the polls in Iran elected the more extremist of the two candidates.
The sad truth in the majority of the Muslim world today is that neither the governments currently in power, nor their biggest opposition, are interested in what we, in the West, call democracy.
To be sure, there are, in every country -- Arab or otherwise -- activists who seek a truly representative government that protects the rights of all its citizens. These people sacrifice life and limb and, in most cases, put their families in harm's way for the sake of freedom (I know that word -- freedom -- has lost its luster, barely rings true anymore, since Bush started using it as an excuse to commit all kinds of unspeakable, impeachable crimes, but in some parts of the world, people really do give their all for it.) The trouble is, those who agitate for real democracy in their respective countries are far outnumbered by tyrant wannabes who want an election all right: one election that brings them to power just so they can turn around and establish total, unchecked, and fanatical control over the country and its neighbors for all time. They envision regimes that are often more oppressive and brutal than the one they seek to overthrow, and they're not afraid to sacrifice millions of lives to get there. By comparison, the real democracy lovers are too few and too powerless.
So you have, in Egypt, a government that is far from free and open and democratic. But if honest elections were held in Egypt tomorrow, you would most probably end up with a fundamentalist Muslim government that would make Mubarak's regime look awfully democratic by comparison. You have, in the Palestinian authority, Hamas winning in fair and open elections, only to enforce its wishes at gunpoint against other Palestinians. You have, in Indonesia, where the majority population is not Arab but the religion is Islam, open elections and a regime that, because it has tolerated Islamic militants within the country, is quickly losing control to them. You have, in Algeria since 1993, a military that stopped an election because it promised to be won by Islamic militants; that act led to a civil war that has taken 200,000 victims and counting.
Is it about Islam?
Yes, and no.
Yes, because at the moment, Islam is a tremendously popular force with a great many foot soldiers. And it does have a way -- death, that is -- of silencing not only its external opponents, but also any dissenters from within.
No, because Islam is no different, in its yearning for unchecked, unmitigated rule, from any other religion. God, being the Supreme Leader of the Universe, may tolerate discussion, but won't put up with real opposition.
Religion need not be abolished in order to bring democratic rule to a country. The United States is proof of that. And the absence of religion -- as in China or the Soviet Union -- does not necessarily allow for freedom and democracy. But you cannot have a democracy in a place where the government draws its legitimacy directly from God, and you cannot hold honest elections if they're going to be swept by a wave of fundamentalist despots. And that, sadly, reduces the choice to one between a religious dictatorship, and a more secular, more outward-looking tyrannical leadership. Not much of a choice, I know, but I'd take the secular any day. So would all the revolutionaries of Iran who helped overthrow the Shah only to fall victim to Khomeini.
It's not that we're incapable, in the Middle East and other Muslim countries, of tolerance and understanding and living peacefully with our neighbors. Not at all. It's that those of us who would embrace freedom, are far outnumbered by those who won't. Or if not outnumbered, we're more silent.