One of the key justifications that the US has used for its aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East has been that it is working to promote democracy and political freedom for the oppressed peoples of the region. Its supporters are claiming major victories in this department at the moment, as the pro-American Hamid Karzai supposedly became Afghanistan’s first democratically elected president last month, and elections for a democratic Iraqi government are due to take place at the end of January. The reality, of course, is very different, as all but the most west-toxified observers recognize.
The political systems in Iraq and Afghanistan are far from democratic, however defined, as both have clearly been designed to ensure that the US is able to maintain its dominance one way or another. In Afghanistan, that has been achieved by the simple device of ensuring the election of Karzai, the US’s own man, to the top job in what is essentially a personalised system of government. Iraq being a rather more sophisticated and complex society, the system established there is similarly more complex. Among other things, the US has had to permit anti-American leaders such as Ayatullah Sistani to take part in the system, in order to give it some semblance of credibility. Some of these are bound to be involved in the new government, but the US has tried to design the political system in such a way that it can manipulate it in order to ensure that those who might oppose its plans for the country are unable to exercise significant power. Meanwhile, the fact that these opponents of the US invasion, occupation and continued presence in Iraq recognise political institutions and processes help the US to legitimise its policies and attack those who continue to fight against them.
Iraq and Afghanistan apart, the US has also promised to enforce democratization elsewhere, by pressuring the established authoritarian regimes of other Middle Eastern states to democratize. This commitment was ostensibly given because the US is a champion of democracy and ordinary people around the world, and regrets its traditional support for authoritarian regimes. The fact that Muslim countries lack democracy has been given as a reason for the rise of “Islamic extremism” and of support for anti-American “terrorism”. Even given the Bush administration’s evident ability to believe its own propaganda, however removed from reality it may obviously be, most observers are sceptical about this commitment to democratization in the Muslim world, pointing out that it is obvious that genuinely popular and accountable governments in Muslim countries are bound to be anti-American.
At the first Forum of the Future in Rabat last month, however, this scepticism was shown to be entirely justified. The Forum of the Future is part of theUS’s Greater Middle East Initiative, unveiled at the G8 summit of major industrial countries last June. The object of the initiative was supposedly to promote democracy, human rights and economic liberalization in the Arab world; in fact it became a forum at which the US confirmed its alliance with the same authoritarian regimes through which it has controlled the region in the past, and which have demonstrated absolutely no interest in any meaningful political reform whatsoever. The kings, colonels and presidents-for-life who were excoriated as the biggest impediments to reform a year ago have now been embraced as the agents for change, clearly indicating that the only democracy that the US really wants in the Muslim world is the sort of ‘facade democracy’ now established in countries like Egypt, Jordan and Morocco.
In the last few months some misguided Muslims, in Muslim countries and in the West, have suggested that Muslims should take the US’s commitment to democracy and reform in our countries at face value, and try to use it as a basis for opposing the established regimes in our countries. This was always a spectacularly naive position; now it should be clear to all that outright opposition to the US and its agendas is the only way to pursue meaningful political change in our countries, and that Islamic movements working for revolutionary change, rather than through the established political orders, are the only genuine agents for change in our societies. There is no longer any possible excuse at all for failing to understand this simple point.