Few empires have ever justified their enslavement and exploitation of subject peoples in such terms; the US is no exception. The Romans justified their imperialism by offering law and order; the British offered liberalism and progress; the Russians, communism and socialism. Now the Americans are promising freedom and democracy. The reality, of course, is different. America’s record on the promotion of democracy in Latin America, the Middle East and other areas is well known.
A renewed emphasis on democracy has been a little-noted feature of American discourse since September 2001. Although American analysts claim that Israel is the main reason for Muslims’ hatred of America, another is that virtually all Muslim countries are ruled by regimes that are perceived as being concerned primarily with America’s interests. To the question "why do they hate us?" American commentators answer, "Muslims are jealous because we have democracy and they don’t". They should say rather, "because we protect pro-Western dictators", not blame Muslims and Islam.
So, after decades of repressing popular political involvement in Muslim countries (and many others), and of propping up despotic regimes provided they protect Western interests, the US presents itself as a champion of democracy against tyrants. Its first targets are regimes that refuse it tribute: the Taliban and Iraq already, with Syria and Islamic Iran (which is actually the most ‘democratic’ country in the Muslim world) in its sights. But its allies are also under pressure to democratize, as a means — the US hopes—of deflating anti-Western feeling.
So what is the model of democracy Washington wants? Not one in which irresponsible Muslims can elect "clerics" to power, for starters. Rather, according to Noah Feldman, the Jewish-American law professor whom Washington has appointed to help draft a democratic constitution for Iraq, the object is an ‘Islamic democracy’ like Turkey’s; one, in other words, in which American interests will be guaranteed, American bases permitted, Israel and its ‘peace process’ supported, the Islamic movement violently suppressed, and — if the Turkey model is copied properly — hijab and the teaching of Islam to children severely restricted. Perhaps Feldman’s model will stop short of these extremes; its aim will be seduce Iraq’s Muslims, rather than provoke them. But the idea will be to get America’s pet regimes more legitimacy than they have now.
This cannot be achieved only by politics, of course. As usual, American intellectuals are happy to follow their politicians’ lead. Feldman himself has written a book, After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy, in which he argues that Islam can be made compatible with democratic ideals, and that encouraging this is America’s best hope. There has recently been a surge of studies, debates and symposia on Islam and democracy. To take two examples, the current issue of the Journal of Democracy has a section on ‘What is Liberal Islam?’; the current issue of the Boston Review focuses on ‘Islam and the Challenge of Democracy’. Later this month the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), a Washington-based Muslim organization, will hold its annual conference, with two senior US government officials among its keynote speakers. In every case, Muslims are discussing issues according to agendas set by the Western establishment. Only in the Boston Review does one Muslim contributor, Saba Mahmood of the University of Chicago, ask why Islam "bears the burden of proving its compatibility with liberal ideals", rather than the other way round.
The idea is clearly to create an American-friendly version of Islam that will fit easily into a West-dominated world, to avoid Islam’s remaining a rallying-point for the poorest and most oppressed, and its being a vehicle for the ideals democracy supposedly embodies. Many of the issues of political and social order and justice raised in these debates are central to the work of the Islamic movement. But it is essential that we discuss them in terms of Islamic intellectual traditions and experiences, rather than allowing others to set our agenda. This work has started, and is being continued by Muslim intellectuals, including the successors of Imam Khomeini (ra). It will enable us to assess the true nature of ‘democracy’, instead of accepting the West’s myths. Decades ago the West planted the germ of nationalism in our societies; the Ummah is still suffering the consequences of allowing it to take root. We must not repeat the same mistake with the far more seductive germ of ‘democracy.’