The Faith Angle Forum is a semi-annual conference which brings together a select group of 20 nationally respected journalists with 3-5 distinguished scholars on areas of religion, politics & public life.
“The Islamic Paradox: Religion & Democracy in the Middle East”
Key West, Florida
Reuel Marc Gerecht, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
Jeffrey Goldberg, Staff Writer, The New Yorker
Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: This year we wanted to do something on the future of Islam and democracy in the Middle East. And Jeffrey Goldberg knows a lot of the best thinkers in the country on this, so I asked Jeffrey, “In your mind, who is one of the best thinkers on this?” And Jeffrey said, “Well, my friend Reuel is actually the best in America on Islam.”
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: I said that? I’m denying it right now. I’m denying it.
MR. CROMARTIE: It gets even better. I said, “Well, okay, that’s good; we’ll try to get him. Now we’ve got to get a respondent.” And we went through some names of some of you all who could respond as experts on this. And to Jeffrey’s credit, he was very good; he said, “Well, that guy’s okay, but he doesn’t know this or that.” And he had so much knowledge about it, I finally said, “Of course, I’d ask you, Jeffrey, but you guys are best friends.” He said, “We’re best friends but we don’t agree on this at all.” I said, “Are you serious? Well, then, you’re the respondent.”
And so we’ve got two friends who actually disagree about life on the ground, so we are delighted that Reuel has agreed to be here and that Jeffrey will respond. Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. His most recent book is The Islamic Paradox: Shiite Clerics, Sunni Fundamentalists, and the Coming of Arab Democracy. He is a former Middle Eastern specialist in the CIA. His good friend Jeffrey Goldberg is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Thank you both for coming.
REUEL MARC GERECHT: One of the reasons — perhaps the chief reason — that I am fond of President Bush is that he understood, relatively soon after 9/11, what the principal problem behind the generation of Bin Ladenism was. It was put, I think most articulately, in the speech he gave at the National Endowment for Democracy. If memory serves correctly, I think it was November of 2003, where he talked about the dysfunctional nature of the Middle East, that bin Ladenism was essentially generated by this perverse nexus between dictatorship and Islamic extremism, both through support and through oppression. If you were to trace back the intellectual roots of the concept, it comes from the work most eloquently done by Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami. Regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, first and foremost, and secondarily Pakistan had generated a new type of Islamic extremism, and the only way you could deconstruct it was to introduce democracy in the Middle East.
I think that was a very astute observation on his part. It was a little surprising since President Bush did not have a background in the Middle East, and it certainly went against the terrain of what had been established thought in both the policy and the scholarly world, where the most progressive attitude prior to 9/11 had generally been that the Palestinians, too, ought to live under their own nationalist dictatorship. They’d get an enlightened dictator and that enlightened dictatorship would slowly but surely evolve into some type of secular democracy, and all those things that we cherish and love would come about and you’d have an Arab version of Turkey.
Now that hadn’t happened and President Bush abandoned that view and said, no, we’ve got to encourage evolution. In my mind it was sort of a self-evident evolution on our part, on the American side, and we should have seen it sooner. If you look at the Middle East, it is very evident that they’re not suffering primarily from what you might call an insular or retrograde nature. The Middle East has gotten into so many problems because it’s actually on the cutting edge of what you might call having an absorptive capacity. The Middle East has absorbed absolutely every single bad Western idea you can think of, whether it’s nationalism — which sometimes may not be bad — socialism, communism or fascism. You name it, they’ve absorbed it; they’ve swallowed it down hook, line and sinker. The problem has been that they have not absorbed well the better virtues of Western civilization.
But that evolution is certainly clear, even if you take the issue of Holy Law — and I mention this issue in particular because it’s quite a good one. In 1807 the British decided, in probably the most stunning act of imperial hubris known to any Westerner, that they were no longer going to allow the slave trade within their dominions — and you can actually go back and read some of the commentary of the Ottomans on this — the British said, no, I’m afraid that slavery is no longer permissible. The Ottoman response to that, and it was the response throughout the Muslim world, was that you’ve obviously lost your mind because slavery is vouchsafed to us by God, and under certain circumstances — and those circumstances were well-spelled out in the Holy Law though they were fairly loosely applied at times — you could enslave other individuals. Slavery was a common denominator of Western, Middle Eastern and Asian history, but the British decided that that was no longer to be the case, and they started using the Royal Navy to ensure that the slave trade was shut down.
Now fast-forward 200 years, and you will see that in fact throughout the Middle East, with possible exceptions — certain corners of Saudi Arabia, Chad and Mauritania — the vast majority of Muslims and Muslim clerics no longer believe that slavery is vouchsafed to believers by God. It has been abandoned. Now, the liberal interpretation of the Holy Law — they have reinterpreted the Holy Law — is that it was God’s intent that people be free. Well, that’s fine; I’m all in favor of that, but that textually is not what the Holy Law says and that’s not what the original hadith talked about — the sayings of the Prophet. But that’s where we got. I would suggest that those who view Islam as being a static force are in fact getting it backwards. Islamic civilization hasn’t been static at all. It’s actually been in some sense eminently progressive. It’s just that some of the ideas they’ve absorbed from us haven’t been good ones.
However, they have absorbed an enormous amount. The real issue on democracy in the Middle East is whether Islamic civilization has sufficiently absorbed Western ideas to sustain democracy. That’s what it’s all about. Traditional Islamic society does not recognize the democratic impulse. Traditional Islamic society has the Holy Law above all else and the individuals do not have rights; they have obligations. There is a social contract that exists between the ruler and God and between believers and God. I think we have evolved far, far, far, far away from that now, and that the absorption of Western ideas since Napoleon landed in Alexandria in 1798 has been enormous and substantial.
It’s easiest to see this if you look, first and foremost, at the Shiites because they have that which the Sunnis do not. They have a clerical hierarchy that has become extremely well established. It goes way back, but it really crystallized in the 19th century. You can almost say there has been a Christianization of the Shiite clergy. It is beginning to look like what you might see in the Roman Catholic Church. If any of you have been to the Middle East — this is a slight digression — one of the best ways to get Shiite clerics to start talking to you; for that matter, Sunni clerics too — is to talk about the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, because they just can’t comprehend that. I remember I was in Iraq talking to an Iraqi cleric about the Christianization of Shiism, and he didn’t really like that very much. He turned to me and said, would you want your mother to be a virgin? And I said, well, OK.
But it’s important to remember that they have a very well-established intellectual hierarchy. And remember what clerics are: all Islamic clerics are lawyers, they are scholars. The further you move up the chain, the more scholarly, the more accomplished they are. They argue, debate, they put pen to paper. What we have seen in the last 200 years inside of Shiism is an evolution — a very clear evolution — to a democratic ethic. Now, the pivotal moment for that is the 1905-1911 Constitutional Revolution in Iran, where for the very first time in Islam you have the intellectuals, the clergy — and by the way, it’s not just Iranian clergy, it’s Iraqi clergy — discussing the foundation of a constitutional and in some sense secular state. The most important intellectual works on the Iranian revolution, which fueled the movement, are written by clerics in Najaf, Iraq. You begin to see the development of the idea of a secular state, where you have everybody following certain rules, where checks and balances are in place. The clergy begins to exercise properly and legitimately a supervisory role over the monarch, but you don’t have theocracy. The clerics are asserting the idea of a social contract — the old Holy Law conception of obligations, between the people and rulers (it’s a two-way street) and between the ruler and God is certainly still there but is changing.
Now, you do not yet have in that period what you would call an established democratic ethic, though if you go back and look at an ayatollah who was very formative in that revolution — his name was Khalisi — you can actually see in his writing the development of a democratic ethic. He is importing what he sees in the West, and he’s telling how it will work. From the 1905-1911 revolution you had one new stream develop, and both Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior cleric in Iraq today, and Khomeini come from the same stream. That’s important to remember, and people tend to separate these: the quietists and the revolutionaries.
You have clerics who realize there should be a secular state and there should be some type of clerical role for supervision of that state. A democratic ethic is starting to grow. But Khomeini moves this evolution decisively in one way. He actually goes down a very logical path — not inevitable but certainly logical — where he says, “All right, if clerics can properly have a supervisory role over the monarch, why not just make them the rulers, because they have spent more time than anybody else and therefore they can make the best adjudication of the most important issues.” Now what has happened here is the revolution — Khomeini in particular forcefully evolved all Shiites.
The failure of that revolution, the failure of theocracy in Iran is known throughout the entire Iraqi clergy. When I first went to Najaf, I spent a lot of time with clerics in Najaf, and it became crystal clear. You saw Iranian clerics just sweeping in. People often tend to have the wrong idea of Iraq, I would argue. They tend to worry about the Iranian influence on Iraq. I think what’s much more interesting and will turn out to be much more profound is the Iraqi influence on Iran. With all these Iranian clerics there — and it was like old home week for me because the lingua franca was often Persian and not Arabic — they were telling all the Iraqi clergy how bad it is in the country. I was expecting that you would find the Iraqi clergy in some type of time lag and that they themselves would have this little itch they wanted to scratch, that they wanted to create their own sort of theocratic state, and that they would not be fully apprised of what was going on in Iran. After all, Saddam Hussein had established the most Orwellian regime the Middle East had ever seen. He essentially atomized and shut down that society.
But what I was very pleased to discover is in fact he hadn’t shut it down completely. There had been a tradition of samizdat literature, and the clergy had continued to maintain contact and were very, very well aware of the problems that were occurring in Iran. When the gates went down after April 2003, the Iranian clergy flooded into Iraq and started having long conversations with them about what a jerk Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was and how badly it had fallen apart in Iran and how even Islam was in danger in Iran because of the abuses of the clergy. This you can see taking shape in discussions inside Iraq and also in written statements.
The most important statement to remember is the one by Grand Ayatollah Sistani on June 28, 2003, where he issues his fatwa, which of course everybody in the Coalition Provisional Authority didn’t appreciate, where he states very, very clearly, in just stunning language, that the ultimate arbiter of political passions and politics in Iraq has to be the vote of the common man. If you look at that fatwa, he’s not talking in any way, shape or form about the clerics being the arbiters. He certainly, I can guarantee you, believes that clerics should have a supervisory role, but he states very, very clearly that each man has the right to vote and those votes together determine the politics of the country.
It is a revolutionary event. It completely overturned the views that Khomeini had articulated and his disciples have maintained in Iran. It is why you now see Grand Ayatollah Sistani regularly discussed in Iranian newspapers, particularly in publications like Resalat, which are very close to the clergy, as they begin to realize, in fact, they’ve got an earthquake in their midst. You can see it in tithing. The Iranians always talk about tithing — money they send to the clerics. Sistani has probably become the recipient of the most tithing in Iran. It is an earthquake waiting to happen. If you take the June 28th fatwa and you apply it to Iran, the entire clerical regime in Iran goes down.
I think it’s also obvious for people when they look at Iran how far it has come. Iran does not have a democratic political system, but without a doubt it now has a fairly advanced democratic culture. It has evolved because, you remember, Iran had two streams going into the revolution. One was clearly democratic and the other was theocratic, and Khomeini triumphed over the democratic elements. The first draft of the Iranian constitution was written by Iranian liberals, and then it was cut to pieces by Khomeini. But both of those strains were very powerful in the beginning, and I would argue now the democratic strain has actually triumphed. Everybody knew it in Iran in 1997 on May 23rd when President Khatami won his first mandate. Everybody knew that he had more legitimacy than anybody else did in Iran because he had won 69 percent of the popular vote, and the Iranian ruling elite has worked diligently since then to ensure that that mandate was belittled.
If you accept that in fact you have among the Shia an established democratic ethic, then you have to say, what about the Sunni world? Because that’s 85 to 90 percent of Muslims. And it is certainly the Sunni world that is the generator of bin Ladenism. I would argue that Iranian holy warriorism — actually the ideas that we saw in the mid-1970s and up to the time of the revolution in 1978 — actually exported many of its ideas into the greater Sunni consciousness. But you have to solve the problem in the Sunni world or otherwise you’re not going to get rid of bin Ladenism.
I would suggest that the evolution inside the Sunni world is also fairly profound. It is less easy to see because they do not have an established clergy; they have not gone through an Islamic revolution, as has Iran. Most clerics inside the Sunni establishment have been bought off, have been incorporated into the ruling regimes, which is why, if you look at fundamentalists and Islamic militants, they’re either laymen or what we would call lay clergy. They grow up in opposition to the established clergy, which has wedded itself to the state, which is the traditional Sunni practice.
But what is important to remember is that Sunni and Shiite thought has generally evolved in tandem. It’s true in the Middle Ages; it’s true in the modern period. The ideas tend to percolate, more or less, at the same time. The Sunni world is often a little bit ahead of the Shiite world, in fact, because they have been closer to the West. They’re the first ones absorbing ideas.
The Ottoman Empire was sucking up an enormous amount of ideas from the West from very, very early on. And what you do see if you look at the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — and the Muslim Brotherhood is split off into numerous little groups now — but if you look at the Muslim Brotherhood, it is very clear that they have developed the idea of the democratic ethic. They’re still having indigestion, and they don’t know exactly where they’re going. You see the same thing in Iraq. If you talk to clerics, they are now in favor of democracy, but they do have trouble with the idea. They’re trying to figure out where the borderlines are between what should be permissible in a democratic society and what shouldn’t — the red lines.
We have the same red lines. Their red lines are in different spots than ours. We believe in democracy, we want to have a check on dictatorship, we want to evolve, but everybody is trying to figure out where we put down the red lines? What shouldn’t a democracy be able to do? I would suggest that this great indecision you see among Iraqi clerics is good because there isn’t a consensus. There is not a consensus from one cleric to the next cleric to the next, even among the grand ayatollahs.
The same thing exists in the Sunni world. You go back and look at one of the most explosive intellectual moments in the Sunni world — and there aren’t many because you have these effective dictatorships or kingdoms over them that stifle things — but if you go back to 1989, 1990, 1991 and you look at Algeria, you can start to see enormous debates among what you might call the Islamic militant set. There are some ferocious ideologues there, just ferocious, awful guys inside FIS, particularly my favorite, Ibn Hajj — people usually call him Bel Hajj. He’s just an awful, awful, awful, awful guy.
But you also see a significant debate among these various individuals recommending democracy, hoping for democracy, drawing on Western icons of the democratic spirit, and you begin to see this enormous fight. It got shut down, of course, because when they won the first round of the parliamentary elections, the military decided we shall go no further with this democratic experiment, slapped it down, shut it down to, I think, a general applause in many, many quarters in the West, particularly amongst feminists.
If you look at the Sunni world, what I suggest is that it has gone a very, very, very long way. And if you look at the ideas that have been incorporated since 1978, in all probability the Sunnis are at the same place as the Shia are today. They might even be a little bit in advance. Of course, the only way you are going to know that is by having democratic elections.
But I’ll give you an idea of how quickly this evolution can occur. Take a look at Iran again. Iran, as in so many things, is the bellwether. If you look at Iran, you will see that in 1978, 1979, it was without a doubt the most jihadist society on earth. It was the most anti-American society on earth; it was probably the most anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist society on earth. It was a true boiling pot. I suggest now that as a jihadist culture, Iran is as dead as a doornail. It’s finished. You still have a clerical dictatorship that uses terrorism as statecraft, but the jihadist engine is out of gas.
If you look at Algeria, that hasn’t happened. The competition in Iran is not a democratic process; it’s the coup of the revolutionary clergy taking hold. The democratic process probably would have gotten you there a lot quicker, where you have competition among fundamentalists and everybody has to compete. You look at what happened in Algeria, where the military stamped it down. What you saw then was the Algerian militants actually becoming some of the formative elements in al Qaeda and starting to develop the major networks in Europe, which of course, struck us on 9/11. There’s been no evolution in Algerian society.
There are going to be problems with this evolution to a more democratic society. And again, I think this could happen a lot quicker than people realize. One of the things we’re going to have to realize that’s going to happen is that anti-Americanism is probably going to skyrocket. If you think anti-Americanism now is at a high watermark, just wait. When democracy takes hold, it’s just going to rip. So is anti-Zionism, so is anti-Semitism. All of these things for a variety of different reasons are going to accelerate. Don’t panic. It’s actually good. It’s the fever that will break the disease. You have to let it go. You can see it in a more polite way even if you look at Turkey. Turkey’s got two evolutions now that are driving it in a more anti-American direction.
One, Turkey is becoming much more fundamentally a democratic state. It’s also becoming a more Muslim state. Those two together are definitely going to make it more anti-American. We’re seeing that now with the ruling AK party. Live with it. They also have the added benefit of becoming more European, which also makes them more anti-American. And as they strive for EU integration, I expect that to be more and more. But this is fine, so don’t worry. Let it go.
The other thing — and it’s a very important element — is that democracy is probably going to bring some retrogression in women’s rights. Now, it may not be terribly large. It may. As long as women retain the right to vote, you know that in the end since they represent a majority of the population that they are going to move forward. But I suggest that there was a time not that long ago when a lot of women, female scholars, were very, very fond of dictatorships that advanced women’s rights. One of those dictatorships was Saddam Hussein’s, yet to my knowledge it’s the only dictatorship in history that has actually used rape as an instrumental tool of control. Accept the process, accept the retrogression that may occur, knowing that in fact the key here is to have evolution. If you don’t have evolution, you get back to a cul-de-sac. It will take you right back to 9/11.
A notion exists in certain quarters today, mostly liberal quarters, that in fact we can somehow reach over the head of these illiberal dictators and kings and nurture Muslim progressives so that we won’t have elections in those lands until we know who will win. As a good friend of mine inside the Pentagon, who is a disciple of Kissinger, said to me, “I love elections, I want elections, but I don’t want elections until I know who will win.” Well, you don’t get to know that, all right?
And there is no mechanical way — I’m all for having Muslim progressives and liberals become the dominant force in these Muslim societies, particularly Arab societies, but you don’t get to have that. There’s mechanically no way you get to work it. You don’t get to put off elections and say, “I’m not going to have elections until I get to have the type of people I want, until Muslim progressives can be the dominant force in society.” I suggest to you by putting these things off, by going back to a pre-9/11 world, by supporting dictators, by hoping for an Ataturkist revolution, that what you actually make more likely is revolution. You’ll make it more likely that in fact you’ll have a coup d’etat of the type that we saw in Iran, that you will have the truly hardcore become dominant through violence.
What you want to do is open it up and make these people compete. Then you have to have this basic assumption that Muslims are different — they differ among themselves — but they nevertheless have the same basic drives that we all do and they want to have more political control over their lives. They want to have a better society for their children, more economic opportunity, etc., and that if given the chance, the Muslim middle will hold and you will not see the triumph of the truly radical and hardcore.
I would be willing to take that risk and say that the truly radical hardcore might win at the ballot box. It’s still worthwhile to do it because you’ll at least start the evolution. And if you don’t have that evolution, you can’t get rid of bin Ladenism, and you’re going to get right back to the position where we’re hoping and praying that we have some dictator who is going to be like Ataturk and is going to introduce new secular reforms and eventually we’ll get there. I would suggest that won’t happen, and in all probability we’ll be hit again before then. And I’ll stop there.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you. Jeffrey Goldberg, keep it going.
MR. GOLDBERG: As the Ayatollah Khomeini said when he landed in Teheran, after years of exile in Paris, and looked about at the chaos, oy vey.
Where do I begin with this guy? Let me make two points, before I forget them, directly off things that Reuel said.
The thing about fevers is that they sometimes break the disease, but sometimes they just kill you and that’s something worth remembering as we get into this discussion. And what was that comment you said — Iran has a fairly advanced democratic culture? I’ll return to that in a minute, but it’s advanced in reference to Somalia, I guess. Maybe parts of —
MR. GERECHT: Egypt, Algeria, Jordan.
MR. GOLDBERG: Well yes, but let’s remember 1,000 people registered to run for president of Iran, and three days ago the Ruling Council of Guardians banned 995 of those candidates from running because they were not ideologically in line, theologically in line, with the rulings of the Expediency Council, which clears the way for Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is both a cynic and a fanatic, to take over Iran.
MR. GERECHT: I think you just proved my point.
MR. GOLDBERG: Well, we’ll get into that. Compared to Egypt, you’re right. The price that we have to pay for the jihadist culture that is still embedded in the ruling leadership and in the IRGC and in the Army and in the intelligence — in the MOIS — this is what is a problem for American foreign policy makers.
That was a fascinating presentation, Reuel, both erudite and wrong-headed. And such an accent, such perfect pronunciation. You know, sometimes at night — late at night — I call up Reuel and I just say into the phone, “Say al Qaeda for me, baby.” And he’ll say “al Qaeda” in that way of his and it helps me sleep.
In all seriousness, Reuel is a great expert, particularly on Shiism. I don’t get into fights about Shiites with Reuel. He knows too much. But the funny thing is whenever I listen to Reuel on this subject, I sometimes feel the presence in the room of Robert McFarlane — that somewhere McFarlane is lurking about with a cake baked in the shape of a key and a Bible, and he’s going to Iran and he’s hunting for those great Islamist moderates. There’s this tendency among certain Republicans to believe that Iran and other countries are filled with this elusive character, the moderate Islamist. The funny thing is, Reuel is a hardheaded guy. He knows who the enemy is. He’s dealt with the enemy firsthand. This book of his is a kind of departure. He’s not a Wolfowitzian, softheaded naïve idealist who sees Thomas Paines lurking in the corners of mosques across the Muslim world. And yet, if I were going to turn this book into a television show, I would call it Touched by a Terrorist.
One of the reasons Reuel’s presentation is compelling is that there are no good options, and so in the absence of good options, all sorts of things come forth that are less than good but perhaps feasible. But let me run through a couple of problems that I have with this notion that what we need to do is find good Islamists, moderate Islamists, to combat the bad Islamists, the radical Islamists. You can divide the problem three ways. There’s a moral problem with this, there’s a political problem and there’s a national security problem. But all of them grow from a single problem, which is a definitional problem.
We’re talking about moderate Islamists or finding these guys who are somewhere short of bin Laden, and it’s interesting because three years ago, I think it was here at Key West, we had a Harvard professor named Roy Mottahedeh. He’s a sort of academic who today blames the 2003 invasion of Iraq for 9/11, if you know what I mean. He was arguing that Islamism is on the wane, there’s nothing to worry about, and these guys who you think are so bad really aren’t so bad. I brought up a very prominent cleric named Youssef Qaradawi. He’s an Egyptian Ikhwani Brotherhood Sunni cleric who has a very popular television show on al-Jazeera, sort of an “Ask the Imam” show. And I was arguing that this guy, Qaradawi, was a radical cleric in-line with basic ideas of the Sunni sharia rule — part and parcel of the problem. And Roy Mottahedeh was arguing that Qaradawi was in fact a moderate, and his evidence was that while he was for the use of suicide bombing in Israel, he was against the use of suicide bombing in America.
And so, it was a great clarifying moment for me —
— no, no, no, it was actually very interesting because this is what I’ve noticed in this debate over moderation versus extremism in the Muslim world: the whole debate is debased because a moderate by that standard — and it’s not just his standard by the way — a moderate by that standard is someone who endorses the indiscriminate slaughter of Jewish children in Israel but who is opposed to the indiscriminate slaughter of American children on American soil. Now, this is not moderation. You can pervert the language and call it “moderate,” but this is not moderate. The definitional problem is the one that we’re having today.
To put this on a continuum. If you were going to take a Jerry Falwell and put him on the Islamist continuum, if you will, he would be a William Sloane Coffin of Islamism. Rick Warren would be like a Wendy Kaminer of Islamism.
Let’s just talk about one area in which this conversation is debased. It’s a large area because it has to do directly with the lives of half a billion people, meaning Muslim women. When we’re talking about the debate between what Reuel might call these forward-looking or moderate Islamists and the real, retrograde bin Laden, we’re not talking about one of them being firmly opposed to Roe v. Wade and one of them being morally troubled by late-term abortion.
When I used to travel around this part of the world, whenever I talked to a cleric or an imam, one of the things I always would bring up is sharia’s view — sharia being Islamic law and of course this is what all these guys want to impose on their societies is Islamic law — sharia’s view of corporal punishment of wives. We know that the Islamists all share an understanding of the role of wives, which is to say that they believe that wives are a possession and a second-class citizen within a marriage and within a house. But nearly every single one I’ve spoken to admits or says openly that yes, according to Islamic tradition, it is the theologically granted right of a husband to beat his wife when she steps out of line. You go to bookstores and you can find many, many guides for men about how to control their wives. I bring this up because this is not just something I heard in madrassas in Afghanistan. This is something that you hear among highly educated clerics — the lawyer types that Reuel was talking about — all across the Muslim world.
This is the moral problem that I’m talking about. When we sit here and say, well maybe we should encourage this type of cleric to take over his country as a counter-balancing force to the more radical cleric, let’s keep in mind that the moderates are not at all, by our moral standards, moderate. There is a price that we would pay morally for allowing this to happen and the price is not insignificant, particularly if you are a woman. I’m not even going to go into their views on Israel, their views on Jews, their views on the Christian communities who live as minorities within these countries. They are very, very intolerant. This is something that is shared across the board, across the spectrum of Islamism.
If you listen to Reuel, it sounds as if Iran has not posed a threat and continues not to pose a threat to the United States — the government, not the people, but the government. But all you have to do is ask Elsa Walsh about Khobar Towers in 1996 to understand the price we pay for Islamist governments. You have to look at the nuclear program today, which is proceeding full speed ahead and which is an incredible danger to the United States and its allies in the region. It’s a very big price.
Now, think about that price in the Egyptian context for a minute. Let’s say we encouraged the sort of election or the sort of democracy that Reuel is talking about that allowed a Muslim Brotherhood-style leadership to take over in Egypt. I’m sure they would abrogate the Camp David accord. I think they would do that almost instantaneously, which would provoke Israel to re-occupy the Sinai, which would probably lead to a full-blown Arab-Israeli war, the likes of which we haven’t had in more than 30 years. That’s for starters. You have an enormous American-built and -equipped army in Egypt that would instantly be turned into an army of jihadists in potential or in actual fact.
The argument is seductive because I believe that fundamentalism is in many ways the antidote to fundamentalism. It’s true that Iran has gone through a process over the last 25, 30 years in which clerics have come in with the famous slogan, “Islam has all the answers.” The people have seen quite evidently that Islam does not have all the answers, and so they are ready for revolution that will make their country into a semi-secular, more or less pro-American democracy. But it hasn’t happened yet, it’s not going to happen in the near future, and in the meantime, the people of Iran suffer terribly. And not only do the people of Iran suffer, but we suffer as well. So that’s the national security dimension of this that people have to consider.
I suppose the political problem is also a moral problem in a way. Just because there are not Thomas Paines in every mosque doesn’t mean there are no Thomas Paines. I tend to think that we have not tried yet to identify and help in direct or indirect ways the nascent democratic movements in theses countries. These are not democrats who are hyper-secular. Again, everything has to be considered in the Islamic context. These are not people who are radical ACLUers. These are, in many cases, religious people who believe in full equality or reasonably full equality for women, who are not infected with the fever of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. These people exist. They don’t exist in great numbers, but they do exist and we can help them.
I still think before we admit that there’s nothing else we can do but allow fundamentalism to happen and hope that we survive the 20, 30, 50 or 100 years of Islamist rule of Egypt and Islamist rule of Pakistan, there’s one thing we can still do — beyond invading and occupying everyone, which doesn’t seem to work that well — and that is to try to identify and help the true democrats. Reuel would say that they are out of step with their people. That might be true. He would say that they’re small in number. That is true. The analogy is of course inexact, but Solidarity started in a single shipyard in a single city in Poland, and it was a key to the bringing down of an entire empire.
So before we give up on these people — and this is where the moral component comes in because these people need our help, our guidance and our money and we should be helping them — before we give up on these Thomas Paines, we should try to help them and see if they can short-circuit the process that Reuel is describing. I’m not saying that the process that Reuel is describing won’t happen anyway. But I think it would be a betrayal of our own ideals if we let the Islamists take over without at least trying to help the people who think and act in ways that we find not only morally acceptable, but even righteous. And I’ll end it on that.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you, Jeffrey. Thank you very much. David Brooks and then Carl Cannon.
DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: First, I think we can now reveal that this wasn’t a panel discussion. It was the al-Jazeera pilot episode of The Odd Couple.
I wanted to ask you guys to apply your thesis to Hezbollah and Lebanon, because we hear that they are either moderating as a social welfare organization or remaining a terrorist army. How will they play out as democratic actors or terror actors?
MR. GERECHT: You have to look at the larger Shiite community and whether you believe the larger Shiite community is going to hang with the rest of the Lebanese to create a new Lebanon. I actually think that they will, and I think that Fouad Ajami is absolutely right when he says you will not see another break between the Shiite community and the Maronites. If that’s true, then what’s going to happen is the Hezbollah is going to be dragged, kicking and screaming, toward a new consensus, and either they will split and you will have the hardcore anti-American, anti-Israeli, let’s-use-violence crowd take issue with their own community, or that faction of the Hezbollah will lose and they will not be able to stand against their own community, which is in favor of a realignment in Lebanon.
What’s going to be interesting to watch — and I don’t think it’s been fully appreciated yet among the Maronites — is that the new alignment in Lebanon will inevitably make the Shia the dominant party in the country. That is also one of the reasons why the Hezbollah probably are not going to misfire in going to war with their own Shia community.
MR. GOLDBERG: I don’t particularly disagree with that except to try to highlight the fact that I believe that organizations built on jihad are jihadist at their core, and that energy remains and everything they do is with the eventual goal of jihad against Israel. There are many factors in Lebanese politics that constrain them right now. The Israelis have said to the Lebanese, “If Hezbollah attacks us over the border, we will attack the power stations that supply the entire country. We will put you in a total blackout, so it’s your job to control the Shiites.” Hezbollah understands that, and because Hezbollah wants to play this role in domestic politics, it has restrained itself so far because it doesn’t want to be blamed.
With that said, I don’t see this leopard changing its spots terribly much on the fundamental questions that led to its formation.
CARL CANNON, National Journal: I have a question for Jeff. You invoked Lech Walesa’s Solidarity example as an attempt to short-circuit this long, tortuous process that Reuel described. But the historical analogy that maybe makes better sense to me — and I hate to quote George W. Bush to an intellectual — is our own experience. African-Americans were held in the chattels of slavery until 96 years after the Declaration of Independence, even though that document clearly was incompatible with slavery. Women were not given the vote in this country until the 20th century. It wasn’t until the 21st century that the Supreme Court made homosexuality — illegal in the Muslim world — legal, decriminalized.
It seems to me if you want to short-circuit the process, you may be repeating the mistake we made in Iran of all countries — the 1953 coup was widely hailed here as a positive thing. This was a democrat — the shah. When President Eisenhower left office, this was considered one of his accomplishments. And it just seems to me that by attempting to short-circuit, you may in fact delay it another 100 or 200 years. This is an organic process, and as painful as it is, maybe we just have to live through it.
MR. GOLDBERG: What I’m talking about is as Americans advocating for a foreign policy that leads to the enslavement of 500 million Muslim women and to certain war between Muslims and Israel.
MR. GERECHT: You know Hosni Mubarak is hunting for a new PR firm, and I think we’ve found him.
MR. GOLDBERG: How much does he want?
Look, I’m no friend to Hosni Mubarak. The hard question is, do you support an Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, who is a grotesque man obviously, or do you work actively against him? I know I sound like Brent Scowcroft bu — this is the hard stuff. Do you advocate the overthrow of Islam Karimov, as we should morally because he’s a horrible Soviet-style dictator, and then hope and pray that the Islamists don’t turn Uzbekistan into an Islamic republic and attack us in Afghanistan from Uzbekistan? I tend to think that the Islamist option is worse. I tend to think that for everything terrible that happens under Islam Karimov — I mean, it’s the same thing as with the shah. If you look at the history of the shah, in 1979 you would have said, “anything’s better than the shah.” Well, not true.
MR. GERECHT: No, but I would just say the alternative there was of course true. Ideally, what you would have wanted is for the shah to have opened up the political system before 1978, because if you don’t open up the political system, it becomes much more likely that you will have Islamist revolution. It is in fact the democratic process that takes the steam out of it and makes these people start to compete and go for votes. And it introduces the idea — a very powerful idea — of basic justice. The egalitarian impulse in Islamic society is very, very powerful, and what you want to do is fortify that impulse. Once you begin a process where Muslims themselves become responsible for their fate and for their future, it becomes progressively more difficult for individuals who gain power democratically to say, all right, now you don’t get to have that anymore.
MR. GOLDBERG: The problem of letting Islamists participate fully in the democratic process is one man, one vote, one time. It’s two elections in one. It’s the first election they have, and it’s the last election they’ll ever have.
MR. GERECHT: I’ll just suggest to you that we would have been better off allowing the FIS process to move forward in Algeria rather than igniting what was one of the most bloody moments in Middle Eastern history, which has in fact led to even further radicalization of Algerian society, which fortified the Algerian expatriate community, turned them militant, and actually became a major vehicle for al Qaeda in Europe.
MR. GOLDBERG: And you think that the first thing the Islamists in Algeria would do is become moderate?
MR. GERECHT: No, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know that the democratic process is a much better vehicle for having people scream, shout and debate these issues out, and that your alternative isn’t an alternative. There is no mechanical vehicle for evolution, which is why every single dictatorship in the Middle East has always used this Islamist bogeyman every time, because they say, “Après moi, le déluge Islamiste.” What you’re doing is maintaining the pre-9/11 world. You’re maintaining the dictatorships that fuel the Islamic extremism that hit us on 9/11. You don’t give us an avenue out of that. I’m all for supporting liberals and progressives, try to find them, reach out to them, but I just tell you mechanically it’s not going to work because Hosni Mubarak isn’t going to let you do it.
MR. GOLDBERG: But Iran is an example of exactly what you think won’t happen. Your former colleagues in the counterterrorist center at the CIA would argue that Iran now harbors more al Qaeda suspects than any other country. Khobar Towers came, what, 16 , 17 years after the revolution?
MR. GERECHT: Jeffrey, how did the clerics take over in Iran? Was it through a democratic election?
MR. GOLDBERG: No.
MR. GERECHT: If memory serves, it was through a coup d’etat. It was through revolution.
MR. GOLDBERG: Right.
MR. GERECHT: What you want to do is ensure that doesn’t happen again. You want to start the evolutionary process in the democratic way because it becomes less likely that you are actually going to have a repeat of that revolution. What you don’t want to happen in Egypt is to have a revolution. Under no circumstances do you want to have a revolutionary process, where the most radical become the cutting edge of that society.
What you want to do is open it up so that people have to start competing and you begin to destroy this noxious connection between the dictatorship and the Islamists, the worst type of Islamist, which they often support. You have to break that, and I don’t see how you break that if you say essentially, “Let’s wait, let’s try to support these little liberal groups even though they’re going to throw them in jail, let’s put off elections.” Because as soon as you say, “You have to have elections; they are part of this process and they have to come in the beginning,” you open up the possibility that Islamists of a variety of different stripes — some truly ugly ones — are going to have the chance to win at the ballot box. But there’s just no way around that.
MR. GOLDBERG: But the great unknown is too great to be unknown.
MR. GERECHT: No, the 9/11 known is known. You don’t want that to continue.
E.J. DIONNE, The Washington Post: I was saying to Reuel I’ve read so many of his pieces that I felt like coming in a “Sistani’s the One” tee-shirt.
Basically, I’d like to ask Reuel if he could analyze what’s happening now in Iraq and what he thinks of his guy Sistani now. What kind of role has he played in the aftermath? And I would like this argument to continue because I think the question, Reuel, is on the one election, one-time deal. What’s the downside? I’d like him to explore the downside of his own strategy.
MR. GERECHT: On Iraq and Sistani, I think that is still going more or less in the direction that you would want it to go in that Sistani has been reaching out from the very beginning to his Sunni counterparts. I think that is beginning to yield some fruit. The big problem that you’re going to have in Iraq, I think, is how much of the insurgency now is generated by Iraqi Salafis, by the Wahhabis. I fear that the overwhelming number of individuals who are blowing themselves up in car bombs are not actually foreign jihadis but native Salafis who imbibe the holy warriorism that Iraq is just beginning to taste. Iraq has been in a time lag in that they should have experienced the type of Sunni militancy that the rest of the Arab world began to experience 25 or 30 years ago. They didn’t experience it because of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
That huge jail is now broken open, and so I think you’re beginning to see more of the Salafism come into Iraq. That makes it much more difficult to find a common ground. I still think it’s likely, because I don’t think Iraqi Sunni society as a whole is going to go Salafi. The majority of that community, as in the Shia community in Lebanon with Hezbollah, is going to want to reach a compromise because they know now beyond a shadow of a doubt after Jan. 30th the old order is dead, and if they don’t reach a compromise, eventually the Shia are going to kick the shit out of them.
And I think we are very, very fortunate to have someone like Sistani there who knows very well what happened in Iran, who is well aware of the need to have some type of consensus, who has methodically recommended restraint, and so far successfully for the Shia community. I have to say the restraint is stunning, given how many of the Shia died in the ’91 rebellion. If you traveled Iraq, everywhere you went you would see pictures and notes by the thousands and thousands and thousands asking, “Have you seen my lost loved one?” When I was there, I got all the fatwas issued by the grand ayatollahs of Iraq, and most of them at that time dealt with how you bathed bones that had been put into mass graves and how you identified bones and claimed them as your family members. So again, I remain fairly optimistic on that score.
As long as someone like Moqtada al-Sadr doesn’t become dominant. His primary objective was to bring down Sistani, and he failed to do so. He is the true threat to a new Iraq, because if he can derail the Shiite community, the whole thing goes down the tubes and we need to leave as soon as possible. But that hasn’t happened, and I think it’s going to go forward because the Shiite and Sunni communities are essentially one community in Iraq. Culturally, they’re almost identical, the similarities are still greater than the differences, and they will hold. It’s just a very, very difficult and understandable process the Sunnis have to go through because they have been the dominant force in that society for centuries, and it is very, very painful for them to let go of that.
MR. DIONNE: What could go wrong if these elections go forward, because there’s almost a kind of historical determinism at the heart of your argument or it sounds like you’ve got to go through the fever in order to break it and move forward.
MR. GERECHT: Well, the downside is that the most radical elements can take the democratic process, abuse it and create an Orwellian militant state. That would be the true downside.
MR. DIONNE: Why should we not fear that?
MR. GERECHT: Well, you should fear it. But I think what we already have you should fear more in that we know what the present situation is. We know what the status quo has given us. And the status quo is unacceptable. What Jeffrey is arguing in effect is maintaining the status quo because we fear what comes beyond. And what I’m saying is, no, you don’t want to maintain the status quo because maintaining the status quo has given us bin Ladenism, it’s given us 9/11, it’s going to continue to give us bin Ladenism. We’re not going to get out of that until we break this dysfunctional nature in the Middle East. I’m saying that we have to stop supporting these dictatorships and that it is worth the risks. You are going to find in the year 2005 that with Muslims – like other people – given the chance to vote, the majority, the middle will hold.
MR. GOLDBERG: You’ve heard about the January 30th elections?
MR. GERECHT: Oh, very much so. And I think from all over there is this fear that Muslims are just a bit wacky, that they’re just not sufficiently like us, that they are going to engage in this sort of jihadism, holy warriorism, and even sharia-firstism, and that they’re just going to run amok. I just don’t think it’s true for the vast majority, and the only way you’re going to defeat bin Laden from becoming a cult hero, which he is, the only way that in the end you will rearrange society so the anti-Americanism isn’t so virulent is by making these people become responsible for their own fates. That’s the only way you defeat the noxious conspiracy theories. The only way the Muslims become responsible is for them to actually have some control over their own destiny.
And the notion that these Arab dictatorships are going to evolve is untenable now, I think. I think that Ataturk was an amazing man. He is one of the great figures of modern history. But unfortunately the Turkish experience has proven itself to be unique. We have seen the opposite with dictatorships in the Arab world. The dictatorships have gotten worse; they haven’t gotten better. They’ve become less progressive, not more progressive. And in fact, when they have become progressive, they’ve become Orwellian.
What you want to do is just say that this dictatorial evolution isn’t going to happen. And the next step is, let’s just move away from it. I don’t see how you get to postpone elections to that day when you can all be comfortable that the Islamist threat is going to disappear completely. I just don’t see mechanically, ideationally how that happens. That’s why I think you just have to move the election forward and take the risk. And it is a risk, and it is certainly going to be a risk for women, there’s no doubt about that. But I would say it’s worth the risk.
If you go to the mosque, the Imam Ali’s mosque in Najaf, there are four new tiles – now there may be more because of all the fighting — but there were four new tiles that were put up on that mosque, and they were above each of the four doors. They were not there under Saddam Hussein’s rule. And those four tiles, using different wording, say the same thing, and that is: “Women, please be advised. Wear the correct hijab, because if you don’t, you will support the enemies of Islam.” There is a consciousness about these issues.
Now, I would suggest to you that this isn’t going to undermine the democratic process. The two can operate in tandem, and with time you will see that the democratic weight that comes with being 51 percent of the population is going to keep this within bounds. It is not going to make the situation intolerable for the vast majority of women in Iraq, or if it were to happen elsewhere, with the women in Egypt or the women in Algeria. But it may be rough; it may be tough. I mentioned at the end of the book that for those women who have grown up under secular dictatorship, they may find the transition to democracy intolerable, and I would just hope the United States takes them in.
MR. GOLDBERG: Excuse me?
MR. GERECHT: Takes them in, gives them visas.
MR. GOLDBERG: How many?
MR. GERECHT: I don’t know, Jeffrey.
MR. GOLDBERG: No, but I mean, there’s half a billion Muslim women.
MR. GERECHT: Oh, don’t be ridiculous.
MR. GOLDBERG: No, no, no.
MR. GERECHT: In Iraq, I suspect you’ll hardly get any women who will move because of that. I suspect in Egypt the vast majority of women will not move, that there is a very, very slim slither of a group of women who may not be able to stomach the democratic transition in Egypt. In all likelihood, you will see a truly vigorous debate on these issues in every single Arab country. And again, the end product of this may not be initially what we would want, but I think it is better that you have democracy than you have secular dictatorship that allows women more professional moving room.
MR. GOLDBERG: Isn’t what’s unspoken here the soft bigotry of low expectations in a way? Why don’t you address this idea that maybe there’s another route out, which is that we can try to help the many millions of Muslims who have the impulses that are our impulses, basically — maybe not separation of church and state, because there is no such thing in the culture — but why can’t these countries make the transition to democracy in more of the manner of let’s say Poland than in the manner of Iran?
MR. GERECHT: Now, would you explain to me how that happens, Jeffrey?
MR. GOLDBERG: I’m agnostic on the question. I don’t know the answer.
MR. GERECHT: Well, I’m all in favor. I’m just saying, is it better to have elections sooner not later in Egypt? Yes.
MR. GOLDBERG: I don’t know.
MR. GERECHT: Can the United States jump over Hosni Mubarak and say, you have to support the liberals? I’m willing to try. I’m in favor of taking away American aid from Mubarak, using it as a hammer on him to encourage the process of democracy.
MR. GOLDBERG: And maybe you can hammer him enough so that the people don’t feel a need to turn to Islam as the answer.
MR. GERECHT: Well, I guarantee you though, Jeffrey, if you turn to Mubarak and say to him, “I want you to support the liberals, but I don’t want you to have elections yet. All right? But just support the liberals.” Mubarak is just going to play you like a professional poker player, and you aren’t going to go anywhere. The only effective hammer that you have is the threat of election. That’s the real make-or-break point with these folks, the elections themselves. Now, I’m all for trying to figure out ways to get money to the liberals even though the CIA would fight it tooth and toenails. I’d be in favor of trying to figure out some clandestine way to support them. Support them up the wazoo, but don’t take the position that we’re not going to support the election process in the Middle East until we’re absolutely certain that these liberals will prove triumphant at the ballot box, because I think you’ll be waiting till the end of time.
DAN HARRIS, ABC News: Question and then two mini-questions. A quick point about supporting moderates — I interviewed Imon Noor in Egypt recently. He is the one guy who has announced that he’s running for president against Hosni Mubarak — he’s a liberal. His big PR problem is that he’s linked to the Americans. So trying to help these guys may hurt them.
I get that you’re not in favor of the status quo, but the big question is, how do we get there? Did you support the war in Iraq and would you support more of these? And the little question is, do you think Pervez Musharraf, even though he’s not an Arab, has a potential to be Ataturk? And what about the women’s rights movements in Kuwait and a little bit in Saudi Arabia?
MR. GOLDBERG: Can I just answer that first question?
MR. GERECHT: Sure, go.
MR. GOLDBERG: You’re right. The very danger, of course, is overt or covert support for these democrats makes them more unpopular than popular. But there are clever ways of doing things. The AFL-CIO was instrumental in Poland — probably more instrumental than the CIA. There are ways of doing things that are both transparent and not directly American that could actually help these people, and I think there are probably creative solutions to that problem.
MR. GERECHT: I think we can say without a doubt that the AFL-CIO was more influential in Poland than the CIA.
MR. GOLDBERG: This is the head of the Poland desk.
MR. GERECHT: I was very much in favor of the war in Iraq. I still am. I think it has changed the entire nature of the Middle East, and I’m all in favor of that. It truly introduced an earthquake. I’m reasonably optimistic that this is going to still work out. It’s going to be very, very difficult, and it certainly has not gone the way that a lot of people had hoped. But again, I think those people didn’t realize the tenacity of the Sunni establishment. It is a tough, tough, tough thing, but I think it’s going to work out. We would not have seen what we have seen in the Middle East since 9/11 if it had not been for that invasion.
I’m not in favor of invading countries just to bring about democracy. I do believe that democracy can be brought through force of arms. I don’t have any problem with war. War is the great engine of history, and those who argue that you can’t change things through wars, I just find odd because wars always change things.
MR. GOLDBERG: You’re not a pacifist.
MR. GERECHT: I’m not a pacifist. And under American guidance, they have often changed things for the better. There’s going to be an enormous amount of hypocrisy in American foreign policy, as there was in the Cold War. That’s just a given. I don’t think Musharraf is an Ataturk. He may have gone through some evolution, but who was the man running the training camps inside Afghanistan for the war in Kashmir? It was Musharraf — it was his brainchild. Musharraf probably had a direct operational link to bin Laden when he came in in ’96. Now obviously he’s evolved, and there’s nothing like people trying to kill you to change your disposition toward the world. But I would be very surprised to see Musharraf evolve in a democratic direction. I hope he does, but I doubt it.
I think that Musharraf had a great deal of fear after 9/11 and thought that in the invasion of Afghanistan, the Sind might prove like the Northwest Frontier Province — that is the area around Karachi — that it might actually be sympathetic to the Taliban. When he found out that the Sind was going to stay with him and wasn’t sympathetic to the Taliban, I think he went, “Oh, this isn’t so bad.” And I think that’s still true, so American foreign policy can live with that hypocrisy. I’d rather it not, but I think it can live with it. I don’t’ think we can live with hypocrisy in Egypt. Egypt is the make-or-break state, and if democracy can start to roll in Egypt, then you will bring about an amazing earthquake inside the Arab world.
To the extent that the United States has leverage and authority, it can use that in two ways. It has to continue to use the bully pulpit — don’t underestimate that — and then start to bring pressure in using the money. Pressure the Egyptians through the money. They are always in a financial crisis. Use that leverage; go for the jugular.
SARAH WILDMAN, The American Prospect: I have a couple questions I’ll try to ask quickly that go in two different directions. One is – I’m a little surprised by your sort of casual dismissing of Muslim women because Republicans tend to cite the Arab Human Development Report on the suppression of women as being one of the biggest indicators for suppression of democracy in the Middle East. So I’m surprised that you’d be so blithe.
And I wondered if you could address two other things. One is that recently I was interviewing Giles Kepel, and he constantly talks about how we mistook Baghdad for East Berlin and that it was a big mistake to use Sovietologists and the kind of iconography of Sovietology and Eastern Europe in looking at the Middle East. That brings me back to Europe, which is what I’m most interested in, and whether the suppression of Islamic women even in Europe alone is a bad indicator for what we can expect in the Middle East.
MR. GERECHT: I agree completely with Bernard Lewis on the issue of women in the Middle East, which is if you can eventually change that dynamic in the Middle East vis-à-vis women so that they are no longer denied the opportunity to participate more fully in the society, you will transform the region. I believe that beyond a shadow of a doubt. One of the factors that have contributed to the enormous progress that the West has made over the Muslim world in the last few hundred years has to be because of the greater participation of women in Western society.
However, I don’t think women can evolve under dictatorships in the Middle East. I think eventually the only way that you’re going to have the full development of women’s potential is through the democratic process — one, because they represent a majority of the population in every single country, and two, we all know from our own experience that it is through democracy that societies actually have a balance and develop in a healthy way. The question is, do you believe it’s better to maintain a dictatorship that allows Western rights for women or do you want to take a risk with democracy where a majority of women may vote in favor of restricting some women’s rights? That is a possibility, and I think we should live with that possibility because democracy here is the objective. It’s what’s going to make the society evolve. It’s what’s going to destroy bin Ladenism. All I’m suggesting to you is that I think we have to get away from the notion of looking at women’s rights as the cusp of determining whether we want to be in favor of democracy.
MS. WILDMAN: Do you think the Bush administration — and I don’t have an opinion on this — but the Middle East Partnership Initiative and Lynne Cheney, is that worth anything? Is that just a sort of sop to —
MR. GERECHT: I have great regard for Lynne Cheney, and I think what she’s trying to do is very serious. Do I think it’s going to work and that this is going to be the cutting edge of the transformative process? No, I don’t. I don’t think you get to transform the Middle East unless you have elections. Anyone who comes from an Anglo-Saxon background inevitably looks upon democracy as an end to a liberal means and that elections come after institution building. Well, I don’t think you get to have that in the Middle East, all right? It’s just not going to happen. The only way you’re going to crack these dictatorships is by having elections first. They are not going to establish liberal institutions. They are not going to let you erect the building blocks of Western civic society that we have come to know. It’s just not going to happen. They’re going to fight you and stop you every inch of the way.
I am all in favor of MEPI, but I don’t have great expectations for it. I also believe that it’s one of the ways that dictatorships can buy us out and play with us, because they’re well familiar with NGOs for women and they don’t view them as a threat to their political system. So what they’ll do is allow these various groups to come in for female literacy and all the rest, and they’ll say, “Look what we’re doing.” There’s a great danger on our part in saying, “These are great programs; we’ve done great work.” It actually takes us away from having to deal with the really serious issues, which are elections.
FRANKLIN FOER, The New Republic: Are you calling for the principle to be applied across the board or how many Pakistans are you willing to deal with? How much creative destruction are you willing to tolerate at any given moment? Because if I understand Goldbergian anxiety, whether it’s about his mother —
— or about the Jewish people, I think what he’s saying is that we just don’t know how this sort of experiment will turn out, that you’re asking to take a huge risk and we’ve already got this one experiment in Islamic democracy that we’re conducting in Iraq and the results are uncertain. Can we actually manage a situation (not to sound too Scowcroftian and Goldbergian at the same time) where we’re encouraging chaos in Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq?
MR. GERECHT: Well, one, I’d just go on Iraq. If what you’re saying is that it’s better to keep Saddam Hussein than what we’re having now, I think you’re going to have at least 80 percent of the Iraqi population look at you as if you’ve lost your mind.
MR. FOER: I think we’re conducting an important experiment now with the relationship between Islam and democracy. Sistani could turn out to be his world’s historic figure that you describe him as. He could formulate an idea of Islamic democracy that could end up getting exported to other countries and ultimately be very important, but I want to see how this turns out before —
MR. GERECHT: Well, I don’t think you get the choice, all right? We don’t get to have this experiment. They’re having the experiment. What I think is not fully appreciated is the extent to which the Muslims are the actors here. We have done certain things in Iraq that have allowed a process to move forward, but what you’re suggesting is these people have not imbibed the democratic ethic, have not imbibed the desire to live in something other than dictatorship. I suggest that’s just simply not true, and what you have in the case of Egypt is a highly unpopular dictatorship that if you had elections would lose. Now, is there a risk in democracy going forward? Sure, but we know what the status quo gave us. The further we get away from 9/11 — the more we think we’re safe — I think the hope grows that maybe this extremism was just a blip that we don’t have to deal with anymore. I don’t think that is true. This view is very dangerous.
George Bush has more or less articulated an understanding of the Middle East that is dominant now in the Republican Party and even in the Democratic Party in that you never are going to have a return to pre-9/11 days, where we live happily with the status quo and accept dictatorship in the Middle East because we believe that Muslims have a sufficiently dysfunctional DNA system, that their culture is such that we just don’t want to take the risk. I don’t think that is true.
What we should do is ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes we made in Iraq, that we try to encourage an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary process, and that we say in Egypt we are not going to back Hosni Mubarak, we’re not going to wait around until we see all of these liberal institutions develop or until we are all comfortable before we suggest there ought to be elections.
I don’t make Eastern-European-Muslim parallels; I have too many problems with that. However, I think the notion that the repercussions of Iraq won’t extend to the Sunni world is false. You can already see them; you can read about them in the newspapers. Never before have you found the discussion of democracy and popular will and the common will in the Arab newspapers to the extent that you have since 9/11, and in particular since the invasion of Iraq. It has just exploded.
Now, one doesn’t know where it’s going to go. There are a lot of people who rail against democracy, particularly in the fundamentalist set, and you have enormous tension and screaming. Most of it is being done in the Arabic newspapers published in Paris and London because they can’t do it inside their own countries. They don’t have freedom of the press. But this has caused a huge explosion of ideas and debate, and that is good, that is the way out of where we were before 9/11.
MR. FOER: What do you make of the referendum movement in Iran?
MR. GERECHT: Not much. I wish it could succeed, but I don’t see it happening. Iran is not a totalitarian society. It is an authoritarian society that gives Iranians a great deal of maneuvering room because all Iranians like to play. Clerics like to play; everybody likes to play.
MR. FOER: Play what?
MR. GERECHT: Just play — have fun. The clerics allow the Iranians sufficient elasticity in their lives so they don’t feel like every bloody day, every bloody moment they are under the thumb. If they were to do that, you would have a counterrevolution in Iran. What the clerical regime has done brilliantly is to pinpoint individuals who could become leaders in an opposition movement. They exile them, threaten them, stab them, hit them with cars or throw them in jail.
DR. JOHN DiIULIO, University of Pennsylvania: Republicans in Philly.
Good old days. I have a probably hopelessly academic version of a question. Let me try to quickly set it up as follows. Way back when I was in graduate school, I had two advisers, James Q. Wilson of whom I have been a parasite ever since, and Sam Huntington of The Clash of Civilizations and so forth. I initially worked mainly with Sam and taught mainly for Sam until he told me that I couldn’t study political development unless I learned foreign languages and traveled not only out of Philadelphia but outside of the United States —
— which was absolutely unacceptable. So thus ended my career, and I ended up studying maximum security prisons —
— of which there are many in and around Philadelphia.
Now having taught all of these courses in political development, the fundamental question that was constantly asked in the literature is: Under what, if any, conditions does democratic development occur, and how, if at all, can we foster those conditions? And in response to that question, the literature was all over the board. The whole history of democratization furnishes multiple examples and counterexamples of almost any variables of importance that you can nominate, playing it out in almost any way you can – every possible fever that either breaks for the good and saves a life or kills. So there was no theory of the problem.
But more fundamentally, I also felt that they had exactly the wrong concept of the dependent variable as it were, that they would talk about democracy and democratization, but they weren’t really talking about democracy; they were talking about constitutionalism. They weren’t talking about how many Tom Paines; they were talking about are there any John Adamses, and it is a distinction with a difference or a difference with a distinction. It is about enabling the government to control the governed and obliging it to control itself, which you can do with or without competitive elections.
Now, are competitive elections a necessary but insufficient condition for that happening and being institutionalized over time? In the vast majority of this miasmatic swamp of cases, yes. Do we know anything about how best to control events or manipulate these variables? It was too complex for me, so I suggested that we ought to keep violent people locked up for the next 10 years. That was a lot simpler.
If each of you were to say, OK, here is the one area where I think the U.S. has real leverage in preventing a worst-case scenario that I am worried about — whether it is ultimately predicated on an intuition that Muslim people want the same thing as all people, or whatever the intuition might be. Is there some one thing that you would nominate? What would that be?
MR. GERECHT: You’re asking for the positive; it’s easier to see the negative. All you have to do is look at the writings of bin Laden, and bin Laden is actually a fairly eloquent writer. But if you look at what he has written, when he has underscored U.S. support for tyrannies, I think he is describing an accurate situation. To some extent bin Laden — and I don’t mean to be too unfair to Martin Luther with this juxtaposition — but he is to some extent a Martin Luther-type character. Despite his tools and his tactics, he has certainly described fairly accurately the perverse relationship the United States had with many, many regimes in the Middle East.
So I don’t see how we can move forward if the United States continues to support these dictatorships, which have been instrumental in the rise of Islamic extremism, most importantly Egypt and Saudi Arabia. I think it’s beyond a doubt that we have done damage by being essentially aligned with those two regimes. Certainly from the perspective of the people who live in those countries. One of the reasons they hate us so much — Bernard Lewis made this remark right after 9/11 and it still holds: It is striking that those countries in the Middle East that have anti-American governments tend to have much more pro-American populations, and those countries where there are pro-American governments that we consider our allies have anti-American populations.
So that is the first thing. Vis-à-vis the other, I am not sure you can guarantee results. I am not denying there isn’t a risk here, but I think given what we know about the Middle East, we don’t want to continue to do what we have done before. So the United States has to say very clearly, and I think the president is doing that, elections are the answer to this, we have to move forward with the electoral process and we are not going to allow the Islamist bogeyman to deter us as he has deterred us in the past.
MR. GOLDBERG: Reuel touched on something — Martin Luther, which is the most important thing that we haven’t talked about. Let me get to that in a second. The single-most important thing that America can do by far in the Middle East is to encourage and mandate that all Americans drive hybrids. No, I am absolutely serious because as long as we are dependent on Saudi Arabia in particular, we aren’t going to get anything done; I mean, nothing, nothing. As soon as we can break free of the need to have a relationship with these Gulf States, with Saudi Arabia, then we can tell them what to do.
What we have to fight more than anything else is the Wahhabi influence on worldwide Islam, and it’s hard to do that when you’re constantly negotiating with the Saudis to up their production of oil. So I am absolutely serious about hybrid vehicles. I know that is a neo-con position, but I am willing to embrace it.
Some people would call me a neo-con — Reuel, for instance.
But the Martin Luther thing is fascinating because we’re talking about impossibilities without reform. What has to change is Islam. This is the biggest question of all: How can we get from here to a modern Islam, a post-reformation Islam, or an Islam that has undergone a revolution in which there is space in the Islamic world for people who don’t believe in the inerrancy of the Koran, for instance, the people who no longer believe in Islamist supremacist thought?
That would be the golden egg, and that is what we have to aim for but it is not really anything we can do. Maybe Bernard Lewis or Reuel or someone has an idea about how to bring about a new Islam, but it’s all a bunch of Christians and Jews sitting around in Florida are ever going to be able to do, much less in the White House or anywhere else. These are the basic structural problems that we have, and so I would say given that, what we need to be doing is fighting the spread of Wahhabist ideology, and it is spread in very concrete ways, meaning the building of an incredible number of mosques that are then staffed by Wahhabi-trained imams. I mean 80 to 90 percent of the mosques in the United States are fundamentally Wahhabist mosques if you believe some people’s numbers. It is true anecdotally from what I know. I know that is not much of an answer.
MR. GERECHT: But it’s clarifying and extremely enlightening generally because the difference is not that you have fundamentally different theories of the problem and see the world differently or want different things. It is a bet about the efficacy of elections.
DR. DiIULIO: Yes, this is a bet; you’re right. Is it worth taking the risk that Reuel wants to take?
MR. GERECHT: I just want to mention Jeffrey’s brilliant piece that he did on the dar-al-alloom haqqania madrasa, which is this Islamic center in Pakistan outside of Peshawar that trained the elite of the Taliban. It was in The New York Times Magazine, back when it was worth reading. Before he went, I said, “You might get there and actually have an epiphany. For people who study the Middle East, they don’t come that often and usually you have to suffer – then you have one of those epiphanies.” Jeffrey came back and I called him and said, “Did you have an epiphany?” And Jeffrey said, “Yes, I think I did.” And I said, “What was it?” He said he was interviewing the students and he would ask, “What do you believe in?” And they would say, “I believe in jihad.” “And what do you want to do?” “I want to kill Americans. I believe in jihad, I believe in jihad, I believe in jihad.” And I said, “Well, Jeffrey, what was the epiphany?” And he goes, “They are all F-ing idiots.”
MICHAEL BARONE, U.S. News & World Report: It strikes me that you are talking about a bet. Reuel is concerned the risk is 9/11 — something worse; Jeffrey is concerned the risk is what happened to Weimar. If you looked at Germany in 1920, you would have said elections are pretty good for Germany. That turned out not to be so, actually.
MR. GERECHT: Actually, I think President Hindenburg was a bad bet for Germany.
MR. BARONE: If I can ask both of you to apply your thoughts to Saudi Arabia. I have sometimes had the thought that what we need is a wall long enough to line up 4,000 princes in front of. I’m curious what both of you think we ought to do about Saudi Arabia. Well, on the rare occasions when I have talked to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, I always bring up Saudi Arabia and ask, “What are you doing?” They say that the Saudis are changing more than you think, that they are making some progress there. Are we? What should we be doing?
MR. GERECHT: I would just say it was a miracle, what happened in Washington a while back, and that moment has passed now, but the American government actually had in the National Security Council the best individual that I know responsible for Saudi Arabia. His name is Peter Theroux, Paul’s brother, who by the way wrote the funniest and most insightful book ever written on Saudi Arabia called “Sandstorm,” and I highly recommend it. Peter is a phenomenal Arabist, and I always ask him these questions on Saudi Arabia because Saudi Arabia is really a hard nut to crack. Peter’s advice is usually that things really are changing, they are evolving, slowly but surely things are changing.
I don’t think you are ever going to go back to the pre-9/11 world where you have presidents of the United States going to Saudi Arabia and receiving huge speaking fees and essentially embracing the Saudi family as a bosom brother of the United States. Now, we’re still having regrettable moments where the president of the United States may go hand in hand with Prince Abdullah — not exactly sure why, whether he tripped or whether it’s just that Texas warmth.
But I think regardless of that, there has been a significant evolution in the way the United States looks upon Saudi Arabia and that is true for the vice president, who in the past certainly viewed Saudi Arabia somewhat benignly. I don’t think anyone in the U.S. government views Saudi Arabia benignly anymore. They haven’t figured out what to do, but, again, I would go in the direction of elections. I don’t know whether the Najdi ethics have become triumphant — the Wahhabi ethics because the Wahhabis come from the Najd.
But it’s a very good idea for us to find out whether there are differences of opinion in Saudi Arabia, and the only way you are going to do that is by having competitive elections to see whether the Wahhabis can win outright. But we certainly know now that the Saudi royal family has used Wahhabism as the pillar of support for that society inside. They have spent billions and billions of dollars exporting Wahhabi ideology abroad. It is very difficult for me to imagine a situation that could have been worse for the United States, generating the type of Islamic extremism that hit us on 9/11, that has wiped out the old Hanafi and Shafi’i creeds of the Ottoman Empire.
All of the areas of the Ottoman Empire for the most part were Hanafi-dominated, which was the more tolerant, looser right of the Ottoman State, and that right has more or less been just annihilated by Saudi subsidies. Al Azhar, for example, was the pillar of anti-Wahhabi teaching. I think the Saudis have more or less been able to co-opt that entire institution, and you no longer have it generating the anti-Saudi ethics that it once did.
So, again, I think the direction you have to go is to open up the system, try to create debate in Saudi Arabia. The minimal local elections they had, which didn’t really amount to much, certainly proved that there is a desire in certain areas, certainly in the Eastern Province, which is majority Shiite, to see some type of opening and cracking in the system.
MR. GOLDBERG: Bernard Lewis has a wonderful formula about Saudi Arabia — trying to explain Saudi Arabia to people who don’t understand it and who see it as an ally. He said, “Imagine if the state of Texas had been taken over lock, stock and barrel by the KKK — the courts, the governor, the legislature — and that the KKK-run government of Texas used the oil revenue it took in to export KKK ideology to the other 49 states.” He said that is the role Saudi Arabia plays in the Muslim world.
It goes back to our dependence on their oil obviously. Our money goes directly to fund madrassas and seminaries that train people in anti-Americanism. This is so pie in the sky, but one thing that America should encourage in some sophisticated way — and I don’t know if this is possible — is the reestablishment of seminaries, of madrassas that train people in the older Hanafi style of Islam rather than Wahhabism, and let them duke it out. Level the playing field a little bit by somehow finding money — it would probably have to be Arab money of some sort — to combat Wahhabism with another form of Islam. I don’t know how; it’s too sophisticated an idea for any American bureaucrat I think.
Do I agree with his optimism that Saudi Arabia is changing? No, but I do think that deposing the royal family and letting the Wahhabis just run it — Oil is a commodity; they will still sell the oil to us. Eventually the people will revolt — you know, he is probably right — and we’ll get some sort of Arabia that is more amenable and can get along better in the world. Saudi Arabia is the root of our problem, one of the roots.
MR. BARONE: Well, about encouraging the separatism in the Shia East?
MR. GOLDBERG: Ask the abettor of instability over here.
MR. GERECHT: I think that is nice. I like that.
MR. GOLDBERG: Abettor. His royal abettor.
MR. GERECHT: I think the Eastern Province is going to become a little more animated. Whether they decide to break the sort of unspoken contract they have had with the Saudi family I don’t know. But I think it is certainly true that since Iraq has generated a greater Shiite identity inside of the Eastern Province, I think they are more conscious of who they are. They are more conscious that they now have or soon will have a country above them where their brethren are no longer subservient to a Sunni Arab minority.
I am skeptical whether that will introduce a revolutionary principle, and also the Wahhabis would march in there at light speed and slaughter them all, so that tends to have a restraining effect on your behavior. It would be good to find out whether the Wahhabis can win a democratic election in Saudi Arabia. They might and it would certainly be the only way that you’re going to find out whether there are sufficient dissenting voices within.
Do the Hijazis, for example, still maintain a separate identity where Mecca and Medina are located, which used to be and still is, the most cosmopolitan area of Saudi Arabia? (dropped words?) Maybe it would, and if it does have a separate identity, it is more cosmopolitan. If the Hijazis do object to the extremes that the Wahhabis have imposed on them, then elections would at least give them the avenue for expressing that.
So, again, I don’t see that you have to make a parallel — a difference in Saudi Arabia. Let the elections go forward if you can push them. Now, how you get the Saudis to do that I don’t know because we don’t really have any leverage over them outside of the bully pulpit.
BYRON YORK, National Review: You alluded to the hypocrisies of American policy in the past. Are there any lessons or comparisons to be drawn from that experience of supporting the dictators, the impalpable regimes in Central America and also in the Cold War context, a sort of hold-your-nose foreign policy? Are there any comparisons or lessons to be drawn from that?
MR. GOLDBERG: Are we making the same mistakes that we made? Oh, yeah, Uzbekistan certainly. As Reuel said, the classic formula is that countries run by pro-American dictators have anti-American populations and vice versa. The difference between Central America and the Muslim world is that in Central America, what we’re left with are quasi-Marxists or Marxists, authoritarian dictators — you know, they have very little power to export their revolution and certainly weren’t sponsoring anti-American terrorism on American soil.
Again, this goes back to the bet. It’s like Islam Karimov is terrible but could there actually be something worse in his place? This is where you don’t envy American foreign policy makers. In the ’80s it didn’t seem so simple. Reuel’s friend, Bob Kagan, wrote a whole book about Nicaragua and it didn’t seem simple then, but in comparison it is simple. The consequences were less dire for a mistake in those days, in the days of the Cold War.
MR. GERECHT: Yeah, if you look at bin Ladenism and you separate bin Ladenism out from the Islamic extremism that came before him, what he was able to do was to leapfrog over what had been the primary extremist target in the past — the dictatorships directly above them. And in the 1980s, you had a series of clashes in Middle Eastern countries where the power of the state proved the winning player. They smashed in sometimes truly brutal ways the Islamist insurgencies in their own country.
Now, bin Laden learned from that lesson and developed a new targeting strategy. The primary objective was not to go after the dictatorships above them but to go after the United States, which in their minds was the institution maintaining these other guys in power. So if you could wound the United States, if you could show that the United States could be hurt, was not omnipotent, you could, in a chain reaction, develop a means by which you could down the dictators that you hated almost as much.
So what that has done is internationalized Islamic extremist nationalist movements. And the great fear that you have, for example, in Uzbekistan is that you will take the extreme movements, which up until recently haven’t been anti-American but have been focused on Karimov, and make them into a wing of al Qaeda’s global effort to attack us so that these young men grow up hating the United States to such an extent that they live to hurt America because America has become for them the top of this jihadist pyramid. And that I don’t see going away unless the United States rearranges its priorities and stops encouraging these dictatorships, which either through oppression or support encourage this virulent form of extremism.
JILL LAWRENCE, USA Today: I hate to belabor this one thing, but it just seems awfully fatalistic to talk about letting all of this take its course and the United States will be here as a safety net for the most desperate of the women. I am just wondering two things: if you could give me your assessment of the Bush administration policy on women in these Islamic countries – the level of commitment, the level of sustained activity. Is it a priority for this administration? If some of these fundamentalist regimes do get elected and things take their course as you are suggesting they should, what are the United States’ options here? Are we just hemmed in by religion and oil and anti-Americanism and all of these other factors?
MR. GERECHT: I think the Bush administration is becoming serious about women’s issues in the Middle East. It will become even more serious about them because the regimes in place will largely not put up any resistance, because it is a means by which they can curry American favor without fundamentally rearranging their regime. So women’s issues are actually an area where they can have joint American-Egyptian cooperation or joint American-Tunisian cooperation, because the regimes in place don’t feel threatened by female literacy or greater freedom. On questions of family law, I imagine you’ll start to see some friction. I don’t know how much the United States is going to put pressure on the Saudis to allow women to drive. I have a sneaking suspicion that is probably not going to be on the cutting edge. They might. I actually think most women in the Middle East given the choice whether to have the democratic option or to continue to live under dictatorship, they will take the democratic option.
MR. GOLDBERG: Well, it depends on how you ask the question.
MR. GERECHT: Are you in favor of having elections? That is the way you want to phrase that.
MR. GOLDBERG: Are you in favor of being wrapped up in robes in 100-degree heat and forced to walk 10 paces from your husband?
MR. GERECHT: As you traveled in the Middle East, you know already most women actually are wrapped up.
MR. GOLDBERG: No, most are not.
MR. GERECHT: Really?
MR. GOLDBERG: In Cairo, do you think they are all wrapped up?
MR. GERECHT: No, most are wrapped up.
MR. GOLDBERG: I don’t think most are wrapped up.
MR. GERECHT: See that is the problem when you go to four-star and five-star hotels in Cairo. The New Yorker‘s travel budget is much too high.
MR. GOLDBERG: I sleep in the gutter when I’m in Cairo, so don’t you even talk about that.
MR. GERECHT: I don’t know what to say other than that. By no means is it a foregone conclusion, and I’m certainly not advocating that I necessarily want to see the fundamentalists win. They might. Even if they do win, the evolutionary process is going to go forward, and it’s going to do those things you want to see it do.
But it may not; it’s sort of historical gerrymandering. But if you go back and look at the Algerian returns, you actually began to see FIS going down a bit before the military shut the whole thing down. I still think they would have been dominant. How did FIS rise to prominence in 1989? They rose to prominence by having a huge demonstration against women’s rights.
So it is without a doubt an issue, but you have to realize right now you’re in a cul-de-sac and there is no evolution happening here. What you’re doing in that cul-de-sac is generating bin Ladenism. You’re generating Islamic extremism. You’re generating a situation that I suggest is not where you want to be. You want to move forward, to start the evolution, to see jihadism die, to see Islamic militancy compete with Islamic militancy and with others.
The only way you’re going to get that is through the democratic process. That evolutionary thing, which Jeffrey was talking about, isn’t going to happen through some enlightened dictatorship. We have had five decades of that, and regrettably there is no evidence to suggest out there that the Ataturkish paradigm is going to somehow come about and start working in the Arab world.
MR. GOLDBERG: No, I think this is the worst last option. I still think there is something that could be tried. It depends on the country. I think some countries are in a cul-de-sac and some aren’t. I just would like to try a concerted American effort with a lot of money, a lot of cooperation and a lot of good thinking. Look at Laura Bush. There is a political impossibility to what Reuel’s saying because Laura Bush is not going to allow this to happen. She has made equality for Muslim women a centerpiece of this trip that she just took. The way to go is not to keep going at that pace. It’s to double, triple and quadruple the funding and the effort, and I just don’t think we’re at the point yet of this “nuclear option.”
MS. LAWRENCE: Do you believe that supporting women’s rights is an easy way to get U.S. approval?
MR. GOLDBERG: Well, I don’t understand the way it’s formulated.
MR. GERECHT: One of the things that the dictatorships in the Middle East can agree on with the United States is actually allowing America to spend money on women’s issues because it doesn’t pose any really serious threat to their political system.
DR. DiIULIO: If you’re talking about evolution, I think you could do a little jujitsu with that. Put all of this money in and create conditions where the women that you’re training and teaching eventually do become a threat to the settled order. I don’t think by spending $50 million here and $20 million there you’re going to get that, but I think you could trick the dictators and before they know it, they have millions of empowered or semi-empowered women to contend with.
MR. GERECHT: I’ll just suggest that they will be more clever than we will be.
DR. DiIULIO: That is probably true, alas.
ANNE KORNBLUT, The New York Times: You mentioned that the municipal elections were pretty much meaningless, but I’m wondering whether that is a useful model to do a bottom-up election rather than a top-down election or whether it’s a way to at least get the seed planted and the idea going. And I am also curious about bin Laden as a cult hero, what you hear from clerics about his status these days and whether he would be either literally or metaphorically part of some kind of election if it were to take place.
MR. GERECHT: I don’t think bin Laden has a political future. The cult of bin Ladenism is still there. In certain countries it’s much more powerful than others. In Pakistan you probably have the most obvious cult of bin Laden, but it’s certainly elsewhere in the Arab world. You can read about it; you can see it. On the Wahhabi Web sites, it’s everywhere.
What that means is hard to say though. I actually think bin Ladenism could die fairly quickly. Jeffrey remarked that it’s been, what, 26 years, 27 years since the Iranian revolution — actually 26 or 27 years isn’t really a long time. I would also argue that if you start the democratic process, time moves even more quickly than it did in 1978, ’79.
I think bin Laden could cease being a cult hero; he will certainly remain an iconic force in certain Wahhabi fundamentalist movements. There is no doubt about that. His achievement was such that it will not go away. In the same sense, though, you can find people in the Sudan who still talk affectionately of the Mahdi. As a political force, that movement could be quite short-lived so long as you start addressing those issues that gave it birth.
And what was your first question?
MS. KORNBLUT: Bottom-up rather than top-down elections — municipal elections.
MR. GERECHT: You mean national elections?
MS. KORNBLUT: Like what happened in Saudi Arabia as a model for at least getting the idea going.
MR. GERECHT: I am much more in favor of national elections than municipal elections because they are more convulsive. Having municipal elections is something regimes do thinking they can let off steam or deceive the American overseer. I don’t think they work, and when you have municipal elections for a local government, you’re making a concession that more or less forces you to have national elections.
MS. KORNBLUT: That’s what I’m asking. Wouldn’t that be an effective way to actually get that going?
MR. GERECHT: Sure, I’m willing to try it. I just don’t think you’re going to get many regimes to allow municipal elections that really have any teeth. They will probably sabotage them; the Saudis really didn’t allow much to happen. We’ll see. I actually think they let the genie out of the bottle. If the United States can force or encourage regimes into having municipal elections, I’m all for it, so long as you don’t fool yourself that you’re engaging in something that is going to necessarily change the process in the short term or even the midterm.
DR. DiIULIO: Could I just make one comment on what he said. Twenty-six years is a short period of time unless you’re an 18-year-old woman who is trying to resist being forced into a marriage by your father, who beats you, and then it is a very long time. It’s your whole life in fact, and that is what we have to be careful of.
MR. GERECHT: Which is why you should have had democratic elections in Iran and not a revolution.
WENDY KAMINER, The Atlantic Monthly: I was also going to raise this question of women’s rights or the lack of them. You’ve probably gone over it enough, but let me just ask for one quick elaboration. It took 80 years of women organizing and agitating in this country to get to vote when they already had a lot of other rights, and there was no question about their basic right to go out and organize.
People need some sort of opening to even begin organizing, to even begin this process. So I am wondering if we take your scenario post-election, how do you see this evolving for women? Where are the women who are interested in women’s rights? Where do they find the opening? How does it happen?
MR. GERECHT: I wouldn’t necessarily look at this as being an overriding concern, because I think this is going to happen organically. With and without American support, you have had Iraqi women’s groups come into being. Depending upon the country and on where it is in the process of westernization and socialization, I think you’ll likely see women’s groups develop more quickly or more slowly.
But I wouldn’t judge success in the beginning by whether women’s groups organize. You want to keep this minimalist here, and your success is that you get one election and then you get two. Then, do you get three? That is what you want to aim for. As long as that process keeps moving, then the society as a whole is going to evolve and you are going to have those openings for women, if they want to organize and if they have the independence to do so.
In much of the Islamic world, they actually do have the independence because of property rights. So the potential for it happening there is quite substantial. They actually have more property than a lot of Christian women did until fairly late in the game, so the possibilities there are not insignificant. We’ll just have to wait to see how quickly they evolve, but like you said, it took a long time in the West. I don’t think we necessarily want to rush the process; I think we should encourage it.
I have no problem at all with America using the bully pulpit and saying loudly those things that we believe in and condemning what we dislike, even if they are participating in a democratic process overseas. If we see forces at play in Iraq or anywhere else that we think are iniquitous or harmful, then we should say so. There is nothing wrong with America being a bully pulpit for more women’s issues in the Middle East. All I am saying is, don’t use that as the single criterion for judging whether we’re having democratic progress.
MS. KAMINER: Just pragmatically speaking, Jeffrey brought up the whole issue of oil. If you have a quick democratization of these areas, you have — if what people believe is a move to a more Islamic kind of government — you have then Saudi, Iraq, Iran — more than half of the world’s oil reserves — under that kind of regime, all of which could come together at some point and decide, “Well, we’re not going to supply to the United States because in fact there is going to be a 50 percent growth in demand in the next 10 years. It’s all going to come from China, and therefore we’ll give it all to China rather than you.” It doesn’t seem that the United States is going to be able to get everybody to buy hybrid cars, because it’s a financial issue.
The second point I would like to raise is the Middle East peace process. If you look at what was really driving a lot of the Arabs’ street 9/11, it was what they viewed as a lack of progress in the Middle East peace process. In fact, I think the week before 9/11 occurred, Crown Prince Abdullah sent a personal message to President Bush, which was essentially, “You go your way, we’ll go our way from now on because we can’t seem to agree.” That led President Bush to send back a personal letter saying, for the first time in American history, that an American president was going to support the creation of the independent state of Palestine. I just would like to throw those issues out to you and ask what you think about the Middle East peace process being part of the driving force here.
MR. GERECHT: Well, let me go to oil. First, I would note that in 1971 and 1973 it was the dictators we liked most that were instrumental in creating the huge price increases the West had to deal with. Foremost was the shah, who was the driving force in ’71 and not an insignificant force in ’73. On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, bin Laden grew to manhood in the 1990s when the president of the United States was addicted to the notion that he could negotiate Palestinian nationalist aspirations.
That is one reason I don’t mind talking with the Islamists, because they have a uniform view toward Israel, and that is: may it go away. It’s easy; you can get past that issue immediately. To the extent that the Islamic movements in the Middle East are what some people call the Arab street, the notion that they are actually desirous of a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians I just think is absurd. I don’t see it.
MR. GOLDBERG: Let me actually agree with you.
MR. GERECHT: Yeah, thank you. Their notion is that Israel just go bye-bye. It is the Muslim liberals and progressives out there who always bring up this issue and for very understandable reasons. By saying we have got to deal with this, it’s a way of being at one with the others because it puts them in jeopardy. What we often see and assume to be the Arab street is actually the echo of these liberals.
I think President Clinton, when he was in Doha a year-and-a-half ago gave one of the best speeches I had ever heard in which he said very forthrightly, “Listen, we’re not going to allow the Israeli-Palestinian issue to detour us anymore from talking about democracy in the Middle East. It is simply not going to derail the discussion; we’re not going to let it happen.”
I thought it was commendable. I think President Bush was already there, and I don’t see that happening. We should talk about democracy in Egypt, in Jordan, in Algeria and in Tunisia and not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I agree with Kanan Makiya: there is no single issue that has done more damage to intellectual conversations and retarded the progress of democracy in the Middle East.
MR. GOLDBERG: This is a make-believe issue when you talk about Islamists. The Islamists are not demanding a resumption of peace talks; what Islamists want is a Middle East free of Jews and Christians — Jews in their national form in the State of Israel and Jews AS Jews. I know it’s a common line certainly in pro-Palestinian circles to say this is all about the Israeli-Arab peace process, but what they want is something that America simply can’t give and Israel won’t give, which is its annihilation.
So it just needs to be off the table, and I think he is right. If you read the Arab development report, which is a very commendable report in some ways, it looks at political retardation in the Arab world. Nevertheless, it states that the single biggest impediment to the growth of democracy in the Middle East is the Israeli occupation, which on its face is so idiotic.
To think that the economic plight of people in Yemen is somehow related to the building of an Israeli settlement outside of Jerusalem is absurd. That is not to excuse settlement building, but it’s used as this crutch and it’s almost a narcotic in a way — it stops people from doing what they need to do on behalf of their own people.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you very much for being here, and please join me in thanking our speakers who, though friends, showed us how friends can disagree in a civil manner.
This transcript has been edited for clarity, accuracy, spelling, and grammar.