Democracy describes, in fact, only the system of politics Americans wish to encourage, the means to an end. The end is liberty. It's always been thus, as Martin Diamond explains: "For the founding generation it was liberty that was the comprehensive good, the end against which political things had to be measured; and democracy was only a form of government which, like any other form of government, had to prove itself adequately instrumental to the securing of liberty."1
Liberty brings to mind a host of associations for Americans, from "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" in the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell to the American Civil Liberties Union to the Libertarian movement. The defense of liberty stirs Americans in a way that democracy does not: they nearly all proudly proclaim "this is a free country," while well over half stay away from the polls.
Emphasis on liberty addresses the fundamental political problem of the modern world: excessive power in the hands of the state. The Founding Fathers worried about the tyranny of the majority; James Madison argued that the best government would be that which places "the greater obstacles opposed to the consent and accomplishment of the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority."2 Madison's concern--there being no inevitable connection between a democratic government and freedom--speaks to contemporary problems. Current events on the fringes of the ex-Soviet bloc--from Bosnia to Nagorno-Karobakh--demonstrate all too well how, in societies lacking in liberty, despotism can come from elected governments: the democratic will of the people may be to expel or slaughter unpopular minorities. It is entirely possible that the majority decides to reject freedom as it exists in the United States. It can choose not to separate mosque and state, not to assure men and women equality before the law, and not to respect the rights of minorities to live in peace (indeed, to live at all).
Widespread skepticism in the United States about the compatibility of Islam with American values is based not only on the poor record of Muslim lands with regard to democracy but also on their common suppression of basic liberties. To be sure, Islam is a tent spread over many beliefs and many practices, so any characterization of what is and is not Islamic has dubious validity. The question at hand is: What are the intentions and actions of contemporary Islamists? What happened centuries ago does not concern us, nor do the writings of political propagandists. Judged by the actual record of events, liberties Americans hold dear are at risk from modern Islamists. Consider three obvious examples:
Freedom of worship. The outrageous discrimination against Baha'is in Iran has led the U.N. Commission on Human Rights repeatedly to denounce the Tehran government. Disregarding the often good record of Muslims throughout history (good when judged by the standards of the day), modern Islamists persecute Christians with a vengeance from one end of the Muslim world to another. This includes threatened executions in Pakistan for libelling Muhammad (one of the accused is an illiterate child), the murder of three Protestant pastors in Iran (one killed the day after he was seized by Revolutionary Guards), many attacks on churches in Upper Egypt, persecutions of Christians in Khartoum, and the assassination in Algiers of two librarians belonging to a lay Catholic order. None of these actions have the slightest basis in Islamic law as traditionally understood but they do reflect modern Islamist practice.
Freedom of speech. Salman Rushdie, in hiding now for over five years, is the best-known victim of Islamist censorship but hardly the only one. Other prominent anti-Islamist voices who have fallen silent include the leading Egyptian intellectual Faraj Fawda (murdered in June 1991) and the leftist Turkish journalist Ugur Mumcu (murdered in February 1993). As I write, Islamists are gunning for Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi writer, while her own government has issued an arrest warrant for her on the charge of "intent to deliberately and maliciously outrage the religious feelings of Muslims." Her crime? Having written a novel, Shame, about fictional Muslim attacks on Hindus, and to have called for a "revised Shariah law . . . in which equality of rights of both the sexes can be ensured."3
Freedom for women to participate in public life. Islamists insist on excluding women from public life in accord with the Qur'an and Islamic law. For example, they reject women as judges and give a female witness just half the weight of a male witness. Where customary practice is stricter than Muslim law (for example, regarding women's clothing), Islamists apply the tougher rules. Fine talk of permitting women to participate in civil society notwithstanding, they also introduce a host of restrictions that have the practical effect of keeping women from equal participation. For instance, they segregate students by sex at all levels, a constraint that has the practical effect of blocking women's access to many degree programs.
I do not mean to suggest that Islamists are uniquely pernicious. Those who would suppress freedom often use the banner of religion, be it evangelical Protestantism, intolerant Hinduism, or the Catholicism of the Inquisition. My argument is that Americans must hold Muslims to the same standards as Christians, Jews, or the faithful of any other religion. It is insensitive at best, racist at worst, to tell those born to another religion to be content with less freedom than we demand for ourselves. Yet this happens when Americans profess to find the Christian Right frightening because of its intention to impose strict moral values, but who argue that the same values when upheld by Muslims are acceptable, if not praiseworthy. President Clinton's national security advisor, Anthony Lake, recently defended a "renewed emphasis on traditional values in the Islamic world"4 at the same time that the administration he serves vigorously supports the rights of women seeking abortions or homosexuals wanting to serve in the military. This makes no sense: Americans should uphold one set of values worldwide rather than have one set for themselves and another, lesser set for Muslims. It is time to stop being condescending towards Muslims.
Patrick Clawson is senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.1 Martin Diamond, "The Declaration and the Constitution: Liberty, Democracy, and the Founding Fathers," Public Interest, Fall 1975, p.47
2 James Madison, The Federalist Papers, No. 10, in Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (New York: Bantam Books, 1982 [Orig. pub. 1787-1788]), p. 59.
3 The Washington Post, June 17, 1994.
4 Speech to The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, May 17, 1994, from the transcript of the Federal News Service. Lake went on: "These values of devotion to family and society, to faith and good works are not alien to our own experience."