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Can democracy live in the Muslim Mideast?

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — “No stable system of government can be established unless it is popular.” It would be an unremarkable statement in most parts of the world, but in Iran it is a subversive remark faxed by a man who has been under house arrest since 1997. The fact that he is Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, one of the founders of the Islamic Republic of Iran and once the designated heir to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, just makes it more dangerous.

There is a presidential election in Iran on Thursday, and if Montazeri were free there is no doubt that he would vote for the incumbent president, Mohammed Khatami, a fellow cleric who also disapproves of the stranglehold that conservative mullahs have gained over Iran. There is equally little doubt that Khatami will win, though maybe by a smaller landslide than in 1997, for he has made almost no progress in loosening that stranglehold.

Yet most Iranians will still vote for him. Iran’s economy has been in decline ever since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah, and 40 percent of Iranians now live below the poverty line. Unemployment is officially 15 percent, but is far higher among the young. Khatami’s supporters have been beaten, jailed, even murdered, and he has not dared to speak up for them. He has failed on almost every count — and still they will vote for him again.

You can take this as evidence that most Iranians really do want democracy in their country. But it also makes you wonder if there is something about the whole Muslim Middle East that makes it infertile soil for democracy.

Out of two dozen mainly Muslim countries between Morocco and Pakistan, only one, Turkey, is indisputably democratic (though even Turkey has grave flaws as a democracy). Jordan, Lebanon and Iran all have large democratic elements, but must refer final decisions on many issues to authorities (a king, a foreign army, a religious leader) who are not democratically elected. The rest are all under autocratic rule, though some hold sham elections from time to time.

This is a far worse record than any other part of the world. Even Africa, for all its poverty and chaos, does better than this. What is wrong with the Middle East?

It’s too simple to blame it all on Islam, for there are more Muslims in Asia than in the Middle East, and most of them live in more or less democratic countries.

But there is the fact that this part of the world has a huge chip on its shoulder about the West. One reason is that the Muslim Middle East has been in contact with the West for far longer than anywhere else, locked for 1,500 years in a hot-and-cold religious war with Europe in which, for most of the time, it had the upper hand. The other is that it decisively lost that war less than a century ago.

Though its subjugation lasted in most cases only one or two generations, the psychological shock was huge, and it still resonates in the local cultures. European conquest in other parts of the world happened much longer ago, and so has less impact on the present, but in the Middle East only Turkey, which never endured prolonged foreign occupation, has largely escaped the consequences of this heritage. For almost everyone else in the region, “Western” democracy is seen as fundamentally tainted because of its presumed source.

So you find many people who are deeply ambivalent about “Western” democracy, and many others who try to make it acceptable by claiming that theirs is a special “Islamic” form of democracy. This is what gave the theocrats the opportunity to seize power in Iran, and it is still the stick they use to beat the real democrats.

They keep winning the battles. They have, for example, closed down an estimated 40 newspapers in Iran during Khatami’s first term. Their best ally is the relentless hostility of the United States, as indispensable a prop to the mullahs as it is to Cuban President Fidel Castro. But they are probably going to lose the war.

Another 60 daily papers are now available in Tehran, including a number that openly advocate a fully democratic Iran, and Khatami is assured of re-election this month. It will take years, but there probably will be a fully democratic Iran within this decade. The Middle East is not another planet. It’s just a different time zone.