From the recent torrent of analysis about trends in the Middle East, two contradictory views have emerged. The first is that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has set off a wave of democratization — as exemplified by elections in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, as well as Lebanon’s “cedar revolution.” The alternative view is that Western intervention has fuelled Islamist extremism; it has underpinned the emergence of a “narco-state” (Afghanistan) and even a militantly Islamic state (Iraq). Lebanon may be on the verge of a new civil war, Iran is the big winner of the Iraqi elections and an overstretched U.S. army is struggling to cope. Regardless of which narrative one prefers, U.S. military intervention in the Middle East was a watershed.

And there have been at least some positive long-term effects. To begin with, democracy is clearly popular among Arabs. Even if many dislike America’s role in promoting it and are suspicious of Washington’s agenda, they are hungry for more freedom. But the kind of democratization we are talking about has little to do with the abstract Jeffersonian-style democracy that Washington wanted to implement in Iraq. Developing a real, working democracy is more complicated than simply holding elections. Another myth was the belief that a democratic regime would be automatically friendly to U.S. interests. In fact, democratization cannot work without political legitimacy, and this legitimacy in the Middle East is rooted first in nationalism and Islamic beliefs.

The democratization processes we’ve seen so far reflect that: Palestinian democrats are no less nationalist than their more militant counterparts, and constitutionalist Iraqi Shia clerics are still calling for Islamic sharia principles in their country’s laws. On a more positive note, the merging of nationalism and democracy is undermining links between local anti-western movements (whether nationalist or Islamist) and the internationalist radicals who claim to support them, such as al-Qaeda. When domestic national agendas dominate the political scene there is no room for strangers who are pushing only their internationalist struggle and ignoring local issues. (MORE)


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