Reading ‘How Democracy Became Halal’ op-ed in the Times

On yesterday’s New York Times op-ed page, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA Middle East specialist, has an opinion piece with the promising title “How Democracy Became Halal.”  Alas, reading it one is left to hope that the Middle East specialists still retained on the CIA payroll are more expert.

Mr. Gerecht begins his argument with a feint that bodes ill for the level of intellectual rigor that will be brought to bear on the analysis ahead:

President George W. Bush’s decision to build democracy in Iraq seemed so lame to many people because it appeared, at best, to be another example of American idealism run amok — the forceful implantation of a complex Western idea into infertile authoritarian soil. But Mr. Bush, whose faith in self-government mirrors that of a frontiersman in Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” saw truths that more worldly men missed: the idea of democracy had become a potent force among Muslims, and authoritarianism had become the midwife to Islamic extremism.

In fact, this was a bogus argument from the moment George W. Bush himself first presented it: the point of disagreement with the ‘more worldly men’ (and women) was not whether Arabs were capable of embracing democracy but, rather, whether invading Iraq and killing many thousands of Arabs was the best way to persuade those uncertain of democracy’s virtues.  As the satirical paper The Onion put it in a headline during the run-up to war: “Dead Iraqi Would Have Loved Democracy.”  But some component of Gerecht’s claim here is mere political positioning for a domestic audience, part of an effort by Bush’s supporters to salvage his legacy and claim for him anything good that happens in the Middle East for the next decade.  One might ask why, if the Tunisia and Egypt revolts are a sign of Bush’s prescience, they did not happen six years ago when his prescience was in full flower and, instead, are happening now just as Obama has drawn down the American presence in Iraq.

Gerecht goes on to claim that secular Arab intellectuals who remained in their countries were generally co-opted by their regimes — he calls them ‘court liberals’ but, to borrow an expression from another civil rights struggle, ‘house liberals’ seems closer to his intent — and it was the secular intellectuals who went into exile that uniquely got with the freedom and democracy program.  This is a remarkable argument to put forth in the midst of the Arab world’s greatest ever pro-democracy revolt, which has been initiated and led entirely by in-country intellectuals, bloggers, and civil society activists.  Indeed, in an astonishingly tone-deaf moment, Gerecht singles out for commendation Kanan Makiya, Edward Said, Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Burhan Ghalioun — admirable men, all of them, but with the exception of Edward Said (who did not live to see this day) where were they when the revolution actually started?  Even Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American who worked on the ground in Cairo for many years, has been in the US during the current demonstrations in Egypt and has not played a meaningful role in them.  If there are ‘house liberals’ to be found here it is more likely among those working the circuit in Washington, DC, whose views may have grown distant from those on the ground but at least they can articulate them in ways that distracted American political figures are able to relate to and comprehend.

Gerecht then undertakes a commendable survey of the way in which the Muslim Brotherhood has evolved since its founding as a radical movement in 1928 — and as a measure of just how profoundly political parties can change, consider that in 1928 Obama’s party was the principal defender of segregation and accomplice to lynching — and then ends with this plea:

Egypt needs elections sooner, not later. More convincingly than any president before him, Barack Obama can say, “We are not scared of Muslims voting.” He can put an end to the West’s deleterious habit of treating the Middle East’s potentates respectfully and the Muslim citizenry like children.

A noble point, but it is the activists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square not the intellectuals in Washington who have created this moment.

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