A Faltering Freedom Agenda, The Disillusion of Muslim Reformers: A Traditionalist Reply
by Dr. Robert Dickson Crane
Muslims once had high hopes that American policy after 9/11 would address the causes of alienation, extremism, and terrorism by promoting freedom and democracy. Instead this profound goal got lost in the shuffle. The founding president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, Radwan Masmoudi, has published a position paper, entitled “A Faltering Freedom Agenda: The Disillusion of Muslim Reformers,” to point out the extent to which such hopes have been dashed, but also to propose three new goals for a new administration. This position paper is both a critical and a constructive reply to such disillusioned Muslim reformers. Both Dr. Masmoudi’s position paper and this reply should be considered by the presidential transition team later this year, because they agree on fundamental solutions, even as they differ in paradigmatic principle.
The reversal of U.S. policy on the value of freedom and democracy was inevitable from the first year of the Current Administration in Washington, because self-determination, known as haqq al hurriyah in classical Islamic jurisprudence, was considered to be merely a means to stability, for which there is no term in Islamic thought as an ultimate goal. Stability is always an illusion, whereas reality from the smallest atom to the largest cluster of galaxies evidences constant change within a higher framework of purpose.
The fatal fault in the NeoCon policy is clear from President Bush’s initial announcement of the policy in the fall of 2003, when he declared:
Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. ...Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.
There could not be a clearer statement that freedom and democracy are merely tools in the search for stability, which has always been the decisive and ultimately the only goal of government in the Neo-Conservative ideology. Inevitably it soon became clear that self-determination of persons and nations would require change that might be destabilizing over the short-run. Such change could be stabilizing only if stability were not its purpose. Lasting stability in human affairs can come only from the pursuit of the higher goal of justice, because the search for justice is part of human nature as our highest social goal, second only to our search for greater awareness of God.
Justice was the highest goal of America’s founders, as is so well evidenced in the Preamble to the American Constitution, where justice comes first, followed by stability, and prosperity, and lastly by freedom. The pursuit of freedom was understood to be the product of justice, and only secondarily as its cause. In the NeoCon ideology, justice does not exist, because it requires a higher authority than the NeoCons themselves. Acknowledgement of a higher authority than the positivist law of “might makes right” threatens the security of the NeoCons, who alone, according to their ideology dating back half a century, can marshal the power to protect humanity from chaos.
Dr. Masmoudi laments that liberal democrats in the Middle East and around the world no longer believe that President Bush is serious about democracy and freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, the NeoCon policy called for stability through the imposition of a central government on peoples who had been fighting against a strong central government ever since the British created Iraq as a means to impose stability after the First World War. Most of the people in Iraq saw only two choices. Either they would have to kill each other in order to dominate and control the central government or they would have to kill each other in the attempt to destroy it. It soon became clear that self-determination of persons and nations would require the end of an occupation in which the elemental human rights of transcendent justice were regarded as only potentially useful but therefore dispensable tools of stability.
When stability, without regard for human responsibilities and rights, becomes the ultimate goal of policy, any seriousness about freedom and democracy is contingent on its usefulness toward order as the highest and indeed as the only goal. When order alone, divorced from justice and freedom, becomes the paradigm of policy, then constitutional democracy based on transcendent values, as distinct from secular or any other kind of democracy, has no meaning. True constitutional democracy as understood by America’s Founders then inevitably must disappear into the black hole of a democratic shell hiding its true essence of either pharonic unilateralism or oligarchical hypocrisy.
Overnight, the crisis of 9/11 gave the NeoCons access to the White House. Until then they had been consigned to political outer darkness in the Department of Defense, because they had backed Senator John McCain in the Year 2000 presidential elections. When Muslim intellectual and political reformers first received substantial funding from governmental sources for the promotion of democracy abroad, it was clear to objective students of NeoConservatism that they were treading in quicksand.
The fatal flaw in American foreign policy, and indeed also in American domestic policy, during the current Administration was clear to me as a life-long student of the NeoConservative movement in American history and indeed as one of its participants during the early 1960s. This was why I could not accept the advice of reformers in 2003 that in order to pursue justice as the higher goal of freedom and democracy one must avoid all criticism of NeoConservatism. And this is why over the years I wrote dozens of both negative and constructive position papers, most of them available in the ezine, http://www.theamericanmuslim.com and p,repared a book under the auspices of the International Institute of Islamic Thought, entitled The Natural Law of Compassionate Justice.
The fatal flaw in NeoConservatism as the exact opposite of everything America’s Founders envisioned in the Great American Experiment was why I insisted that reformers must include and indeed emphasize the need for a paradigmatic shift in policy from stability to justice. And this is why I also insisted that economic democracy is the most reliable road to political democracy. This elevation of human economic rights, of course, is anathema to the NeoCons who say that order must come first and that only after America can establish global order can we afford to worry about such inequities as wealth gaps based on institutional barriers to broadened capital ownership. In the NeoCon creed, property ownership is indeed important to protect order. Only within the paradigm of justice, however, can access to individual ownership of wealth-producing assets constitute a universal human right, just as important as ownership of one’s own labor in the battle against slavery.
In this period of reassessment among Muslim and other interfaith reformers, they should recognize that the challenge is not the ignorance or insincerity of those who oppose real self-determination of persons and communities, but rather lies in the faulty premises that reduce this basic human right to a mere tool in establishing order during an era of unprecedented change, indeed of global revolution, for both good and bad in all aspects of life.
What are the specific programmatic changes essential for any successful strategy to carry out what five years ago seemed like such an inspiring agenda? Dr. Radwan Masmoudi summarized the essential changes in the form of four programmatic goals as keys to success in recovering America’s global leadership potential as envisioned by America’s Founders. These are:
First, the Bush administration should loudly insist that the Mubarak government release Ayman Nour and those political prisoners—academics, journalists, human rights activists, and others—arrested in the latest crackdown. If public pressure fails, the administration should threaten to withhold a portion of its economic support to Egypt until it complies with international human-rights guarantees.
Second, U.S. diplomats must seriously engage with leaders of moderate Islamic parties, those who reject violence and endorse democracy, about how best to promote democratic governance and human rights in their countries. This will require the State Department to abandon its almost exclusively secular approach to political reform in the region—a tone-deafness to matters of faith that has frustrated would-be reformers.
Third, the United States should establish an annual fund of at least $500 million to support Arab and Muslim non-governmental organizations of all kinds that are genuinely committed to representative government and political and religious freedom. As deTocqueville once observed of America, it is the religious organizations of civil society that “direct the customs of the community” and are “indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.” The same will be true of any long-term democratic reform in the Middle East.
Finally, the administration should support, much more robustly than it has to date, American Muslims and American Muslim organizations to promote democratic freedoms from within an Islamic perspective—to develop a modern interpretation of Islam that puts the principles of self-government and human dignity at the core of its moral theology. These groups can become a vital resource for Muslim democrats in the Arab world and beyond.