U.S. military intervention in Iraq was supposed to result in the Great Transformation: the neoconservatives who howled for war reassured us with their own version of a reverse domino theory, in which, when Iraq fell to the American "liberators," the rest of the region would soon follow. Not only would repressive Arab regimes be changed, but they would be changed into their exact opposites functional democracies that would prove more conducive to peaceful relations with the West.
It hasn’t turned out that way.
Take Afghanistan please! where a Christian convert faces the death penalty for abandoning Islam. Afghan prosecutors inveigh against Abdul Rahman as a "microbe," and the judge in the case has stoutly resisted any attempts by outside authorities either the Afghan government of "President" Hamid Karzai or the U.S. embassy to interfere. The alleged "constitution" guarantees religious liberty, but that, apparently, does not apply to Mr. Rahman, whose arrest and imprisonment has been defended by Mawlavi Muhaiuddin Baloch, chief adviser on religious affairs to Karzai.
The international reaction has been a public relations disaster for the nascent Afghan "democracy." Christians in the United States are up in arms, demanding Rahman’s release. Sen. Bill Frist has written a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denouncing the charges against Rahman as "ludicrous," and going on to say:
"It is fair to say that the United States has not spent the last four plus years liberating, defending, rebuilding, and assisting Afghanistan’s democratic development only to see the Afghani people remain subject to laws reminiscent of the Taliban’s reign."
Here the good senator demonstrates his abject ignorance of the Middle East, not to mention Islam: throughout the region (from Morocco to Egypt to Syria to Iran, as well as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states) it is forbidden to renounce Islam and embrace Christianity, or any other religion for that matter. This is true even in relatively liberal Muslim societies, such as Malaysia. Even in Turkey, which prides itself on its European character, and where it is legal to convert away from Islam, it is still so socially unacceptable that only a few have chosen to change the religious designation on their identity papers. The idea of religious freedom is a historically specific, geographically delimited concept, one that is consistently applied only in the West, and there only since the Enlightenment; for much of the rest of the world, especially including the lands dominated by Islam, this is an utterly alien idea.
As it turns out, the United States has in deed spent the last four plus years sacrificing its sons and daughters, and shelling out billions, so that the Afghan people can "democratically" choose to live under what is, in effect, a theocracy no different in principle from the Taliban.
The New York Times piece on the case helpfully proffers an explanation for all this:
"The case illustrates the continued tensions between President Hamid Karzai, an American-backed religious moderate, and religious hard-liners who dominate the country’s courts."
Hogwash. What this illustrates, in the most dramatic terms, is that culture rules and that the thin veneer of "democratic reforms" initiated by our Afghan sock-puppets has about as much staying power as the Soviet-style "reforms" in the area of women’s rights and education initiated by the Russian-backed regime of the 1980s, i.e., zilch. The stubborn persistence of traditional norms of behavior, in the face of Jacobin efforts to wipe them out, is proving too much for even the mightiest army on earth to overcome: in the end, we "liberated" nothing and no one.
This latest demonstration of the futility of social engineering has put the Bush administration and the War Party in an impossible position: if the trial proceeds, then this will put the lie to the president’s enthusiastic effusions as to the success of his "global democratic revolution," and if the Afghans cave it will only underscore their role as servants of the West, rather than their own people the vast majority of whom doubtless support the prosecution’s case for execution.
Culture trumps politics, always, and this lesson is being learned in Iraq, too, where the Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country’s supreme Shi’ite religious leader and the architect of the ruling coalition, recently expressed his view of the legal status of homosexuality:
"The people involved should be killed in the worst, most severe way of killing."
That this would mean the execution of a good proportion of the Arab population, among whom homosexuality is rife, apparently has not occurred to the ayatollah, who must lead a remarkably sheltered life. Indeed, in Arab and Muslim societies, the idea of homosexual or "gay" identity is alien precisely because homosexual behavior is so endemic, due to the general unavailability of women. Sistani’s pronouncement was the occasion for a snort of disgust from Andrew Sullivan, who has spent the last five years touting the absolute moral and geopolitical necessity of invading, conquering, and "democratizing" Iraq. That he fails to draw any more general conclusion other than Sistani "makes James Dobson look enlightened," is typical of Sullivan’s dishonesty and inability to own up to his own ideological delusions.
As far as I know, however, Sullivan didn’t make the mistake of investing in Sistani any hopes for a liberal democracy to sprout in Iraq, but others were not so cautious. A few months ago, Tom G. Palmer, a top official at the Cato Institute, enthused:
"I do hope that the Grand Ayatollah Sistani survives for some time, as he is known as an enemy of Khomeini-style (or Iranian style) Islamic-Republicanism and favors secular government that devotes itself to justice, while religion devotes itelf [sic] to morality (roughly put). He is depicted by the ignoramuses at, say, antiwar.com, as simply an Iranian-style theocrat, but he has been for many years a critic of the Khomeini approach. As I recall reading, he has said that while Khomeini favored seizing the state to make men religious and upright, his view (Sistani’s) is that the role of religion is not to seize the state and make it good, but to help to make men moral, and when they are moral and good, they will have a just government."
No word from Palmer, a noted advocate of gay rights, on this latest example of the ayatollah’s devotion to "secular government."
There never was any chance of Western-style liberal democracy being implanted by force of arms in either Iraqi or Afghan soil nor, for the foreseeable future, by any other means. The culture of the region militates against it, as does the economic debility of much of the Middle East, mired in statism and entrapped by a social stasis that seems capable of enduring for at least another generation. No amount of shock therapy, either in the form of "shock and awe" or the importation of Western cultural influences, is going to change the reality on the ground. All it will do is enrage a billion-plus Muslims and provide plenty of cannon fodder for Osama bin Laden’s legions of militant medievalists, who will turn our best efforts against us.
The paradox of American power is playing a cruel joke on the "liberators," as well as the "liberated." In exporting "democracy" to the Middle East, we have enthroned a political force that executes executes! religious dissenters and homosexuals. We have spent $201 billion up to last year "liberating" Afghanistan so Abdul Rahman could face the death penalty, and $250 billion and counting in Iraq (with the total cost estimated by some as close to $1 trillion) to stop Muslim men from sodomizing each other at the first opportunity.
While some Christian fundamentalists in this country may agree with the latter agenda, they are horrified by what is happening to Mr. Rahman, and are mobilizing to exert pressure on the administration to stop it. They can dish it out, but they sure can’t take it, can they? Which is not to say that both prospects aren’t equally horrendous: however, what ought to be clear by now is that it is futile to expect anything else of these societies. They are, quite simply, not us, and all the bombs in the world, as well as the lessons in "democracy" and "nation-building," aren’t going to make a bit of difference except as an increasingly empty and discredited rationale for U.S. military intervention around the world.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
In my last column, I mistakenly wrote that I was speaking at the Yale Political Union on April 10: the correct date is April 12.