Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Tempering the Optimism

I don't want to sound too optimistic here. Sure, Iraq has just become the most democratic Arab nation but that's like being the prettiest girl on the East German weight-lifting team. It's a low standard.

Iraq joins, by my count, five other Muslim democracies or quasi-democracies. Two of those have a history of military coups when democracy got out of hand (Turkey and Pakistan). Two more are recent and shakey (Indonesia) or brand new (Afghanistan). And the other is Mayalaysia, where more than a third of the country is non-Muslims, and the previous Prime Minister was a notorious anti-Semite who served as PM for 22 years straight. Iraq will be bucking the trend if it can establish a lasting, vibrant and non-theocratic democracy.

This piece in the Asian Times (HT: Watch) tries to rain on the parade a little. The author reminds us that one of the biggest obstacles to democracy is a weakness disguised as a strength: oil, owned and managed by the central government.

"Distribution of largesse from a central treasury does not threaten traditional social relations. No element of "creative destruction" is present in what now passes for Iraqi democracy. That is, nothing about the extraction, transportation and sale of oil requires changes in behavior of people who otherwise might stick to habits acquired in the Low Middle Ages. ... Iraqi society, especially the Shi'ites who will dominate the new government, remain conservative, traditionalist and unsuited to compete in the modern world."

True enough. Our best hope is that foresighted leaders from all communities know this and will use the oil profits to prepare their people for the modern world, to ease the pain of a transition to modernity, to adapt their traditions to the globalized world of the 21st century.

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