Opinions expressed in this column are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of SW.
March 22, 2002
Free the Hatemongers!
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
At a roadside stand I picked up some cassette tapes of speeches by radical Muslim leaders.
"We are asking for those who are killing us to be killed — Jews," thunders one.
Another declares: "Muslims must not follow the Christians and Jews. Anyone who follows them becomes one of them, and God says he will not accept anyone but Muslims."
Then there's a tape of radical songs, including: "I'll make jihad against the pigs" — meaning Jews.
So what should be done about the militant Islamists who spew this kind of hate speech? That is, I think, one of the crucial questions for the Arab world — and for countries like ours that both despise the militants and cherish liberty.
For now, under American pressure, many Muslim countries are forcibly cracking down on radical fundamentalists. Unfortunately, the result is less freedom and democracy — and in some cases, more credibility for the Islamists, who come to be seen as authentic voices of opposition to cruel and corrupt regimes.
"Arab regimes are using the excuse of fighting terrorism to further limit the small margin of democracy in these countries," a Yemeni warned me, prudently asking that his name not be used.
The uncomfortable truth is that we have weakened terrorism, but also weakened democracy.
Even Americans who normally care about human rights are unlikely to be squeamish about the suppression of Islamic hatemongers. Muslim militants are not just offensive in their speech but also destabilizing for their societies. But I still find it both ignoble and ineffective for the United States to acquiesce in their suppression, unless they directly incite violence.
Egypt has been torturing Islamic fundamentalists for decades. Same with Algeria. Yet the only place where fundamentalists seem to be clearly losing popularity is Iran, where they alienated ordinary people by ruling them.
So on balance I think it's unwise to avert our eyes as our pals in Uzbekistan, Egypt and other countries imprison and torture fundamentalists. Rather, we should allow Islamists (though not terrorists) to compete in the democratic arena and club them there (with democratic clubs, I hasten to add, in case some Arab police chief is reading this).
Will this work any better than force? I don't know. Plenty of people I asked scoffed.
"These are not groups you can defeat by the democratic process," said Ali al-Baher, president of the Housing Bank in Yemen, adding that if fundamentalists won an election they would never permit another.
Dr. Ahmed Ateeq, a Western-educated physician, compared the Arab world today to Germany in the early 1930's, when Hitler used the ballot box to take power. "The situation is similar," he said. "A simple concept in difficult times of weak leadership, technological change, previous defeats — it was a perfect time for a nut like Hitler." And for radical Islamic nuts in the Arab world today.
There is weight in these arguments. But the Arab world has been in decline for six centuries because of a stultifying intellectual conformism, an insufficient clash of ideas, and so it seems particularly regrettable that our war on terror should lead to more repression.
One example here in Yemen is illuminating.
As a semi-democratic country, Yemen permits an Islamist party called Islah. Making the usual demagogic appeals, Islah vaulted to become the second-biggest party and was permitted to take power in the 1990's as part of a coalition government. It took the ministry of education and other key portfolios.
But in the end, allowing Islamists a measure of power proved the best way to inoculate voters against them. The public became irritated by Islah's campaigns against liquor, by its efforts to bolster Islamic education at the expense of science, by its inefficiency and corruption. In the next elections, it was ejected from office.
Churchill had it right: Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest. I say this with some nervousness, but I'll still say it: We should not allow the war on terror to erode the freedom even of those Islamists whom we despise.