Monday, June 1, 2020

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 06-01-2018 11:38

Preaching democracy is out of fashion

Multiculturalism may be on the way out, but there are still plenty of politicians who think “exporting democracy” is by nature imperialistic, something only a white supremacist would dream of indulging in.

While Islamists – like Communists not that long ago and, before them, fascists of one kind or another – are more than willing to spend huge amounts of time and money on trying to convert people to their own particular creed, most of those who think the world would be a better place if everybody adopted democracy are reluctant to extol its virtues on the international stage. In part this may be due to fear – try telling people Christianity is better than Islam in a Muslim land or going on about the need for ideological diversity in China – but a feeling of contrite humility has also persuaded many that they should keep their mouths shut. Multiculturalism may be on the way out, but there are still plenty of politicians who think “exporting democracy,” as George W. Bush and Tony Blair called it, even by pointing out its merits, is by nature imperialistic, something only a white supremacist would dream of indulging in. So when cracks start appearing in a dictatorship as malignant as the theocracy ruling the Islamic Republic of Iran, many who would like to see it collapse keep their sentiments to themselves. Unfortunately for those Iranians who are sick of having their country run by a bunch of clerics more interested in religious matters than in economic and social development, most Western politicians and commentators quickly came to the conclusion that giving moral support to the people rioting in the street, as thousands have been doing lately, could prove counterproductive by providing the regime with an additional excuse to kill protestors. To prove them right, Iran’s “supreme leader,” the ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the Great Satan America and the Little Satan Israel were behind the disturbances; others surely assumed that the legendarily clever British, who still play a major role in Iranian demonology, have also been busy stirring things up. The official view, then, is that the rioters are hirelings of foreign powers. According to the head of Teheran’s revolutionary court, the rioters may be guilty of the capital crime of “waging war against God.”

A reluctance to lend a hand to the regime’s propagandists by openly backing those shouting “death to the dictator” is one reason European governments have been reluctant to voice an opinion about what is happening in Iran. Another is that in Europe, many who hold influential positions – among them the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the Italian Federica Mogherini – dislike the US and, with even greater venom, Israel, and treat the Iranian dictatorship as yet another victim of evil imperialistic machinations. Given the dangers posed by the Iranian regime’s nuclear ambitions, its willingness to lavish billions of dollars on terrorist organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah and its often stated desire to see Israel wiped off the face of the earth, as well as its role in the 1994 AMIA bombing, it might be thought that all Western countries, among them Argentina, would be doing their utmost to take advantage of the current  unrest. However, apart from a couple of characteristic, and much criticised, tweets from Donald Trump, hardly anyone has expressed the hope that Iran’s Islamic Revolution could be brought down from within. Helping the Iranian regime and others like it is the widespread pessimism regarding the prospects facing underdeveloped countries.

Until fairly recently, most middle-of-the-road Westerners assumed that, as time went by, countries still ruled by tyrants could be made to evolve into democracies, as indeed happened throughout Eastern and Central Europe and in much of Latin America after the Soviet Union went into meltdown. So when the “Arab spring” broke out just over seven years ago, many hoped events in the Muslim world would follow a similar course. They did not. Almost overnight it became clear that, with the possible exception of Tunisia, countries in which versions of Islam had shaped the culture for over a thousand years were not about to embrace the political and economic rules that, after centuries of trial and error, had in the West and then Japan shown themselves to be far superior to all the alternatives, including those adopted because it was assumed that a totalitarian approach would speed up development.

In the murderous free-for-all that followed the brief “Arab spring,” religious fanatics, clan leaders and military bosses took advantage of the confusion to fight against one another as, on and off, they had been doing since before anyone could remember. The more presentable among them managed to convince the Europeans and North Americans that they wanted their countries to become democratic and got rewarded with large sums of money. Some may have really meant it, but so far all attempts by outsiders to use the immense resources at their disposal to put together a genuinely democratic alliance capable of winning power and then keeping it have failed. As things stand, nobody even pretends to know what will finally emerge from the gruesome turmoil that has devastated Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa, and already spilled over into Europe where it is causing many intractable problems.

Few European politicians seem to think it would be in their interest to encourage the rioters who have taken to the streets of Iranian cities to demand not just economic reform and less graft but also to express their evident loathing of their country’s theocratic rulers. No doubt many quietly agree with Trump that the regime is “brutal and corrupt” and therefore deserves to be overthrown, but the last thing they want is for Iran to get torn apart by a civil war similar to the one that has brought so much suffering to Syria. As a considerable proportion of Iran’s population belongs to ethnic and linguistic minorities – accompanying the Persians, who despite a plummeting birth rate remain a majority, are large numbers of Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis and Arabs – a major rebellion against the status quo could become just as bloody as did the one in Syria and send more millions of refugees fleeing towards the Mediterranean, a disaster that would present the Europeans with an even greater challenge than the ones they are already facing.

(*) Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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