Let a Dozen Al-Jazeeras Bloom

The future of the Middle East depends on the direction of US foreign policy. Many Indians have misgivings about your grasp of what is needed to create free, tolerant societies in the Middle East.

These can only deepen after your recent attempt to muzzle Al-Jazeera, the independent TV station in Qatar, which has been broadcasting video tapes of Osama bin Laden and his colleagues.

In a region replete with state-controlled media, you want to curb the freedom of the only independent media source.

You think Al-Jazeera’s broadcasts will inflame Muslim opinion and anti-American sentiment. Yet what can be more anti-American than curbs on the free press?

The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees press freedom. That freedom has been woefully misused by many extremists and pornographers, yet US courts have consistently held that curbing press freedom will do more damage than misuse of this freedom by extremists.

If press freedom is more important than political convenience in the US, must not the same hold true in the Middle East?

If you cannot tolerate the only truly independent media in the region, how do you expect to promote democratic values?

The American press has protested against your attempts at censorship, and seems to be carrying the day.

Al Jazeera continues to broadcast statements by bin Laden and Taliban leaders. But I think the matter cannot end there.

US foreign policy needs to set as a priority goal the creation of at least a dozen independent TV stations in the Middle East like Al-Jazeera.

That will do more in the long term to promote US interests than pacts with local autocrats or billions of dollars of aid.

The Middle East is replete with autocracies and notably lacking in democracies.

Some intellectuals echo the theory of a coming clash of civilisations, between a democratic West and an autocratic Islam. This is poppycock.

America itself has millions of Muslims, who are as democratic as any Christian. India’s 120 million Muslims function democratically. The problem in the Middle East is not the nature of Islam, but the lack of institutions needed to support democracy.

Free societies do not magically spring from the ground after centuries of autocratic rule, in which dissent has always been equated with treason.

Shifting the role of dissent from one of treason to one of honour involves a colossal change in mind-set, one that takes much time and institutional change. Merely holding elections is not enough, as has proved in developing countries across the globe.

Democracy rests on an extensive network of institutions that go well beyond elections – rule of law, equality before the law, separation of powers, checks and balances, free press, rights for opposition parties, and much else.

None of these institutions were permitted by rulers in the developing world before colonialism. Colonial rulers for the first time introduced some of these institutions in their colonies, in varying degrees.

The British carried this process furthest, which is why democracy has fared best in ex-British colonies.

Democracy and Islam have mixed to some degree only in Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, all ex-British colonies.

Why did democracy not take root in the Middle East? It was never colonised, and so never got the institutions created in colonies like Malaysia or India.

Imperial powers controlled the Middle East through protectorates and special alliances with feudal rulers. Modernism entered the region in the form of modern versions of autocracy, not democracy.

The US has sought democratic partners in the region, but in vain. So it has forged alliances with Middle East autocracies.

This has hindered the emergence of tolerant, democratic societies. Indeed, it has helped foster Islamic terrorism.

Middle East autocracies generate much resentment. Yet dissent and press freedom are systematically crushed. Many Arabs seeking elementary freedoms have been jailed – in Jordan, Egypt, the Gulf states.

When dissent is crushed in civil society, it gravitates to religious institutions, which cannot be crushed so easily.

In Poland under Communist rule or the Philippines under Marcos, the church became a focal point of dissent.

Similarly, dissent in the Middle East has gravitated to the mosque. This is a key reason for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Every Middle Eastern autocracy has a muzzled press, prohibited from criticising the rulers. But this muzzled press is allowed to castigate the US.

Why? Because the rulers know this helps channel resentment away from them to the US. And the US does not seem bothered. In this fashion, US policy has helped stoke both Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Americanism.

What can the US do to inculcate tolerant democracies? Insisting on elections has often failed in the past, since the mind-set and supporting institutions needed by democracy do not exist and cannot be created overnight.

The democratic experiment in Sudan in the 1980s degenerated into anarchy as Islamic and Marxist radicals used street power to promote their own versions of autocracy.

Algeria’s attempt at holding elections in the 1990s so boosted Islamic fundamentalism that the poll was called off.

Institutional change and a new mind-set will come only in stages. As a pragmatic first step, the US should insist that every one of its allies allow the functioning of at least one independent media group, and gradually expand this to a largely free press.

This can be an important transitional step on the path to democracy. It will provide civil society some route other than the mosque to express dissent.

An independent press must be able to criticise both the ruler and the US. Otherwise, it will be neither independent nor have the credibility needed. No doubt extremists of all sorts will try to start their own media groups.

This could lead to a mess for some time. But every country needs to struggle internally to create the compromises and give and take needed for the emergence of a tolerant society.

That process is necessarily messy. But it will yield an enormous dividend: Tolerant societies that defuse terrorism.

What do you think?