Pro-American dictator or anti-American democracy? That's the choice in Pakistan now, where President (and top general) Pervez Musharraf has suspended his country's constitution, fired the country's chief justice, and shut down nongovernmental television stations. He said that had he not acted, Islamist extremists would have taken over the country.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice continues to urge publicly a return to democracy and the ending of "extraconstitutional measures." But it didn't take long after Musharaff's move for Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell to say that it "does not impact our military support of Pakistan." You don't need a translator to spot the wink, winking that is going on.
The Bush administration has no good choices elsewhere as well. Palestinian democracy has led to Hamas rule. Saudi democracy would likely lead to Wahabi rule unmitigated by royal family decadence. The State Department pushed publicly for Egyptian elections but wasn't hugely upset when Hosni Mubarak rigged them and jailed his leading opponent.
Must the United States be double-faced? Or are we in this position because we've put the cart before the horse, democracy before liberty? Former Soviet dissident and Israeli government minister Natan Sharansky is helpful here: In a Nov. 3 Wall Street Journal interview, he noted, "Democracy is a rather problematic word, because democracy is about technique. I would prefer freedom."
Freedom! The movie Braveheart has William Wallace calling out for freedom, not democracy, moments before his death. People in the British Isles and the United States had to fight for freedom before they developed democracy. Freedom includes freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and the press. Without those, democracy quickly becomes mobocracy.
Freedom of religion is especially important because it leads to the others. All religions are not equal in this regard. Some religions are by nature decentralizing in that they give equal ultimacy to the one and the many. Christianity with its Trinitarian core is paramount among the decentralizers. Other religions are centralizing. Islam with its base in the story of Muhammad-the purportedly perfect man who became the theological, political, and military leader-is paramount among them.
Lack of liberty within Islam contributed to its centuries of decline in many ways. The Ottoman Empire banned printing presses for Muslims in 1485, which meant that many in Europe enjoyed a knowledge explosion and many Muslims did not. Ever since then Islam has been on a geopolitical losing streak. Now, the 57 majority-Muslim countries contain 1.4 billion people, but half of them are illiterate. Those countries contain 57 universities, compared to 5,000-plus in the United States. Western nations spend 5 percent of their GDP on producing knowledge, Muslim countries 0.2 percent.
Pakistan was always east of Ottomania, but it is nevertheless one of the losers. Those in second place can respond, like Avis and the Red Sox, by trying harder-or they can blame the leader.
This year World Public Opinion asked people in Pakistan, "How much of what happens in the world today would you say is controlled by the U.S.?" Most respondents said "all" or "most." Fatalism is also evident in what one Pakistani laborer last week told a Los Angeles Times reporter: "For us, life stays the same, even when politicians throw Pakistan into the sky, spin it around and watch as it crashes back down to earth."
Losers often develop conspiracy theories. Husain Haqqani, a Pakistani who directs an international-relations center at Boston University, reports that his countrymen recently spread rumors of a virus-not a computer virus, a physical one-that would kill those who answered phone calls from particular numbers. One man purportedly answered his cell phone and then "died like he was poisoned." One newspaper declared the rumor false but ran that denial under a headline, "Killer Mobile Virus."
What's the United States to do? Foreign-policy realism should not mean accepting dictatorships as inevitable. Instead, we need to use all instruments available to promote religious and intellectual liberty. Will the struggle for freedom in Islam be hard? Yes, but we have no alternative, for dictatorship means disaster for Muslim countries and more terrorism throughout the world-and so does democracy without freedom.