Episode 117      32 min 18 sec
Flavors of democracy: United States' ambitions in the Middle East

Political analyst Prof James Piscatori explains why the efforts by the United States to promote democracy in the Middle East may not result in the type of democracy Washington wants. With host Jennifer Cook.

"The moment the US intervenes, it gets trapped in a number of problems. You delegitimise the [Muslim] groups by their taking the coin of the United States. It puts the United States in a position of being a theological arbiter" -- Professor James Piscatori





           



James Piscatori
James Piscatori

James Piscatori is Professor of International Relations in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. Prior to this appointment, Professor and Deputy Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University. He was formerly Fellow of Wadham College and of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, and member of the Faculties of Social Studies and Oriental Studies, University of Oxford. He has held professorial appointments in the Department of International Politics, the University of Wales, and the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University. In addition, he has been a Research Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York.

Professor Piscatori is the author of Islam in a World of Nation-States and co-author (with Dale F. Eickelman) of Muslim Politics. He is the editor of Islam in the Political Process and co-editor of Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination. Islam, Islamists, and The Electoral Principle appeared as the first in a series of papers for the International Institute for the Study of the Modern Muslim World in Leiden. In addition to works on modern Islam, he has written on the politics and international relations of the Gulf, co-editing for example Monarchies and Nations: Globalisation and Identity in the Arab States of the Gulf.

He serves on the editorial boards of various journals, including: the Journal of Islamic Studies; the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs; and Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations. He is a member of the Academic Council of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, and of the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne. In November 2004 he delivered the Elie Kedourie Memorial Lecture of the British Academy on “Imagining Pan-Islam: Religious Activism and Political Utopias”, and in 2009 he was inducted into the Society of Scholars of the Johns Hopkins University.

James' current work is on the development of pan-Islamic thought and movements.

Professor Piscatori spoke at the US Democracy Promotion in the Middle East conference in October 2010. This conference was organized by the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne.

Credits

Host: Jennifer Cook
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink

Special thanks to Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies

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Flavors of democracy: United States' ambitions in the Middle East

VOICEOVER 
Welcome to Up Close, the research, opinion and analysis podcast from the University of Melbourne, Australia.
 
JENNIFER COOK
I'm Jennifer Cook, thanks for joining us.  In this episode we continue our examination of the US role in the Middle East.  In particular the controversial policy of exporting democracy to the region.  Joining us is Professor James Piscatori who is at the University of Melbourne for a conference held by the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies on US Democracy Promotion in the Middle East.  
Professor Piscatori is one of the world's leading authorities on political Islam and the politics, history and international relations of the Middle East.  He has also produced a number of edited volumes and numerous journal articles, and is a contributing editor to the Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World.  James Piscatori is Professor of International Relations in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University in the United Kingdom.  Professor Piscatori, thank you so much for joining us.
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
Thank you very much for inviting me.  
 
JENNIFER COOK
Now your research takes this argument about democracy in the Middle East deeper than just a discussion of what works and what doesn't.  Instead you point out that relatively little attention has been paid to the specific matter of US funding for Islamic groups overseas.  So why is this so important?
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
As you say, there's been a great deal of discussion about democracy promotion and of course the subject has been bound up with the, what's often now called 'coercive democratisation'.  That is to say, of course, the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.  This has clearly been so thoroughly discredited because of facts on the ground and because of misguided objectives, that in a sense the whole question of democracy promotion and the attention that has been devoted to it, the literature in a sense has been fixated on it.  Understandably so.  In a way it's kind of concern of focus with top down democratisation.
In a sense, what I'm concerned about is, if you will, the bottom up side of it.  That there are a number of groups out there which are being supported by the United States, but not exclusively the United States.  The European Union, for example, Scandinavian countries, the UK; which are meant to be contributory towards a development of democratisation.  Some people call that civil society development, some people say it is support for NGOs, non-governmental organisations and that therefore it's a perfectly natural development, and one could see almost an automatically clear line between the development of these kinds of organisations and eventually a more open, more democratic if you will, political society.  
Now the problem is, is that it depends, of course, on what the groups themselves are committed to.  Who is running them, what are their constituents?  Here the situation can be quite difficult.  So it is quite possible that support could go to groups which are actually not really inclusive, not really pluralist in their approach.  In fact, they could be really contributors towards say, for example, sectarian violence, which as we know, has unfolded in parts of the Middle East.
 
JENNIFER COOK
I'm just thinking of Professor Marina Ottaway's point in her book, Getting to Pluralism, which she edited.  She omitted a chapter on civil society because she said such a thing at this time, in the Middle East doesn't exist.  What do you say to that?
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
Well that, of course is one of the great debates of the field.  In a sense it's academic, but it also has real world implications.  Academics are obsessed with the question of what constitutes a civil society.  One can take maybe two approaches to it.  One is that it's a group which is somewhere between the state and the family or the individual, and in a sense is not controlled by the state.  And in the classic theory of this, the civil society organisations would then essentially provide a buffer against state authority, state autocracy.  You know the classic example of this, of course, is the great 19th century French writer, De Toqueville who went to America, and was terribly impressed that the American people belonged to social clubs, church groups etc.  And aid therein is the genius of American democracy. 
 
That these groups do things the government doesn't have to do and they also stand as a kind of protection against the possibility of governmental tyranny.  Now there's a second way of looking at a civil society group, which is that it has to be civil.  In the sense of virtuous, in the sense of civic commitment.
 
JENNIFER COOK
Now this is interesting because we're getting into value judgements.
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
Exactly.  Exactly, and of course it makes it much more difficult because it's a normative approach, but it also raises that logical question of, what is civic mindedness and is it culturally specific?  And therein to come back to your earlier question, therein is one of the great problems in the debate about the Muslim world and the Middle East in particular.  The argument, of course, tends to go that for a variety of reasons, Islamic norms, Islamic ideas, are not positively attuned to the idea of citizenship, equality, pluralism, participation.  As a result therefore, they're not civic; therefore there cannot be civil society in the Middle East or the Muslim world.  
 
In a sense, the debate is framed by a huge question mark over what do we mean by the very subject itself?  And you add to this the policy dilemma.  So the policy dilemma is for the United States, for all these countries that wish to promote democracy, well if you think that you're going to do it, one way to do it of course, is to invade and do it in a sense, push democracy from the top down.  Well that's failed.  So we'll instead support civil society or these groups in Society and through them build up a kind of a grass roots sense of commitment and eventually kind of a political culture which will sustain democratisation.  
 
Now there are now a whole series of questions that flow from that which cause problems for the democracy promotion.  
 
JENNIFER COOK
On Up Close, this episode we're speaking about the United States and their efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East.  I'm talking with Professor James Piscatori.  So James, what does a critical examination of these groups, what does it reveal about western ideals of democracy for all?
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
Indeed this is the assumption that democracy is the universal good.  One can understand that obviously.  In a sense the democracy that is being proposed and promoted, and that of course is one of the critical problems of the whole democracy promotion policy, is that it's culturally loaded, that it's culturally specific.  In a sense what we would like to see is Jeffersonian democracy in all of these societies, where individual rights trump collective rights.  Where equality is an unquestioned goal; where citizenship has clearly delineated rights and duties both for the individual and for government.  
Now one may ask if that even applies to western societies today.  
 
JENNIFER COOK
If we look at the policies and the approach of the Bush administration which is characterised as a hard politics approach, compared to Obama's so called soft diplomacy.  Is there such a break in the two ways that they've been implemented?  What's your opinion on that?
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
I perhaps have a somewhat slightly different take than most people have.  I think we can delineate quite clear differences between the Bush and Obama administrations certainly.  It is also the case that Obama is, of course, trying to disengage from many of the Bush policies such as Iraq, troubled as we now know, and some detail over Afghanistan policy et cetera.  But in fact, what strikes me when you look at the details is the remarkable similarity between the Bush and Obama administrations.  Let me try to document that for you.  
The general conventional view is for good or ill; most people for ill, the Bush administration pushed hard a democracy promotion agenda in the Middle East.  They did so, perhaps because they inherently believed in the universal value of democracy, but clearly they did so because they saw it as bound up with American security.  This of course, is post September 11.  The way to assure the security of the United States is to diffuse radicalism.  Radicalism is in the Islamic world and the way we do that is to promote democratisation.  So there's a great squaring of that circle.  
That is what is assumed to be the Bush administration policy.  The Obama policy is thought to be one which has stepped back from that, which is to pursue something fairly similar but in a more subtle way, but nevertheless to be promoting a human rights agenda, in a sense a morally qualified foreign policy.  What strikes me now is in fact two remarkable similarities.  The first is that Bush did not pursue the democracy promotion agenda anywhere near as assiduously as he is thought to have done.  By the same token, Obama is not as softly softly as one would think as well.
Now what do I mean by that?  Both in a sense have pre-eminently followed what is the ultimately obvious realist principle of international relations.  You do what is necessary for your own security.  Therefore, if you look at the great democracy promoter, Bush, what happened?  Support for Pervez Musharraf, the military president of Pakistan, until the bitter end.  He did nothing in a non-Middle Eastern example, to interfere with the systematic dismantling of democracy in Russia.  In the case of Egypt in the 2005 elections which were quite distorted – in many ways manipulated by the government – did nothing to push a freer system.  
Now in the same sort of way, the Obama administration, no matter what it says about a morally inclined foreign policy, and one which is more sensitive across the board, again is fairly similarly approaching security as the primary goal.  To be frank, Secretary of State, Clinton, has had no trouble dealing with China.  When human rights is mentioned, the predominant factor, we know that the regime of the present President of Egypt, his name is Mubarak, is increasingly authoritarian without a doubt.
We know that Jordan under King Abdullah has brought Jordan to an increasingly more authoritarian place.  Such that Freedom House which had listed it as at least partly free, according to their criteria, is now in the category of not free.  The same king has just dissolved parliament half way through its four year term.  But not a word from the Obama administration about the lack of democracy either of Egypt or in Jordan.  So we have a number - this is my first point, that on security terms, they're very similar.  
 
JENNIFER COOK
Yes, looking after their own.
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
Looking after their own.  Which in a way is not a surprising development.
 
JENNIFER COOK
As you said, it's the basis of…
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
Of international relations, it's just that it seems to fly in the face of what is thought to be this overwhelming assumption that democracy promotion is the over-riding goal.
 
JENNIFER COOK
This is what is so fascinating about this topic isn't it?  Because we're looking at perceptions and the reality on the ground.
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
Precisely.  I think you've put it very well.  And I would just qualify it by saying that rhetoric dominates this entire discussion.  If you want to even go further, you could say propaganda does.  In a sense it's not unlike the cold war, whereby assumptions of what is right and wrong, what is moral and immoral, were very stark and very clear and were presented in great rhetorical fashion.  In a sense this qualified and coloured the entire debate.  But the reality was always much more complex.  So even when the Soviet Union was being denounced by Ronald Reagan as the evil empire, there were negotiations going on about limitations on nuclear weapons.  
So clearly the situation is always much more complex, but the rhetoric does seem to dominate our understanding of it.
 
JENNIFER COOK
This is Up Close.  We're coming to you from the University of Melbourne Australia, I'm Jennifer Cook and our guest today is Professor James Piscatori.  And we're talking about the United States and their efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East.  
James, how do you explain US support for non-democratic Middle Eastern states like Saudi Arabia?  
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
Oh I think that's very clear.  Putting it quite bluntly, United States is not as powerful as it once was perhaps, or thinks it is.  It has to, in a sense, maintain a circle of allies on whom it is dependent.  This of course, is one of those truths which is unpalatable, and a President is unlikely to sell it that way to his population.  Quite clearly the relationship with Saudi Arabia for example, is one where United States must maintain a fairly close relationship.  You know there was somewhat of a controversy over when Obama met King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for the first time.  He rather clearly bowed and this picture became quite controversial, suggesting almost a kind of allegiance obeisance to the King of Saudi Arabia.  Of course, one can overstate that kind of symbolism, but in a way it did capture in one moment, the sense of dependence of the United States on them.  So it's highly unlikely that in those cases non-democratic regimes are going to be pushed towards anything called democracy.
 
JENNIFER COOK
Within this context of the United States wanting a circle of allies, what about the implications of other rising economies and powers like China?
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
Well, as I've suggested, the power of the United States has to be put into a larger matrix now.  To put it in terminology that is usually given, we are clearly in a multi-polar world.  China is not shy internationally, it's quite active.  As we know, it's involved heavily in the Middle East, heavily in South East Asia, of course in Africa.  All of which in some ways overlaps with the Muslim world.  
So it is now  a direct competitor to the United States in a part of the world that US wishes to influence and as far as I know, China is not pushing any kind of democratisation agenda.  Therefore, if you are a local power in one of those regions, why not take Chinese aid instead of deal with the Americans?  Especially if you add one more factor in here.  That is, what I think is perhaps one of the most understated aspects, but one of the most problematic.  That the US has a view of Islam that should be consistent with democratisation and is willing to promote that.  Whereas if you take other powers that are involved in the Muslim world it's not perhaps so clear and there might be a more hands off approach.
 
JENNIFER COOK
Which, of course, is going to appeal to anyone who has a certain set of beliefs and want to worship and follow those beliefs.
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
Exactly.
 
JENNIFER COOK
So following on from that, how will an anaemic US economy, ballooning deficit, I'm thinking of baby boomers drawing on social security en masse.  How is that going to affect US foreign policy, particularly on military campaigns and other mechanisms to bring this democracy to the Middle East?
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
Very interesting question.  It remains to be seen, of course.  I was struck by the fact that President Obama said at one point, apropos of this general debate about what are we doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Of course, the general question being, is it a business of United States?  Is it the business of the UK, of Australia et cetera, to be involved in nation building.
President Obama said, the only nation that I'm concerned about rebuilding is my own.  Thereby indicating in a sense, a kind of neo isolationist perspective.  That what matters is the fact that there's deep problems in the American economy which might translate into some significant social problems, which in a way are a million miles away from whether or not democracy comes to the Gulf.  Or whether Egypt has a fair election the next time around.
 
JENNIFER COOK
But unrest at home, troubles at home, for people within the Middle East and those countries looking at the US could see it as red flags against democracy.
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
Another good point.  That this may be an example of a society which has somehow spun off its axis.  You have to have some sort of a stabilising centre and this kind of free for all kind of problem in a society which has economic difficulties, but also a very vigorous form of freedom of expression might be counter productive to values that people in the Middle East would see.  So yes, it's possible.
 
In other words, you're suggesting that the model of democracy may be somewhat tarnished.
 
JENNIFER COOK
Yes.
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
And I think you're right.
 
JENNIFER COOK
Looking at, you mentioned spinning off its axis.  So if we look at the Middle East and what are some of the beliefs that do hold a society or people on their axis.  Could we talk a bit about the Muslim Brotherhood and that notion of it.
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
I think here again it's one of the subjects on which there is a vast amount of debate.  Most of it confuses the subject rather than advances it.  The question is generally can Islam be modern?  In the 19th century it was framed as are science and Islam compatible?  In our age it is are Islam and democracy compatible?  There is a strong tendency to argue that there are difficulties there.  That for a series of inherent principles and norms in Islam, it would be difficult to create a society which would look something like what we think democracy should be.  
Now that's only part of the story.  Part of the problem, as I've already alluded is that we're not clear on what we mean by democracy either.  Is it just elections or more than elections et cetera?  That's one of the debates in the Middle East.  So one of the great developments of the last few decades is that there is now a reaction to this external debate about can Islam and democracy, or Islam and modernity be compatible, within the Muslim world itself?  So you have any large number of thinkers, groups, which are trying to develop this.  Now the Muslim Brotherhood is an interesting in-between group.  People read it differently.  My reading of it, is it's been around since 1928; it's got a venerable sort of tradition.  Some people would say that the Muslim Brotherhood is firmly in the traditionalist view, which would be kind of rejecting of many of these principles of modern and participatory society.  
Others would say that there is a moderate ring and that there are those who would be promoting it.  I think that first of all, any Islamist group is a multi-layered thing.  So that there are any number of different participants within, but that broadly speaking, the Muslim Brotherhood over time partly because it is defining itself against the authoritarianism of the government.  Is arguing for elections, participation, certain concepts of citizenship.  
 
JENNIFER COOK
So what's the US's view on the brotherhood, on the Muslim Brotherhood?
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
At a very unclear one.  In the past it was quite negative.  The Muslim Brotherhood, like other groups,  Islamist groups, were excluded.  The argument was always that the Muslim Brotherhood was in some ways connected to violence.  Incidentally one could make that case.  For example, there have been anti-Coptic attitudes and actions by Muslim Brotherhood types.
There of course, is the distinct view on the Arab Israeli conflict which is rejecting of the Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel which has been in existence since 1979, but still controversial.  Because of that, US have said there's no point in discussion.  They're beyond the pale as it were, as satisfactory interlocutors.  Others would argue, and the Obama administration does seem to be moving in this sub-direction, but again somewhat quietly, that the Muslim brotherhood can be engaged or elements of it.  That it would be better to engage them in the long run than to exclude them.  
That by engaging them, one hopes that it stimulates or encourages the further process of moderation.  There are of course, several Muslim Brotherhoods incidentally.  I'm mainly talking about the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, which is the mother of all Muslim Brotherhoods and the mother of all Islamist movements.  But there are branches and elsewhere in other countries, Jordan for example.  And of course, most famous is Hamas.  Which is the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine and with which the thought of dialogue is completely unaccepted.
 
JENNIFER COOK
I was going to ask you about the Muslim Brotherhood's relationship with Hamas.  
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
Hamas says very clearly in its charter and in its publications that it is the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.  So it quite clearly sees itself as part of the larger movement.  The Muslim Brotherhood is a trans-national movement in the sense of having its original roots in Egypt, but having a broader prescription.  Having said that, each of these major branches of the Muslim Brotherhood have adapted to local circumstances.  
So the local circumstance, of course, in Palestine is pre-eminently, of course, their sense of opposition to Israeli occupation.  Therefore they are fixated on the question of how can one, in a sense, regain Palestine from the Israelis.  But it leads to a second question which is, there is a secular movement within Palestine, you know, PLO.  They don't get along, obviously.
 
JENNIFER COOK
Does the Muslim Brotherhood augur well for democracy in Egypt?
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
That of course is the great question.  One really has to answer that by just coming down on one side or the other of the debate.  Clearly the present government, which is a great ally of the United States, would say no.  They have never allowed it to function as a legal political party.  Even though they have had a considerable popularity in the country.  
My perspective is just in a sense, a bit more realist in its approach.  Which is that there are certain centres of power within a society.  The government would like to control everything, it doesn't.  The Muslim Brotherhood has the popularity in certain circles, and at critical junctures, has proven to be quite effective.  Almost an alternative government at times.  Famously in the Cairo earthquake of a decade ago, when the government stumbled in its response, the Muslim Brotherhood responded very efficiently.  Setting up tent cities, providing food, providing medical care, and we know that in a sense they have created a kind of alternative social welfare system, which is functional, free, if not free exceedingly cheap, efficient et cetera.  Whereas the government system is just bogged down.  
So in that sense you can understand why people who might not even be theologically inclined and thinking in terms of, do I wish to have an Islamic state of Egypt, would find the Muslim Brotherhood very attractive.  That means to me in the real terms, it's a political reality, which can't be ignored.
 
JENNIFER COOK
If we link that back to our earlier discussion about US society and civil society and the strength of the church group and the social clubs and the way that they, from the ground up were able to help.
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
Yes, you are absolutely right, but this is a kicker in this point.  As you say, there are groups within societies which have their own roots.  They are functional, they attract loyalties and in their own way they are contributing to processes of change.  In the process, probably also quite frankly, although this may upset some Muslims, redefining Islam too in the process.
Now here's the kicker, here's the danger.  Is it the business of the United States to fund these groups, any group, specifically to create a moderate democratic Islam?  Can the United States fund groups, even if these are going on, can it then do so, with the purpose of creating a more conducive Islam which will lead to ultimately more democratic society?  Now that's one of the agendas which I think cuts across both the Bush and the Obama administrations which has been understated in the discussions of it.
What I see channelled through the National Endowment for Democracy and the US Agency for International Development, these being the two principal ones.  What I see is that they have chosen certain groups within the Muslim World broadly, but it also is a broader definition that even includes groups, say, for example, from London and Washington which are very directly committed to the creation of the moderate democratic Islam.
So putting it in the simplest possible terms, the US is spending money to win the hearts and minds of Muslims, and to affect an internal debate.  My view is that the internal debate is unfolding and that the minute that the US intervenes in a way it gets trapped in a number of problems.  You delegitimise the groups by their taking the coin of United States.  It puts the United States in a position of being a theological arbiter.  What is good Islam?  What is bad Islam?  What is a moderate Islam?  What is not?  I'll even go further, this sort of policy puts the United States Government, this is going to get me in trouble.  In the same rhetorical footing as Osama bin Laden who thinks he knows what right Islam is, and what bad Islam is.  So the US is doing it too.  It just says its doing it because they are creating a democratic Islam.
 
JENNIFER COOK
That's right, it's for the all good democracy.
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
Exactly.
 
JENNIFER COOK
Professor James Piscatori, thank you so much for your time today and for helping us not only look from the top down, but the bottom up of what is going on in the Middle East.
 
PROFESSOR JAMES PISCATORI
Thank you very much for having me.
 
JENNIFER COOK
We've been speaking today with Professor James Piscatori about the exportation of democracy to the Middle East by the United States.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at http://upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  
 
Up Close is brought to you by Marketing and Communications of the University of Melbourne Australia.  This episode was recorded on 21 October 2010 and our producers were Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created by Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  I'm Jennifer Cook, until next time, goodbye.
 
VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close.  For more information visit http://upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2010, the University of Melbourne.

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